July 3, 2020

Knowing history, remembering God’s truth are essential to rooting out racism

Logo for Racism and Religion series

(Editor’s note: The following article is one in a series called “Racism and Religion” that will run periodically in The Criterion regarding methods to address and eradicate all forms of racism in light of Catholic teaching, and efforts underway in parishes, through archdiocesan offices and by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to move toward a society without the sin of racism.)

By Natalie Hoefer

Since the May 25 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman, protests for racial justice have swept the nation. The reality and injustice of systemic racism have risen in public consciousness and conscience to the point the issue can no longer be ignored.

But how is it to be eradicated? How does American society reverse a concept embedded in its culture since the first African slaves arrived in the “new world”?

There is no simple answer.

But St. Joseph Sister Gail Trippett has spent years reading on the topic—and living its reality.

Through her research and lived experience, she sees two necessary steps toward beginning the process of rooting out racism: knowing the past and applying the faith.

“A whole misrepresentation of God has been accepted,” says Sister Gail, parish life coordinator for Holy Angels and St. Rita parishes in Indianapolis. “It has changed and formed our society and its thinking. And that thinking has not been revealed or explained—but it’s been passed on.”

The “misrepresentation” is that all humans are not created equal, she says.

“Once we get back to that eternal truth, we can see the need for change and start working toward all human beings living in unity with each other and God.”

‘We have to go back to the beginning’

“Generation after generation continues to do certain things or believe certain things, and they don’t even know how those practices or beliefs came about in the first place,” says Sister Gail.

She likens the fact to a story about a girl who asked her mom why she cut the ends of a pot roast off before putting it in the pan.

As Sister Gail relates, the mom said she learned this step from her own mother who, when asked, gave the same answer. So the great-grandmother was consulted, and she had the answer: “I only did that because my pan was too small.”

“So to understand racism [toward blacks] in America, we have to go back to the beginning,” says Sister Gail, back to the time when the nation was first being settled.

Religion—primarily Christianity—has much to do with that era.

According to text for a Library of Congress exhibit called “Religion and the Founding of the American Republic” (bit.ly/2YI1EvP), 75-80 percent of colonists attended church between 1700-1740. The text goes on to note the further spread of religion following the “Great Awakening” movement of the mid-1700s.

Yet since at least 1619, Africans had been enslaved, sold, separated from family and forced to work by many of these “God-fearing” people.

To justify the institution of slavery, says Sister Gail, “Christians of good faith had to be made to believe that Africans were not really human, that they had no souls.”

The argument used to achieve this end began two centuries before the colonies were founded. That argument was based on a misrepresentation of Scripture.

Interpretation of Bible story “is made up”

According to a Feb. 23, 2018, time.com review of Noel Rae’s book The Great Stain, “which uses firsthand accounts to tell the story of slavery in America,” the meaning of certain Bible stories and verses were manipulated to justify owning African slaves.

One passage cited was Gen 9:18-27. In the story, Noah curses his son Ham and declares that Ham’s son Canaan will be a servant to Noah’s other sons.

“In its boiled-down, popular version, known as ‘The Curse of Ham,’ Canaan was dropped from the story, Ham was made black, and his descendants were made Africans,” the article explains.

Mark Noll, an historian of American Christianity, confirms this assertion in a April 30, 2019, Washington Post article titled “The Bible was used to justify slavery. Then Africans made it their path to freedom.”

In the article, Noll states the interpretation of this Bible story “is made up of whole cloth in the 15th century. There’s just no historical record of any seriousness to back it [the interpretation] up.”

He also points out that “slaveholders frequently noted that the Israelites of the Old Testament owned slaves.”

Such “biblical proof” supporting slavery began “the misrepresentation of God,” says Sister Gail. “It started the narrative that Africans are not human beings.”

‘We have to get to a place of unity’

Once Americans understand that racism toward blacks is based on a twisting of God’s truth to change beliefs and justify slaver, “There has to be acknowledgment of the truth: that God created all of us in his being and likeness,” says Sister Gail. “Not some, but every human being.

“When you stray from that premise, and you look at what’s been going on in our country, it puts in perspective that we can’t continue doing what we’ve been doing.”

To start the healing process, says Sister Gail, individuals need to have honest conversations and acknowledge the other’s reality.

But then, she says, “We have to move past blame and guilt. We have to ask how does God ask us to move beyond, to get to a place of unity.”

That process may not be so simple. Some people on both sides of the issue “have feelings of anger, jealousy, doubt and fear to work through to get to the place God wants them to be,” says Sister Gail.

For that resolution, she turns to her parents’ example of applying their Catholic faith to challenging situations.

‘They’re a brother or sister in Christ’

Sister Gail admits she has experienced racism firsthand, even in the Church.

“I think that’s part of every person of color’s life,” she says. “There’s no way to get around it.”

To help her and her siblings through such struggles, “Our parents placed God on top of our experience,” says Sister Gail. “They would help us come to grips with the reality of our experience, but then they’d help us to realize God is larger than any challenge we have.”

They reminded their children that God is a unity of three persons, and that God calls for unity among those he created.

Staying in union with disrespectful people “sometimes means speaking the truth in love, and other times it means using the proper channels to deal with injury,” says Sister Gail of her parents’ advice.

But mostly, her parents said, maintaining unity with such people comes from asking, “How do you restore your relationship with God and that person,” Sister Gail recalls. “To never get to the point that you don’t love that person enough that you can’t pray for them. To remember they’re still a brother or sister in Christ.”

She says her mom pointed out that siblings continue to love each other even when they have arguments and differences of opinions.

Likewise, her mom said, “You don’t stop loving other brothers and sisters. You just pray for them to be open to God’s grace and help them see their blindness to the actions they’re doing.”

By serving as a prayer advocate for those who show enmity, Sister Gail was taught, unity with them and God could be restored.

“If we keep that in mind, it will turn the axis on everything we do, because we’re acknowledging God in every person.”

From there, rooting out racism is a “both/and” process, says Sister Gail. Honest conversations and true listening are needed. So are reviews of laws that institutionalize racism and the initiation of projects that meet immediate needs caused by racism—both topics to be addressed later in this series.

“But there needs to be an internal change that helps people see where the blindness began,” she says.

“It should inform our minds so we can come back to the center with the one who created us all, and the truth that we are all created in his image and therefore all infinitely valued.” †

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