A few years ago, my partner and I were invited to speak with a small group of white Catholic North Americans visiting Bolivia. My partner, from Bolivia, was asked to speak briefly with the group about Andean spirituality, and I was asked to translate his words from Spanish to English. (I am sharing this story with my partner’s permission.)

As we opened the space for questions, one of the North American men asked, in English, if my partner thought that Andean spirituality interprets the world the way it does because Andean people had not yet been exposed to Christianity and Western science. 

painting-ground-flowers
Original artwork by Annemarie Barrett

I was stunned, and I noticed that some of the other white Catholics present were too. I could see the confusion in his eyes as he tried to make sense of a worldview and cosmology so different from his own. But his assumption was, at best, incorrect. 

Unfortunately, it was also much more than incorrect. His assumption carried the weight of a long and racist history of characterizing whoever and whatever is not white and Christian to be inferior. His assumption fit squarely into a long and brutal history of colonial genocide, built on the belief that anyone who was not white and Christian needed to be “saved” or killed.  

Still stunned, I apologized to my partner before translating the question to him. Seemingly accustomed to these racist assumptions, he replied to the question in a matter of fact tone without condoning the implicit racism.

The man who asked the question seemed to pick up on our visible discomfort and offense, quickly and even more earnestly pleading for me to help him say, “I love you,” to my partner in Spanish. 

As if his expression of love alone could absolve the violence of ongoing Christian colonial oppression, the man apparently hoped to erase his racism and any harm he caused by professing his platonic Christian love for my partner, someone whom he had just met. 

He expressed no interest in understanding why what he asked was harmful. He did not apologize for his ignorance. He also went unchallenged by any of the other white people — including me — in the room. He left no space for further dialogue. Instead, he skipped directly to a forced expression of so-called “love,” dripping in good intentions but void of any accountability. 

I imagine many readers of this blog, like me, and like the white man in this story, were schooled in the white Catholic tradition of the primacy of good intentions. 

Many of us learned from a very young age that to be Catholic was to make a commitment to “being good” and that going to church on Sundays, reading the Bible and making donations at fundraisers was what made us “good.” And while it is a convenient narrative that upholds our own comfort, I also believe that it is the same narrative that is blinding us from the humility we need to engage our own racism

Many of us are so used to our religion solidifying our status as “good” people that it may be a rude awakening for “good” Catholics to hear current talk of white supremacy on the news and feel a finger pointed back at us. 

It might not seem to add up. We may ask: How can we be “good Catholics” and embody white supremacy? Doesn’t loving all people make us good enough?

The trouble is that neither our very best intentions nor our deepest guilt and shame will fix racism. Yet many of us who were raised Catholic have quite a bit of both, so it will require a lot of patience and strength to recognize that neither will serve the deep transformation that we are being called to engage as white people. 

In effect, when we hold so tightly to our good intentions as a means to silence any feedback on our own violence, we weaponize them. We wield the weapon of good intentions in self-defense in order to protect our own self-image, our comfort and our conscience. 

But the violence of defending white innocence is not a new idea, it’s a part of our history and many people much more knowledgeable than me have written about this topic. People like Robin DiAngelo whose work you can find at New Discourses and Medium.

And while those perspectives may or may not be new to you, I imagine that we all at least know and use the old saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” So we must ask ourselves, why is it so hard for us to slow down and choose a different path?

I think that answering that question specifically in white Catholic communities, like the one I was raised in, requires us to take a critical look at our own culture. 

Resmaa Menakem, healer, author and trauma specialist, explains, “White people have to be willing to tolerate the discomfort and pain of really experiencing all the difficult emotions and sensations in their bodies when race comes up. They don’t have the stamina for that yet.” 

Furthermore, he asserts that, “White people have got to start to lean into how to create culture around the abolition of white body supremacy.” Building that stamina, he says, means that you will have to “thicken your skin” and maintain a “flexible heart.”

For white Catholic communities to build the stamina necessary to abolish white body supremacy, I am learning that laying down the weapon of our good intentions is a fundamental first step, one that could allow us to engage the following questions both personally and collectively:

How do our cultural values of forgiveness and the absolution of sins, such fundamental tenets of a “good” Catholic formation, cut short any real process of accountability? How might we surrender the belief in our collective innocence in order to really reckon with the history of our racialized violence? How do the ways in which we rush towards forgiveness in our Catholic communities prevent us from doing the internal work necessary to actually change our behavior?

How do our cultural values of the primacy of good intentions and paternalism, those that have historically characterized the work of Catholic charity and service, fall short of the societal transformation needed to address systemic racism? How might we move away from the power and control we enjoy in attempting to fix others and lean into the real humility of listening and learning to heal ourselves? 

How might the story that I’ve shared turned out differently if that white Catholic man and the rest of us white people around him had done the necessary work to engage the harm that we were perpetuating? 

What if he had been willing to feel the discomfort of being wrong? What if he found the humility to hear the deeper truth in his racist discrimination? What if, instead of weaponizing his Christian love to avoid his own shame, he had humbly apologized and committed to educating himself to repair the harm of his ignorance? What if the other white folks in the room that day would have collectively engaged our own discomfort and humbly committed together to processing how we too are called to growth?

Many of us are just beginning to engage this deeply spiritual work, but now is always a good time to dig deep and open ourselves to learn. 

Once we are able to acknowledge that we, in fact, have not yet done the spiritual work of reckoning with our own violence, then we step into the humility necessary for growth. 

Now is the time to choose that growth and create space in our communities to engage it together. 

Resources to learn more:

Racism Among White Christians is Higher than Among the Nonreligious. That’s No Coincidence by Robert P. Jones, CEO and founder, PRRI

White Fragility and the Rules of Engagement by Robin DiAngelo 

Breaking the Chain: Healing Racial Trauma in the Body, an interview with Resmaa Menakem 
A Conversation on Compassion with Resmaa Menakem

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Annemarie Barrett grew up in the Midwest and now lives in Bolivia, South America. Her spiritual journey has been greatly influenced by the Catholic Worker Movement and the Franciscan charism of humble availability and deep solidarity. She has also been influenced and transformed by the unique experience of spending most of her life in Western, capitalist culture and now living for years in Andean culture that is much more communal and rooted in the wisdom of indigenous communities. Today, she lives and farms with her partner and also creates and sells her original art under the name AEB Art.