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Racism is a sin

September 3, 2017

Archbishop Paul S. Coakley

It has been a few weeks since violent confrontations in Charlottesville, Va., drew our attention with renewed urgency to the troubling fact of racism in our society. These ugly events have been the latest manifestation of an age-old wound in our national consciousness caused by the sin of racism.

Racism is an attitude of mind and heart that rejects the fundamental equality of all human beings. This basic equality is rooted in our shared dignity as persons created in the image and likeness of God. We are members of the one human family. God is the Creator and Father of us all. We are brothers and sisters.

Racism rejects these fundamental relationships. It is an offense against human solidarity that denies this radical equality and judges certain people as inferior or even inhuman based on their ancestry or skin color. Racism obviously has social consequences, but it is not merely a social problem. It is a sin. It is a grave sin.

Racism is certainly not a uniquely American sin. It has been present throughout human history in every culture. It was the sin of racism expressed in the Aryan/Nazi ideology that lead to the slaughter of millions of Jews and others whom Hitler judged to be inferior. Racism blinds us. It engenders unspeakable suffering and injustice. But, it harms not only the victims of racist discrimination and violence, but also the perpetrators in whose hearts racism resides as a malignant and all-consuming cancer.

We cannot begin to address a problem until we acknowledge its existence. Racist attitudes and behaviors are painful to acknowledge. Racism surely can contribute to our fearful attitudes and mistrust of immigrants today. It was evident in the history of our nation’s treatment of American Indians. Denying to some segment of the human family the recognition of their fundamental equality and even their humanity makes it easier to rationalize every sort of injustice.

Events at Charlottesville brought to light troubling expressions of hatred and violence for all to see. They highlighted the danger of deepening racial divisions and mistrust in our time. Such manifestations are rooted in a painful history. They reflect our nation’s difficulty in coming to terms with the wounds and effects of slavery and racism.

The enslavement of Africans who were brought involuntarily to this land has been called America’s “original sin.” We are still grappling with the effects of that sin. These are very complex matters and I certainly don’t wish to oversimplify them. My purpose is simply to call attention to the reality of the sin of racism embedded in our society and lurking in our hearts. We need to call it what it is.

On Aug. 23, Cardinal DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, announced the establishment of an Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism. Its purpose will be to engage the Church and our society to work together to challenge the sin of racism, to listen to those affected by racism, to seek reconciliation in Christ, and to have the grace to know and respect one another as brothers and sisters. I pray this new initiative will bear good fruit through repentance and a renewed commitment to seek healing and mutual understanding.