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Racism can be healed says US priest coming to SA

In this year’s Winter Living Theology Series, a US priest aims to find faith-based answers to the problem of racism. Fr Bryan Massingale, Professor of Theological and Social Ethics and also Senior Ethics Fellow at the Fordham Center for Ethics Education, will lecture around Southern Africa. Russell Pollitt SJ spoke to Fr Massingale about his visit.

The US priest who will present Winter Living Theology 2018 says coming to South Africa at this point is important to him at a time of high-profile incidents of racism in both the United States and South Africa.

Fr Bryan Massingale is a leading voice among African-American Catholic priests in the US and an author on racial justice issues.

In his award-winning book Racial Justice and the Catholic Church (which will be on sale during his visit to the country), Fr Massingale says that racism is a “soul-sickness”.

He believes that both challenge and healing are needed for all people in a society where racism has been prevalent for so long.

“Any attempts to address racial inequalities on the social and political fronts without dealing with the ethical and religious dimensions will be both inadequate and ineffective,” he says.

Fr Massingale hopes to “contribute to a greater understanding of faith-based responses to the ongoing need for racial justice” during his visit to South Africa.

He would also like to learn more about what the Church in South Africa is already doing to address this issue.

“I hope to take the lessons I learn home to the United States where we are also struggling with the issue of racism,” he said in the interview.

The bishops of Southern Africa highlighted and addressed the issue of racism in a pastoral letter in 2016. The Justice & Peace Department of the bishops’ conference prepared a series of reflections on racism for Lent in 2018 – though many parishes did not know about or use these reflections.

All the while, racial tensions keep building in society. “Both South Africa and the United States have troubling histories of racial injustice and white supremacy, whose legacies continue to negatively impact our present societies,” Fr Massingale said.

He believes that our Catholic faith and the rich theological tradition of the Church are a resource for facing this plague in society.

“Religious faith historically has been an important resource for those working for a better society. I believe it has a unique contribution to make in the present,” he said.

Fr Massingale said he hopes that he will be able to “contribute to a greater understanding of faith- based responses to the ongoing need for racial justice.”

His main message, he said, is that he really believes that racism is not just a sociological and political issue: “At the heart of the race question is a religious and moral one that needs to be interrogated.”

He has been critical of the Catholic Church’s shortcomings in addressing racism.

In an article for US Catholic magazine last year he noted:

“The truth is that many white Christians find no contradiction between their so-called Christian faith and their angers, fears, and resentments about people of colour.

“Too often they never hear such angers and resentments challenged from their pulpits or denounced by their ministers. They rarely hear their racist jokes, slurs, and stereotypes – much less their discriminatory behaviours – labelled as ‘sin’ by their pastors,” he wrote.

“For too many Catholic Christians, their racism and that of their friends, neighbours, and family members is abetted by the silence of their pastors and teachers. A permissive silence that gives comfort to those who harbour resentment, fear, and even hatred in their hearts. A silence that allows Jesus and racial animosity to coexist in their souls.”

This will not be Fr Massingale’s first trip to South Africa. “I have been once before, in 2008, for a conference on faith- based responses to the HIV/Aids stigma which took place in Johannesburg,” he recalled. “I thoroughly enjoyed that rip, even though it was short, and look forward to visiting again.”

Fr Massingale grew up in the Midwest of the US, in the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, about 150km north of Chicago.

Before moving to New York City to take up the position of professor of theological and social ethics at the Jesuits’ Fordham University, he worked at another Jesuit institution in his home town, Marquette University.

Although he works with the Jesuits, Fr Massingale is not a Jesuit but a diocesan priest of the archdiocese of Milwaukee.

He is also a senior ethics fellow at Fordham’s Centre for Ethics Education.

Fr Massingale studied theology at the Catholic University of America. He earned his doctorate in moral theology at the Dominican run Alphonsianum in Rome. He has an interest in a number of research topics including Catholic social thought, African–American religious ethics, racial justice, liberation theologies, and race and sexuality.

When he is not studying, teaching or talking at conferences around the United States–or in different parts of the world–Fr Massingale enjoys “hiking in nature, eating good food and having great conversations with friends”.

He admits to being a “major fan” of the science-fiction TV and film series Star Trek. “I still have dreams of being the first priest to travel into space!”

Note: Fr Massingale will speak in Pretoria, Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, Cape Town and Durban. To find out more visit the Jesuit Institute South Africa. He will also be the guest on SAfm's (104-107FM) 'Facts of Faith' on Sunday 24 June at 19h00.

First published in the The Southern Cross
Image: Bruce Gilbert. Fordham University News

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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Russell Pollitt SJ
Director of the Jesuit Institute South Africa and Editor-in-Chief of spotlight.africa. He studied the social sciences, theology and communications. He worked as pastor of the Jesuit’s downtown parish in Johannesburg, South Africa, for 7 years before moving to the Jesuit Institute. He is interested in the relationship between faith and society and the contribution that faith can make to public policy. He regularly comments on politics in South Africa and issues in the Catholic Church. He conducts workshops in South Africa on social media and the human person.

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