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Deacon Kyle Eller: Addressing race through the light of the Gospel

Amid all the signs of moral decay in society around us and among us, to me one of the saddest is the resurgence of open racism. It’s probably shallow and naive and even privileged of me, but I thought we were better than this. 

Deacon Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

In case we imagine racism is a problem just for other people in other places, every summer in Duluth we mark the anniversary of the terrible day, 101 years ago, when a mob of Duluthians stormed the jail, seized three innocent black men, and lynched them in the street. They then posed for gruesome photos showing their pride in their despicable handiwork. 

Those who know the story well may recall there were two Catholic priests who tried to stop that mob. The first was Father W.J. Powers, who, according to a news account available from the Minnesota Historical Society, climbed part way up the pole and began pleading with the mob to stop, telling them they didn’t even know if the men were guilty and urging them to let the law take its course. “In the name of God and the church I represent, I ask you to stop,” he said. 

His effort was brave and honorable and prophetic. But before we console ourselves too eagerly with his small light in the darkness of that night, we might recall that we surely had other brother and sister Catholics there that night too who far outnumbered him — parishioners of Father Powers who shouted him down and participated in the murder. If we had been living in 1920, which kind of role would we play in the story? We can ask ourselves when the last time was that we tried to appeal to the better angels of an angry mob in defense of an unpopular truth of our faith. 

It hurts to think about these things. It’s easier not to. But I think it’s healthy that we remember this every year. 

That shameful day is just one particularly ugly snapshot of a long history. The United States, whose independence we celebrate this month, has brought many blessings to the world — among them beautiful ideals, eloquently expressed, of freedom and equal dignity among people, ideals that in many ways echo our own as Catholics. But along with all that, there are deep wounds that have never fully healed, rooted in sometimes catastrophic failures to live those truths. Those failures are interwoven with the history of this country, beginning with the subjugation of the people who inhabited this land before Europeans ever set foot here, then continuing in the importation of millions of people as slaves, as property, an institution only ended by a bloody civil war. 

Our terrible night in 1920 came more than 50 years after the end of the Civil War. It would be decades more before legal segregation was finally outlawed. These things are living memory — part of the lived experience of people still among us. 

That, of course, brings us to the present day and all the difficult questions still facing us that touch on race — education, immigration, policing, the criminal justice system. It brings us to examining the attitudes we may have unwittingly picked up. We are faced with the daunting prospect of listening to life experiences that are different from our own with humility. 

The racial issues of today can be even more difficult to talk about and think about than the historical events. It’s complicated; it’s tangled in our ugly partisan politics and ideologies in dangerous and counterproductive ways; it’s emotionally raw; facts and even definitions are hotly disputed. 

It’s difficult because we don’t have all the answers in the form of a perfect plan of action to finally resolve these things. 

But we do have some answers. I had the opportunity to preach on these things back in May, near the end of Easter, and what I found helpful was simply returning to the fundamental truths of our faith, those truths that are more certain than any ideology in this world. 

Among them are these: We are one human family, all sharing the same origin in God. We are all deeply wounded by sin — not a single one of us is immune. The unmistakable call of the Gospel is reconciliation with God and with each other, a restoration of shattered human fraternity culminating in our total communion with God in heaven. That reconciliation requires both repentance for our own failures and mercy toward those who have hurt us. And our preferential option for the poor demands that we be particularly attentive to those who are most vulnerable and powerless and those who have been most deeply hurt. 

Empowered with this truth, we can first of all begin to banish from within ourselves any trace of racism, a grave sin that imperils the soul. No heart faithful to Christ can possibly make peace with such evils. And we can at least begin to evaluate the cacophony of voices around us on these issues, testing them in the light of the Gospel, holding fast to what is good and rejecting what isn’t. 

Deacon Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at [email protected].