The recent media attention on police violence against Black men and women has sparked a much-needed culture-wide conversation about racial justice, so we’re in a unique moment to listen, learn, and grow as a society. In the midst of so much violence and divisiveness, what can we do to fight racism? What can we do to bring about positive change in our communities?
Father Josh Johnson is a Louisiana priest who has been a leading Catholic voice in the conversation about racial justice. He regularly addresses racism and faith in his podcast, Ask Father Josh, and his words provide compelling advice and a clear direction for positive action we can take to protect and promote the dignity of each and every human life.
Listen with humility
When a podcast listener asked Father Josh for some practical advice on combating racism in our communities, he replied: Meet people where they’re at.
“If we don’t listen to each other’s stories, we’re not going to know what’s going on with the sin of racism,” he said. “We’re called to go out of ourselves, out of our comfort zones, out of our little cliques, out of our communities, and meet people who are different from us, and actually listen to their stories.”
Two essential steps in being a good listener are reacting to what you’ve heard with empathy; and “relaying” back what you’ve heard, a way of affirming that you’ve heard and are engaged with what has been shared. When we apply this technique to listen to people who are experiencing marginalization, we will likely be asked to acknowledge uncomfortable things.
Being in relationship with each other is a deeply radical act that can transform our hearts, and will help us learn how to “collaborate with [people experiencing injustice] to eradicate and transform broken systems that continue to perpetuate division,” Father Josh said.
Reform is a personal — and collective — task
Father Josh reminds us that “rules aren’t perfect, and can always be reformed to be better and better.” Just as Jim Crow laws were inhumane and led to the reforms of the Civil Rights Act of the 1960s, “indirect institutional racism still exists today through practices and policies that accommodate and give access to some people — and oppress, alienate, and discriminate against other people for no other reason than because of the color of their skin,” Father Josh said. “I’ve experienced this my whole life.”
The act of listening should move us to take action to change the norms and laws that might be keeping members of our community from feeling seen, accepted, and safe. Some examples that Father Josh gave in his podcast included not supporting any local organizations that don’t allow Black people to be members (some country clubs still have racist policies), and flagging Eurocentric hair policies at your local Catholic school that don’t accommodate natural Black hair.
Father Josh’s father was captain of the Baton Rouge police department for many years, so the priest knows the world of law enforcement. He believes police departments could learn a lot from the Church, which has gone through extensive reforms in the way we handle the formation of priests since the clergy sex abuse crisis. Just as the Church has taken dramatic steps in creating a safe environment in parishes, police training should be rigorous and have in mind the safety of not just the officers but also the communities they’ll be serving.
Because police officers experience so much trauma on the job, Father Josh believes that they could benefit from meeting with mental health professionals to “make sure that they are psychologically well to be out on our streets and in our communities and in our neighborhoods.” We can further protect people from violence by putting policies in place that prevent police officers who have been reprimanded from going back into service until they’ve been through therapy, healing, and more training.
Diversity and representation matters
Father Josh has shared a lot about the importance of diversity in the statues and religious images we have in our churches and communities, stressing the fact that this isn’t about removing or destroying images of “white Jesus,” but rather it’s about including “more diverse images of Jesus and Mary and Joseph — and also the other members of the body of Christ who are canonized saints in our churches.”
For example, images of a blond haired, blue eyed, white-skinned St. Michael stepping on a dark-skinned Satan should be removed or repainted because these images can make non-white people feel as though holiness has something to do with the color of your skin. Whenever we’re considering which practices and images need reform in our communities, we should always ask ourselves whether the thing in question is bringing people closer to God or pushing them away.
Fighting the sin of racism in our communities means listening to the struggles of others, helping them feel seen by the words and sacred images we choose to use in our places of worship, and looking for ways we can play a part in reforming what is broken.
If it is true that each and every human is created in the image and likeness of God, then we need to have the humility and courage to step outside our comfort zones, listen with empathy and an open heart, and pray that God will use these experiences to transform our own hearts and guide us to take positive action.