#RaceLetter and Other Resources for Catholics Discussing Racism

Roman Catholic Bishop Braxton of Belleville, IL wrote a pastoral letter on the racial divide in the United States for the World Day of Peace this year. In this letter, he expressed the hope that Catholics across the country would use it as a resource for prayerful reflection on the state of racial relations in our communities, church, and nation.

In early January, some of us got together on Twitter for a discussion of the letter, using the hashtag #RaceLetter. This post presents the discussion questions we used to structure the discussion, and includes a set of resources for further reading and discussion. The conversation itself was storified, so you can read and reflect on the thoughtful responses of a small but varied group of Catholics and non-Catholics to this letter.

If your parish, small group, or group of friends is looking for material with which to reflect on past and present racism in the Catholic church in the US, I hope you will find these materials useful. If you have additional resources or stories to share, please do share them in the comments.
Continue reading

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Learning to Call Myself White

(Cross-posted from BLT)

I remember how hard it was to learn to call myself a woman.

Growing up, through high school, my female classmates and I were called “girls,” of course. (Or very rarely, “young ladies,” though mostly when we were in trouble.) So that’s what we called ourselves.

That’s what our mothers called themselves, too. They talked about “getting together with the girls”, “girls night out.” Occasionally “ladies,” usually in a humorous vein.

In college, I didn’t much like any of the words I might use to describe myself. I paid close attention to their counterparts for my male classmates. We all called them “guys,” which would mean I should call myself and my female friends “gals”: which I did, often, but it felt just a little too cowboy-Western to me. If my male friends weren’t “boys” then I shouldn’t be a “girl”; only on the rare formal occasions when they were “gentlemen” should I be a “lady.” “Young men” and “young women” sounded both too young, and too nineteenth-century. “Males” and “females” sounded both insufficiently human, and even more nineteenth-century.

I remember when I went to a sleepover party, the summer after sophomore year, with some reunited high school classmates of both sexes. One of them had made signs that designated separate sleeping areas for “Men” and “Women”: spelled out in a hand that was big, bold, unapologetic, and perhaps just a little self-conscious. I remember looking at that sign, “Women”, and thinking, I would not have had the nerve to write that word.

It wasn’t until I was out in the working world, aware that I was facing sexism, aware that the male-dominated field in which I work would further aggravate it, that I got serious about actively trying to own the word. It helped that having a fulltime job with a steady paycheck and my own apartment made me feel like an official grownup, but it was still hard. I had to practice saying it. It felt awkward for about the first two years, I think. If I hadn’t been a determined feminist, I would have given up.

Because it felt so awkward. It didn’t feel like something nice girls say. To call myself a woman was to assert my adulthood, my identity, my expectation that I would be taken seriously. It meant owning my embodied, space-taking-up identity, and naming it. It was an assertion of power: not something that girls are socialized to do.

Learning to call myself white reminds me of that. Continue reading

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The Best Option for Intellectual Women

I was very intrigued to learn, some years ago, that during medieval times, the convent was almost certainly the best available option for women who were intellectually gifted or ambitious. Women in religious life were often educated beyond the ordinary education for women. Vowed religious women didn’t only pray; they studied, they wrote, they taught, they composed, and they led, all within a women’s sphere that was other than domestic. While their formal authority was limited to (and even within) that sphere, their informal authority and influence often reached wider, sometimes even into the highest reaches of church or civil government, as with Catherine of Siena’s interventions with the pope, and Teresa of Avila’s correspondence with King Philip II.

So when I read the Final Report on the Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Women Religious in the United States of America, this sentence leapt out at me:

It is important to note, however, that the very large numbers of religious in the 1960s was a relatively short-term phenomenon that was not typical of the experience of religious life through most of the nation’s history. The steady growth in the number of women religious peaked dramatically from the late 1940s through the early 1960s…

Because you know what else was happening in the late 1940s through the early 1960s? First, women were getting fired from jobs across the board: for no reason other than that the war was over, and there were men who “needed” those jobs. Then, the romanticization of what we now think of as the 1950s ideal family, which turned out to be so alienating, isolating, and toxic for many women, as they discovered while sharing their feelings in the early 60s consciousness-raising groups.

So it makes me wonder: did American women enter religious life after WWII for the same reason that medieval women did? Catholic sisters in the US worked — they taught, they nursed, they ran hospitals and schools — and they were educated to do that work.

If you were a Catholic woman who wanted to do something with your life other than be a wife and mother — who felt that God had gifted you with talents that were best used beyond the domestic sphere, but the secular world had no respect for you — then why wouldn’t you choose the bounded-but-abundant opportunities of religious life?

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Remembering The Ones Who “Fit the Description”

The description wasn’t very specific: sex, race, age range. But the wealthy elite were sufficiently disturbed that they sent law enforcement out in force, with a tacit understanding that a blind eye would be turned towards any “overly aggressive tactics” that might be “necessary” to accomplish the mission.

So it happened that all the Jewish boys of approximately the right age — still too young to piss standing — were killed by Herod’s soldiers, to restore his sense of security and supremacy in the land.

When December 28th falls on a Sunday, as it does this year, the Feast of the Holy Innocents is trumped in the Catholic liturgical calendar by the Feast of the Holy Family. But given the rising tide of awareness of police brutality particularly against black men, women, and children, it seems particularly necessary to reflect on these boys who were killed simply because they “fit the description.”

Just as in the media, scripture tells us about the boys who were killed, but not about the women and girls. Christian artists through the ages have filled this in for us, though; reflecting on human nature, the desire of mothers to protect their children, and the brutality common among soldiers, there are paintings and icons that also show these mothers, women and girls, likewise being slaughtered as they try to protect their sons. It seems likely that some of the women would have been raped as well, as additional punishment for daring to fight back.

Surely these, too, were holy families.

Holy Innocents,
who were killed simply because you “fit the description”
who were killed to assuage the fears of the powerful,
intercede for all those black boys and girls, for all those black women and men, who have been killed for the same reason.
Pray for their grieving mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, friends and kin, that they may be comforted.
Pray for those who killed them, for those who stood by and did nothing as they died, that they may be converted.
May your story deepen our desire for justice.
We ask this in the name
of the little Child who lived to lead us to a better way.

A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loud lamentation;
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she would not be consoled,
since they were no more.

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Christmas Potpourri

Favorite moments from Midnight Mass:
– concelebration by all four(!) of our parish priests, & reflecting on how very lucky we are
– seeing the black priest, flanked by two brown altar girls, waiting to receive the gifts at the altar
– hearing the assembly sing the third verse of Silent Night a capella
– singing the Latin verse of Adeste Fideles (and not needing to look at the words :) )
– hearing a homily on the Incarnation (instead of superficial baby-Jesus sentiment)

Surprising moments:
– Hearing a passage from Acts as the second reading!! I had no idea we ever got non-epistles in the lectionary. Apparently we got readings 1&2 from the Vigil Mass, and the gospel from the Mass During the Night. (Is that allowed? or was it an oops?)
– Hearing the pastor describe the original purpose of Midnight Mass as “getting a jump on Christmas”, “getting Mass out of the way”, that is now outmoded since we no longer have to wait until Midnight to celebrate a Christmas mass. (??!)

Distracting moments:
– looking at the nativity scene after Mass, noticing Mary’s oh-so-very-artistic kneeling/bending position, and thinking “It really doesn’t look like she just gave birth!”

What were the highlights of your Christmas church service?

If you went to Midnight Mass, did you hear the Christmas Proclamation sung? (Have you ever?)

Does your church do Christmas pageants? Mine doesn’t, but I can’t imagine anything could be better than this perfectly delightful children’s re-telling of the story of the first Christmas from behind the scenes:

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Christmas Prayer

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Listen: A #StayWokeAdvent Lectionary Reflection

The lectionary omits portions of today’s passage from 2 Samuel to make the reading shorter. The first time I read it in its entirety, it seriously cracked me up: Did I ask you to build me a house?

David thought he had the right idea. He thought he knew what the LORD would want, and he wanted to do the LORD honor. But he also felt guilty: here am I living in a house of cedar, while the ark of the LORD rests in a tent!

This passage speaks a word to white people speaking and working in solidarity with black Americans in the struggle for justice. Like David, we are sincere in our desire to help; like David, we may feel guilty that we have privilege that our black sisters and brothers don’t share. Like David, we may think that it’s clear what we should do.

And like David, we need to stop, listen up, and realize we are not in charge here. (Isn’t that the whole point of the anti-racist work we’re trying to do?) We need to hang back, de-center ourselves (take ourselves off the “throne” of white privilege, to run with the Davidic analogy), and defer to the judgment, voices, and actions of the people we’re trying to support. And that may mean we do not get to do the thing that we want to do, that oh just incidentally would also give us some attention and glory. (It’s Solomon’s Temple that went down in history, isn’t it, not David’s.)

After telling David to whoa, there, and laying out the plan that it would be somebody else whose name would be on that Temple, the LORD made a point of reassuring David that he was still loved: maybe because it takes a certain degree of self-assurance in who we are in ourselves, or who we are in our relationship with God, in order to step back and let other people step up.

The gospel reading is the familiar story of the Annunciation: the angel hails Mary, reassures her, answers her question, and offers Elizabeth’s pregnancy as evidence that all things are possible with God. We don’t get it in today’s reading, but the previous passage in Luke tells the story of the same angel appearing to Zechariah, a priest, in the Temple, to announce the good news that he and his wife, long unable to have children, would have a son. When Zechariah questioned the angel, though, he didn’t get an answer; he got silenced because of his lack of faith. Same angel, same kind of question: so how come the difference in treatment?

Whose voice did God silence? A priest, serving in the Temple. An authority figure, a man who had privilege within his community, because of his sex and because of his priestly lineage.

Whose voice did God permit to speak? An unmarried young woman, a teenager really, living in Hicksville. Nobody important.

This difference is worth contemplating, especially given the various narratives around this weekend’s shooting of Shaneka Thompson in Maryland, and subsequent killing of two NYPD officers in Brooklyn by the same gunman, who later killed himself. Some ask, with rancor, where are the protests to support the police officers, after two of theme were killed? These people, police officers and their supporters, want to see an equal response from the community: disregarding the many differences, both in the details of the individual cases (shooter dead vs shooter unpenalized), and in the structural differences of power and privilege.

Perhaps when they see the outpouring of support for the black community, the demands for an end to police brutality and for its perpetrators to be brought to justice, they fear that police officers are no longer valued, not justly appreciated by society. Perhaps they, and others who are uncomfortable with the assertion that Black Lives Matter, are afraid because they think people are saying that only black lives matter.

Perhaps this is why the angel Gabriel greeted Mary with words of reassurance: Hail, favored one, the Lord is with you. Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God. Perhaps this reassurance, like the LORD’s reassurance to David, was necessary for her to be able to embrace change, to take a risk, to put her body and her life in service to a greater cause.

Because Mary didn’t only consent to be the mother of Jesus; she consented in a way that decentered herself.

I am the maidservant of the Lord, she said.

Let it be done to me according to your word.

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Psalm of a Soiled Dove

Crossposted from BLT

**What follows is a flight of theological imagination**

Psalm 84

The original author of this psalm was a young woman, perhaps a Midianite, who was ravished away from her home by a pillaging army and forced to serve as one of the whores that traveled with the army to provide recreation for its soldiers. She was freed from sexual slavery by the Israelite forces that defeated her captors, and found refuge among the Israelite women. Psalm 84 is a song of praise to the God of the armies who freed her and of the women who welcomed her, a God who sees her as pure and innocent despite her enslavement as a whore. Although the text was later adapted for use as a pilgrim psalm during the Temple period, traces of its origin remain, as we shall see.

1 How sensual are your tents,
O LORD of armies!
2 My soul yearns, it faints
for the encampments of the LORD.
3 My heart and my flesh
cry out for the living God.

These verses mix imagery of the boudoir with that of the military camp. The erotic imagery is frequently interpreted as a poetic means of indicating intense passion for the LORD, while the remaining language is overlooked. In fact, the psalmist here deliberately uses the language and imagery of impassioned sexual desire — which she had been forced to simulate in her sexual slavery — to convey the depth of her authentic passionate response to the God who freed her from enslavement.

The incongruous juxtaposition of a boudoir response to the rough surroundings of a military encampment is clever and intentional, as can be seen by reading them together with verse 11. If the locations in these verses are interpreted as referring to the beautiful courts of the Temple, as they are often translated, the psalmist’s rhetoric is weakened.

4 Even the sparrow has found a home
and the swallow a nest for herself,
that places her fledglings by your altars,
LORD of armies, my king and my God!
5 Blessed are those who dwell in your house!
They never cease to praise you!

These verses are about the women of Israel, among whom the psalmist found a home. The words for “sparrow” and “swallow” are also the names of women, Continue reading

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The Spirit of the Lord is Upon Me: a #StayWokeAdvent lectionary reflection for Gaudete Sunday

staywokeYou know what I especially noticed about the Gospel reading this weekend? The authorities didn’t have a clue what to do with John the Baptist. He just did not fit into their preconceived notions, into their expectations.
What John is doing doesn’t make sense to them: he’s not acting according to any kind of established authority. In fact, he’s subverting it.

And so they ask him, basically, What gives you the right to do what you’re doing?

It reminded me a lot of how some folks, be it mainstream media, or political institutions, or folks who were active in previous movements, just do not seem to have a clue about the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Who are their leaders? What are they asking for? What are the goals of this movement? They want to talk to names they recognize, to established leaders in an existing organizational structure. They want to fit it into some familiar narrative, often a narrative that supports an agenda.

See, I am doing something new!
Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
In the wilderness I make a way,
in the wasteland, rivers.
(Is 43:19)

John explains himself by alluding to an image from Isaiah that we discussed last week: he’s the one crying out fix up the roads for the LORD.

That image, and almost all our Advent readings from Isaiah, come from the third part of the book of Isaiah, that was written near the end of the Babylonian exile, after Cyrus had given permission for the Israelites to go back home to Jerusalem. And oddly enough, not all of them were especially enthused about the prospect – or maybe not so oddly, considering human nature. They’d been in Babylon for 50 years or more, so many of them had been born there and had no memory of Jerusalem. Their lives were settled and familiar. Things weren’t that bad, living as second-class citizens in Babylon. Who wants the disruption of change, of upheaval?

(Sound like anything you’ve been hearing recently?)

So Third Isaiah writes these beautiful passages to stir up in people’s hearts a longing for that change: Continue reading

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Black Lives Matter: a #StayWokeAdvent Lectionary Reflection

Some people complain, “Why does it have to be black lives matter? All lives matter! It should be #AllLivesMatter.”

A voice cries out:
In the desert prepare the way of the LORD!
Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill shall be made low.

Because we’re filling in valleys. That’s why.

…This passage never made sense to me as a kid: all the highways I knew about didn’t have any trouble going down into valleys and up into mountains. I did better when I thought about a scaled down, more mundane version of the imagery that had more connection to my life.

Hey, everybody — the LORD is coming to town, and our streets are a mess!
Fill in the potholes: every single one of them!
Grind down those speedbumps. Make the road level!

Our society may say all lives matter; but actions speak louder than words, and there are some damn deep potholes in our roads. Black people, black men and black women and black children, are being brutalized and killed by agents of the state (that’s what police officers and the military and the FBI are) at rates far, far higher than those for whites.

If God sends you to speak comfort to these suffering people over here, are you really going to object that it should be all people?

Black Lives Matter.

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