Typical retorts from Christians that deny the existence of systemic racism include: “We live in a fallen world,” “What we need is more Gospel,” or “The real problem is sin.”
But none of these responses are the rhetorical wins they think. Rather than ending the conversation about systemic racism, these statements only make the need to address systemic racism more evident.
We do live in a fallen world, where sin is a problem—and the solution is the Gospel. But if these truths are to be more than meaningless platitudes on a Foundation for a Better Life billboard, then Christians must reflect on the concrete and particular ways these truths must be lived out in the United States, given its particular history and present.
Christians seeking to shut down criticisms of systemic racism never respond to incidents of religious discrimination or global security with a fatalistic shoulder shrug. Or with a quote about how we cannot be expected to be treated better than the Lord—followed up with no plan about how to confront the discrimination.
Nor do critics of anti-racism respond to global conflict by saying that it is sin that divides communities and causes wars, so global-security strategies and military budgets are pointless. Rather, they realize that there is a moral duty to seek justice.
Indeed, if we look at abortion, we see a complex and high-profile network of political activists, politicians, and religious organizations. They work to end abortion and understand that this work must include a political dimension. This is because they recognize that there is a system in place advancing and preserving access to abortion in America.
In that context, they are even willing to discuss the permanent and lasting influence of the racist founders of these institutions and systems. Here they can name names, like Margaret Sanger, and demand that her institutions and goals be dismantled. Likewise, systemic racism is not something to be ignored or shrugged off as the inevitable result of the Fall.
Outside that context, these same Christians that think Planned Parenthood is racist and oppose it politically cannot see any racist institutions or structures in a country that was founded, in large part, by racists. And any racism experienced by Black Americans is shrugged off as purely personal sins or figments of our imagination. All of a sudden, racism is not a public problem but a private burden that Black Americans must quietly overcome—or face accusations of being divisive, contentious, and yes: even racist.
In an amazing act of self-delusion, the same people that believe that this country has made the racist ravings of a fanatical White woman the centerpiece of its reproductive justice policies here and abroad, also believe that this country adequately welcomes Black people as equals to White people—if they happen to make it out of the womb.
The same folks who argue that a Supreme Court justice in this century could support abortion because of its eugenic effects argue that systemic racism is a figment of our imaginations. The same folks that hailed Trump’s work on criminal justice reform would have us believe that the entire Democratic Party—which wields significant political power—is a racist “plantation,” but the country that empowers it is not.
The cold hard fact is that America has always been racist.
That does not mean there are not good things about this country. Nor does it even mean that every founder or American idea is racist. But when we talk about the “necessary” evil of things like the Three-Fifths Compromise, we recognize that, ultimately, the freedom of Black people was expendable in a country that was willing to die for the freedom of White men to govern themselves.
This also does not mean that America will always be racist. If we can honestly assess our past and our present, and—most importantly—what we want for the future, we can work towards an anti-racist America. But it cannot happen if, as a nation, we embrace denial.
This denial can and will be destructive to America, just like in Egypt thousands of years ago. Pharaoh in his pride was blinded to the power of God working on Egypt in the pursuit of justice. It took ten plagues, and even then Pharaoh regretted yielding to God and tried to recapture the Israelites—an effort that ended in the destruction of his army as well as himself.
This blindness to justice and equality brought ruin to Egypt. Pride in the supremacy of Egyptians over Israelites—an insistence that Hebrew life did not matter to Egypt or was a threat to it—caused Pharaoh to reject God’s call for justice from Hebrew voices, even when that Hebrew was an Egyptian prince.
We are in an Egypt moment. God has sent our nation many challenges and opportunities to reflect. He has sent us many prophets to proclaim the truth to us about the equality of all Americans and the sin of racism. Yet so many in our country and our Church continue to deny that there is ongoing injustice. But like the Hebrews in Egypt, we must have faith that America’s hardness of heart, like Pharaoh’s, will be an occasion for God to show His glory.
As Pope Francis recently stated in his book Let Us Dream, quoting Friedrich Hölderlin—“But where the danger is, also grows the saving power.” It is in these moments of arrogance and pride that God shows his favor to the humble and oppressed. When God destroyed Pharaoh, Mary the prophetess declared: “Let us sing to the Lord, for he is gloriously magnified, the horse and his rider he hath thrown into the sea.” The overthrow of the oppressor magnifies the glory of God.
And lest we think this was a one-time deal, about 1500 years later, another Mary, our Blessed Mother, shared these words:
And his mercy is from generation unto generations, to them that fear him. He hath shewed might in his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart. He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble.
This is a promise to generations. This was a prophecy spoken by a woman who would first have to lose her son to those who refused to acknowledge him before he could enthrone her in heaven. Their denial and oppression were the means used to glorify God and to triumph over evil.
It is a promise today to those blind in their pride—steeped in the shadow of White supremacy. It is the true hope for those of us working and waiting to see the end of systemic racism.
The signs of the times are being illuminated by Pope Francis. His recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti explicitly draws on Martin Luther King, Jr. as inspiration for a renewed call to embrace universal brotherhood:
In these pages of reflection on universal fraternity, I felt inspired particularly by Saint Francis of Assisi, but also by others of our brothers and sisters who are not Catholics: Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Mahatma Gandhi and many more.
It ends with a prayer to live the Gospel—concretely, not invoked as a platitude:
Grant that we Christians may live the Gospel, discovering Christ in each human being, recognizing him crucified in the sufferings of the abandoned and forgotten of our world ….
The Gospel is an impetus to action, not a pablum to ignore injustice in our midst.
Sister Thea Bowman told the Church that to be Black and Catholic means that “I come to my church fully functioning. That doesn’t frighten you, does it?”
Sadly, many of our brothers and sisters and fellow Americans are afraid. Ultimately, not of us—but of losing that false sense of pride that comes with being presumptively the best, of not having someone to look down upon, of being a humble and not exceptional America. They use the Gospel or reality of sin to feed this pride and harden their hearts.
I pray that our brothers and sisters struggling with this fear and pride soften their hearts. But if they do not, I trust in the Lord and the promise of the Magnificat. I know what happened to Egypt. I know my Lord is risen and my mother is the Queen of Heaven, and the words of her Magnificat are Gospel.
We are not leaving our Church or our country. This is our Church and our country. We are coming to our Church, our public places, and our work fully functioning.
That doesn’t frighten you, does it?
Gunnar B. Gundersen is an attorney in Newport Beach, CA. He serves in his parish council and choir, is a published essayist, and regularly lectures on natural law and the American Founding. He is also the first Ordinariate member of the Knights of Peter Claver, and is starting the first KPC council in Orange County. Follow him on Twitter at @GBGundersen.