This past winter, I was walking along a sidewalk with Martha Hennessy when the question of whether property destruction is nonviolent came up. It is an old question, one that has been a point of disagreement between the Catholic Worker movement and the Plowshares movement, both of which Martha is active in. A granddaughter of Dorothy Day, Martha is currently awaiting sentencing for illegally entering and vandalizing the Kings Bay nuclear submarine base in Georgia. She told me that day on the sidewalk that she generally sided with her grandmother’s belief that property damage is violence. But, she said, the greater violence was the unfathomable damage the nuclear missile housed at the base could do.
Recent protests for racial justice across the United States have brought this question to light again as some protests have devolved into looting or damaging police vehicles. The destruction of Black lives, some activists argue, is more important than the destruction of property. While I do not believe that violence is categorically justified so long as it is fighting a greater violence, it is certainly true that killing someone is a greater evil than destroying property.
Pope Francis, in Evangelii Gaudium, leads us beyond this debate, urging Catholics to look at violence as a symptom of the greater sickness of injustice. He writes:
“When a society—whether local, national or global—is willing to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no political programmes or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility. This is not the case simply because inequality provokes a violent reaction from those excluded from the system, but because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root. Just as goodness tends to spread, the toleration of evil, which is injustice, tends to expand its baneful influence and quietly to undermine any political and social system, no matter how solid it may appear. If every action has its consequences, an evil embedded in the structures of a society has a constant potential for disintegration and death. It is evil crystallized in unjust social structures, which cannot be the basis of hope for a better future” (Evangelii Gaudium, 59).
So, how to excise this evil from our social structures? We must begin with ourselves, examining our consciences for our participation in the sin of racism and other social sins and repenting of them—that is, taking action personally and as a Catholic community to counteract racism.
The first step is educating ourselves, forming our consciences so that we can identify our sin and resist it in the future. Recent weeks have brought a surge of antiracist reading lists and resources to help us do this, including Dr. Tia Noelle Pratt’s Black Catholics Syllabus, which compiles reading materials, videos and podcasts centering the Black Catholic experience to teach the faithful about white supremacy, antiracism and implementing change on an individual and institutional level.
Olga Segura, a writer on Black Lives Matter and the Catholic church, has a concrete list of actions that Catholics can take to fight systemic racism. She urges parishes to invite speakers from the Black Lives Matter movement, pastors to speak about racism from the pulpit, dioceses to implement antiracism training at all levels, bishops to hold a day of mourning and prayer, leaders to appear on the front lines at protests and all Catholics to donate to the movement.
Any of our actions against racism must be driven by an interior conversion. St. Paul writes that our actions are empty without love (cf. 1 Cor. 13), and true Christian love necessitates humility and sacrificing our own comfort, even to the point of laying down our lives for others (cf. John 15:13). Repenting of the personal and social sin of racism will mean facing down painful facts about ourselves, having uncomfortable and unpopular conversations and even giving up opportunities, platforms and power to raise up our Black brothers and sisters.
The Black theologian James Cone wrote in his famous essay “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” that “Most whites want mercy and forgiveness, but not justice and reparations; they want reconciliation without liberation, the resurrection without the cross.” White Catholics, it is time to take up our cross: to repent of racism and act against it, being a moral leader in dismantling “evil crystallized in unjust social structures” in order to, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., bend the arc of history towards justice, with God’s help.
Colleen Dulle is a writer and producer at America Media, where she hosts the weekly news podcast “Inside the Vatican.” Her forthcoming biography of the French poet, social worker and mystic Madeleine Delbrêl will be published by Liturgical Press.