Two months after a white supremacist specifically targeting immigrants when he opened fire in an El Paso Walmart, Bishop Mark Seitz has released a pastoral letter on racism which strongly condemns the “xenophobia ravaging the United States” and describes the border wall as a “monument to hate.”
The opening lines of the 22-page letter, titled “Night will be no more,” recalls the matanza (“massacre”) of August 3, when, in the words of the bishop, “hate visited our community and Latino blood was spilled in sacrifice to the false god of white supremacy.”
The document is the first of its kind by a Church official, addressing racism from the perspective of the border and calling for an end of further deportations until the nation overhauls its immigration policies with pointed words for government officials.
While the letter does not directly name U.S. President Donald Trump, it cites the over 500 times that the words “invasion” and “killer” has been used by “our highest elected officials” to refer to migrants.
The pastoral letter offers stinging criticism of the border wall, one of Trump’s signature campaign promises, labeling it as a “powerful symbol in the story of race,” that has “helped to merge nationalistic vanities with racial projects.”
“It is not just a tool of national security. More than that, the wall is a symbol of exclusion, especially when allied to an overt politics of xenophobia. It is an open wound through the middle of our sister cities of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez,” the letter states.
“The wall deepens racially charged perceptions of how we understand the border as well as Mexicans and migrants. It extends racist talk of an ‘invasion’. It perpetuates the racist myth that the area south of the border is dangerous and foreign and that we are merely passive observers in the growth of narco-violence and the trafficking of human beings and drugs,” it continues.
“The wall is a physical reminder of the failure of two friendly nations to resolve their internal and bi-national issues in just and peaceful ways…the wall kills families and children. There will be a day when after this wall has come crumbling down we will look back and remember the wall as a monument to hate,” Seitz says.
Although the letter is primarily a critique of the current moment in American public life, it draws deeply on the historical realities of life along the border, apologizing for the Church’s role in racism during the period of colonization.
“We often took the European experience of Christianity to be normative and failed to appreciate the ways that God was already at work, and still at work today, in indigenous peoples and cultures,” Seitz writes. “We perpetuated damaging notions of power and the desire to dominate and so contributed to the exploitation of peoples and the environment.”
In defining racism, Seitz examines the institutionalized nature of it throughout the history of the U.S. where “this country and its history and opportunities and resources as well as our economic and political life belong more properly to ‘white’ people than to people of color.”
“This is a perverse way of thinking that divides people based on heritage and tone of skin into ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’, paving the way to dehumanization. In other words, racism,” the bishop writes.
“If we are honest, racism is really about advancing, shoring up, and failing to oppose a system of white privilege and advantage based on skin color,” he continues. “When this system begins to shape our public choices, structure our common life together and becomes a tool of class, this is rightly called institutionalized racism. Action to build this system of hate and inaction to oppose its dismantling are what we rightly call white supremacy. This is the evil one and the ‘father of lies’ (John 8, 44) incarnate in our everyday choices and lifestyles, and our laws and institutions.”
The letter, which was released on the vigil of Indigenous People’s Day and as part of a Teach-In with the Latinx coalition taking place in El Paso this weekend, is dedicated to the 22 victims who died in the El Paso massacre.
Although the document references the need for greater gun control measures and is critical of the U.S. Congress for failing to pass a ban on assault weapons, Seitz says the purpose of his letter is to probe the deeper issues that go beyond laws and policies.
The document also builds on “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love,” the pastoral letter released by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) last November, which marked the first time U.S. Catholic bishops have spoken collectively on the issue of race in forty years.
In recent years, Seitz has become one of the most vocal champions of migrants among the members of the U.S. hierarchy. In June, he personally escorted asylum seekers across the U.S.-Mexico border, after they had previously been denied entry to the United States.
The letter, which he says is the product of consultation across both the diocese and the larger border community, concludes by offering broader reflections of a border theology and a call for new leadership among Latinos.
“We should not fear power. Power has been given to us as stewards by our God, who asks of us to be co-creators in bringing about His Reign,” he writes. “But we must learn the use of power in new, creative and grace-filled ways, not reproducing the tactics and methods of domination and division that belong to the oppressor. This will require us to stand beside the poor as they find their voice and to take a supportive role in their work for justice.”
The letter, which is peppered with references to civil and religious leaders, including the three most recent popes, Saint Oscar Romero, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., also includes a plea for non-violence in responding to the Texas shooter, issuing a plea that Patrick Crusius not face execution.
“Justice is certainly required. But the cycle of hate, blood and vengeance on the border must meet its end,” he writes. “While the scales of justice may seem to tilt in favor of the necessity of lethal retribution, God offers us yet another chance to choose life. Choose in a manner worthy of your humanity.”
While the letter offers a series of sweeping condemnations of the realities of political and religious life, Seitz argues that in the face of injustice and tragedy, “the Lord Jesus can lead us through this dark moment into something bright and unexpected.”
“For even if a whole army of hate should threaten us,” he writes, “if we are faithful to Jesus and hold on to love, in the words of the poet Julia Esquivel, what can they do but threaten us with Resurrection?”