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June 9, 2020

Racism: Change of Heart

Racism: Change of Heart

Protests surrounding the issue of racism continue as I try to finish this blog. In the midst of all the pain and sorrow, I realize that when speaking about racism, it is necessary to find a path that connects those who suffer because of racism with those who believe they are unaffected by the problem. It is my hope that after reading this message, you will be able to identify where you stand, and find a way to address and confront the issue in which we all play a part.

Racism generates vulnerability, shame and fear — as reaction to the issue. We can normalize and minimalize racism, or, we can assume that it is a reality that only some suffer, but does not affect everyone. It is really difficult to acknowledge or find proof that there are some who may feel superior to others, for any reason. The Catholic Church, as Mother and Teacher, has acknowledged this as a moral sin for many years. The 2018 pastoral letter of the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB), Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love, A Pastoral Letter Against Racism, is one of the numerous ways the Church has prophetically raised its voice, calling all of us to join forces and address the issue:

“Racism can often be found in our hearts—in many cases placed there unwillingly or unknowingly by our upbringing and culture. As such, it can lead to thoughts and actions that we do not even see as racist, but nonetheless flow from the same prejudicial root. Consciously or subconsciously, this attitude of superiority can be seen in how certain groups of people are vilified, called criminals, or are perceived as being unable to contribute to society, even unworthy of its benefits. Racism can also be institutional, when practices or traditions are upheld that treat certain groups of people unjustly. The cumulative effects of personal sins of racism have led to social structures of injustice and violence that makes us all accomplices in racism.” (p. 5)

The text from the bishops also reflects on the fifth verse in Chapter 6 of Deuteronomy. Here, Moses presents the great commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength,” in which the heart powerfully converges and balances reason and passion, triggering and directing us toward action. The heart informs human forces and joins the soul to seek transcendence. Love for God and from God makes sense when it fully embraces mind and soul — not only when we feel it or think it is ‘reasonable,’ but when the unity of both are in action. Our endless journey of struggle to open up our human understanding to the trinitarian mystery is one of the best examples of how we might ask our hearts to understand three Persons in One God, or to make sense of how it is possible that many diverse talents and gifts can be part of the same Heart, One Body of Christ.

Jesus’ heart used intelligence, empathy and compassion to connect and understand his interlocutors, challenging them with great intelligence and also great sensitivity. Without being a tax expert, when faced with leading questions about the importance of the tribute to Caesar, Jesus knew how to respond with ‘rational’ intelligence, attributing its value to the material (Mt 22:21). In his humanity, he was moved by a mother’s cry for her dead son, raising him to life and sharing in her joy. (Lk 7:11–15).

In the 1956 encyclical Haurietis Aquas regarding the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Pius XII explains that in the Heart of Jesus,

“…feelings were so in conformity and so in harmony with his will as man, essentially full of divine charity, and with the same divine love that the Son has in common with the Father and the Holy Spirit, that between these three loves there was never a lack of agreement and harmony.” (HA, 40)

In light of the sad and violent events of these past days, it is worth reflecting on the fact that racism is not innate, but an attitude we acquire through teachings, prejudices, stereotypes or perceptions, built over the years through patterns of behavior we all perpetuate, build or sustain, consciously or unconsciously. The good news is that because they are culturally acquired, these prejudices and stereotypes can also be unlearned, challenged and relearned. That is work that can only come from a heart that imitates the Heart of Jesus.

Cultural learning powerfully transmits social behaviors that come from the places we belong. Because there is a sense of belonging, cultural learning projects us confidently into the world, to interact with others, shaping our behavior in public and therefore, also communicates to us the dangers of life. Academic knowledge disconnected from social life lacks practice in the same way experiences, feelings and the empirical knowledge of the world need an academic rigor to make sense of rational knowledge. Negative perceptions about those outside of the (cultural) group are prejudices. Stereotypes characterize people, making assumptions about their behavior. All of this can be changed and relearned.

The heart, in the way that Jesus teaches us with his own life and ministry, is the engine that helps to integrate what we feel (or don't feel) and know (or don't know). A transformative attitude comes from the heart, acknowledging a reality can lead to changing it, utilizing all the human strengths or resources available. Therefore, it is possible to unlearn racism with the heart, opening ourselves to a genuine and intentional “unlearning” process.

During his life of ministry, Jesus brings the Old Testament teaching to perfection by adding a new command to the Deuteronomy passage we reviewed earlier. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Mt 22: 39).” As the pastoral letter explains: “…this mandate of love can never be simply a ‘live and leave others in peace.’ The mandate of love requires that we make room for others in our hearts.” A heart filled with the Holy Spirit can liberate us from racism by integrating mind, soul, spirit, strength and passion to discern our involvement in the vicious and generational cycle of racism.

Love and knowledge of God happens when we open ourselves to fully embrace the other, regardless of an individual’s appearance. My own experience of racism may be less harsh than that of my brothers and sisters; either because of the color of their skin or simply because they look “different.” But from a personal perspective, I experienced the most difficult part in confronting racism when I had to explain, admit and share this unjust cycle of oppression with my children. As a parent, it was extremely painful to realize that human dignity cannot be fully experienced by me and my children, while racism, prejudice and stereotyping persist. As we join the mighty Sacred Heart of Jesus this month of June, may His Heart guide and inspire us to dream of a change of heart for every family and person in this country and the world.


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Carlos Castañeda
Carlos Castañeda

Carlos Castañeda has had an extensive career as a pastoral leader in both parochial and diocesan settings. His background as a professional communicator and broadcaster has allowed him the opportunity to provide compelling presentations for ministry leaders and groups, discussing topics like intercultural communications, discipleship and evangelization. Carlos holds an master’s degree in communications from Marist College and a master’s degree in pastoral ministry from Boston College.