‘Racism Makes God a Liar'
How the Catholic Church in the United States of America is coping with the Black Lives Matter movement.
When 250,000 demonstrators gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 to hear the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech, they did so in response to Archbishop Patrick O'Boyle of Washington's prayerful invocation. He prayed for the Holy Spirit to open Christians' eyes to the injustice of racial discrimination, condemned violence, and lauded activists who had the courage, like Moses, to go forth in search of a beautiful country.
Five decades later, these hopes appear to have been dashed in numerous ways. Around one in five Americans self-identifies as Catholic, and approximately six in ten white Catholics believed that police killings of Black men were isolated incidents rather than evidence of a pervasive and lethal bias in 2018. Several prominent Catholic commentators, including Bill O'Reilly and Father Dwight Longenecker, express fear for and opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Unease among American Catholics regarding Black Lives Matter was particularly evident during the protests following the assassination of George Floyd. Statues honoring Junipero Serra, a Spanish friar credited with founding several Catholic missions in California during the early days of European colonization, have been demolished by protesters outraged by the friar's alleged eager participation in the conquest of North America, which included the torture, enslavement, and murder of some of the Native Americans he intended to convert — ac
Protesters have also vandalized other religious statues. When combined with the vandalism of a handful of Catholic churches and a slew of other structures, the attacks on statuary have sparked outrage among conservative Catholics, confirming what they may already believe: that racial justice movements — or at least this particular one — are antithetical to the Christian faith, rooted in Marxism and atheism.
Abby Johnson, a Catholic anti-abortion activist, tweeted in June, "The Catholic Church is on fire." And liberal Catholics continue to light fires under Her every day with sacrilegious nonsense like this," referring to an icon depicting Mr. Floyd as a Jesus figure dying in his mother's arms.
In July, Catholic author Andrew Sullivan argued that Black Lives Matter and Christianity are fundamentally incompatible worldviews.
Bishop Thomas A. Daly of Spokane, Wash., stated on July 5: "BLM contradicts Church teaching on marriage, family, and the sanctity of life. Additionally, it is troubling that the BLM has not condemned the recent violence that has ravaged so many cities.”
Gloria Purvis stands firm in the face of this alleged conflict between faith and anti-racism efforts. She is a Black Catholic — a rare enough designation even in the absence of interfaith political strife, as only 3% of American Catholics are black. Ms. Purvis co-hosts a popular Catholic radio show called "Morning Glory," as well as a limited television series called "Authentically Free at Last."
Following Mr. Floyd's murder, Ms. Purvis condemned his assassination and the numerous prior police killings of Black men and women.
“I stated that I believed racism was demonic,” she explained during a recent dinner at a Washington, D.C., bistro. In the weeks following Mr. Floyd's death, "Morning Glory" aired episodes honoring saints who fought racism during their lifetimes, the impact of racial discrimination on society as a whole, and the reality of systemic racism itself.
Her remarks sparked a wave of retaliation from incensed listeners via tweets and emails.
“Racism makes God a liar,” she explained. “It states that not everyone is created in God's image. What a heinous fabrication from the pit of hell.”
In June, Guadalupe Radio Network, a Catholic station based in Midland, Texas, canceled her radio show. Following social media backlash, the network issued a statement claiming that Ms. Purvis's show had been temporarily suspended not because of her remarks about racism, but because the network detected "a spirit of contention growing among the hosts." A request for comment from Guadalupe Radio Network went unanswered.
Ms. Purvis was unconvinced by the explanation: There had always been the occasional friendly clashes between the show's hosts, but they had never been a source of contention. Ms. Purvis informed me that the network has not reinstated her program nor given any indication of when or if it will be reintroduced. She remains convinced that the show was canceled as a result of her outspoken condemnation of police killings of Black people and her impassioned condemnation of racism.
I inquired of Ms. Purvis about the toppled statues and church vandalism, which have been repeatedly cited as evidence of an imagined conflict between Christianity and the contemporary anti-racism movement.
She let out a sigh. It is not that she is dismissive of sacred sites or representations of saints; in fact, she told me, she attributes the birth of her daughter to a visit to the grotto where Our Lady of Lourdes is believed to have appeared, following a 15-year struggle with infertility. And she was present during Pope Francis's first visit to the United States, when the pontiff canonized Father Serra. However, she wishes it were possible to stipulate without provoking hostility that objects of piety have a place in the natural order.
“In the Catholic world, aren't we pro-life?” she inquired. “However, we were so quick to forget about a man killed in the street in favor of rebuildable or replaceable items. This injustice meted out to George Floyd appeared to vanish as soon as money or property entered the picture.”
Ms. Purvis was inundated with videos sent by her fellow faithful condemning Mr. Floyd based on an exaggerated version of his criminal record after she spoke out about Mr. Floyd's death.
“I thought to myself, any Catholic who can watch that and remain unconcerned is missing something in their faith,” Ms. Purvis explained. Mr. Floyd "had a right to life," she stated. However, he was also entitled to a natural death.”
That this fundamental principle could be overlooked in the name of icons exhausted and demoralized her.
“I don't believe many people understand racism is a sin,” she said. “These discussions make people feel uneasy.”
It should not be so difficult for so many Christians to affirm unequivocally that yes, Black lives matter. “We are commanded to love our neighbor,” Ms. Purvis observed, “and my God, my God, we fail.”
Ms. Purvis is optimistic about the future. She desires a sincere reckoning with the church's anti-Black racism. “We need to name it,” she said, "and admit that we have sinned; that religious orders did own slaves; that we did not speak out in the abolition movement; that we pushed some people to the side or to the back during Mass celebrations, so they could receive our Lord only after others had finished.” That much, and more, is required.
Americans will march on Washington this month in commemoration of the original civil rights march on the capital and in the hope of reviving and redoubling efforts to achieve racial equality.
A diverse group of Catholics, including clergy and laypeople — including myself — have written a letter urging our bishops to join us on this march in order to fulfill the hope set forth for Christians in the first epistle of John: “Let us love, not in words or speech, but in deeds and deeds.”