I would like to introduce you to a person who is working for a cure to “a deep soul sickness, a deep malformation of the human spirit.” This is what Bryan N. Massingale calls racism. He is Catholic priest, scholar, Marquette University professor of theological ethics, author and sought after speaker and faith-based activist. As an African-American male, he has always believed and understood that experience, faith and justice are intertwined as one. His doctorate studies of black liberation theologian James H. Cone and South American liberation theologian Gustavo Guiterres changed the course of his life. Fully expecting to serve as a parish priest, Bryan said “what began as an assignment became my vocation.”
Bryan has published over 85 articles and taught hundreds of university and doctoral students moral theology courses related to social justice issues of poverty and economics, war and terrorism, human rights, ecology and racism. His primary focus is on the racism in American society. In 2010 he published Racial Justice and the Catholic Church. Most recently in St. Louis, Milwaukee, Worcester, MA and New York he presented “Unconscious Racial Bias and the Challenge of Solidarity: Catholic Social Teaching Post-Trayvon Martin (Michael Brown, and …)” One deeply upsetting statistic from that talk is that while in the past lynchings were one every three days, today, police shootings of unarmed black men are one every twenty-eight hours! [Estimates from personal reports as statistics are not kept on such shootings]
While Bryan is an accomplished scholar, his writing and lectures are riveting. I am a former student of two of his courses and continue to follow his writings and his lectures whenever possible. He brings together his experiences, faith, research and reflection to present passionate and compelling challenges to “beneficiaries of white privilege” to the “difficult task of acknowledging their individual and communal complicity in past and present racial Injustices.” Bryan identifies racism as a “deep soul sickness, a deep malformation of the human spirit.” It is a spiritual blindness like that in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. For deeper human understanding and to bring about a more unified human family, the spiritual question to grapple with is: “Whose lives matter?”
Changes in social policy and laws are necessary but not sufficient, Bryan contends. The U.S Constitution counted male slaves as a three-fifths person for representation. Christian churches did not oppose this. This inequality and bias are embedded in our history and national identity. While slavery, lynchings and lawful segregation are injustices of the past, police shootings of unarmed black men, grand juries and district attorneys that don’t bring charges are the injustices of the present; but all of American society is culturally conditioned towards racial injustice and racially selective sympathy.
In his book Bryan points to a way to heal this “deep soul sickness” because if we do not, there will be other injustices in the future: “It entails a hard acknowledgement that one has benefited from another’s burden and that one’s social advantages have been purchased at a high cost to others. Here lament takes the form of a forthright confession of human wrongdoing in the light of God’s mercy. It is a form of truth-telling and contrition that acknowledges both the harms that have been done to others and one’s personal and communal culpability for them.”
For Bryan, this work of raising issues that people don’t want to hear about brings moments of loneliness, weariness and discouragement. The history and details of racial injustices over American history and meetings with families and communities who have lost a son to a police shooting bring upheavals of emotion. He continues to be nourished by the “support and love of dear friends,” his own “deep contemplative grounding” and “living my life and work as a vocation that is a response to what is bigger than me: Divine Mystery.” And recently, even this accomplished man of faith, walking down a local street without baggy pants or a hoody was stopped by police, their suspect – an African American man.
There are also rewards: students who let him know it was his course that made it possible for them “to talk with co-workers, family, friends about Ferguson;” parents who tell him that their son’s\daughter’s sharing of what s\he learned in class opened their eyes to what they were not aware; invitations to speak from secular non-profit organizations, specifically asking him to share his theological, Catholic social teaching and spiritual perspective on racism. In 2014, the local YMCA recognized Bryan with the “Eliminating Racism” person of the year award.
Bryan began teaching in 1991 and today he has two key insights: He is a sower of seeds and he moves from field to field always ending, not with optimism, but with hope. He may not always see all that grows and what dies, but he continues to spread the seeds of theological ethics and racial justice with hope. He shared this favorite quote from James Baldwin: “I believe, I really do believe, I know, we can be better than we are — but the price is enormous and people aren’t yet willing to pay it.”