In these mid-year passages we are reading from Luke’s gospel, we find ourselves exploring different threads in the teaching of Jesus, connected by an overarching theme of relationship. How we relate with one another is a central theme in the Lucan gospel. As we consider some of the events and struggles with which we contend in our nation in these days, it is perhaps appropriate for us to explore some of the resources of our faith experience in the United States, and consider whether or not our tradition has some wisdom to offer that we might find helpful?
In 1979 the U.S. Bishops published a pastoral letter on the theme of Racism in the United States. It was received with mixed reaction, some people arguing it didn’t grapple enough with the difficult realities impacting people’s lives at that time, and others arguing that it was out of touch and didn’t consider the progress made in our country in the prior 30 years. At the time, the bishops acknowledged that “Racism is an evil which endures in our society and in our Church.” They went on to note that “Racism is a sin: a sin that divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of that family, and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father. Racism is the sin that says some human beings are inherently superior and others essentially inferior because of races.” This document was written as part of a series of documents on racism going back through the history of the U.S. Church. It gave great attention to the difficulties of economic disparity, particularly in light of persistent racism within the culture. This attention was given in large part because of the general economic uncertainty of the time, and with the understanding that in difficult economic times, the poor and racial minorities are often seen to bear the heaviest burden.
40 years later, the Bishop once again addressed the theme of racism in a new reflection entitled “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love.” It notes that “Racism arises when - either consciously or unconsciously - a person holds that his or her own race or ethnicity is superior, and therefore judges persons of other races or ethnicities as inferior…” It goes on to observe that “Racism occurs because a person ignores the fundamental truth that, because all humans share a common origin, they are all brothers and sisters, all equally made in the image of God. When this truth is ignored, the consequence is prejudice and fear of the other, and - all too often - hatred.”
Many years ago I had to face into the evil of racism in my own heart. I was an intern at Holy Name of Jesus in South Central Los Angeles. I arrived there in the summer of 1992, just after the Spring Riots of that year, which left 50 people dead, over 2300 injured, and which resulted in property damage in excess of $1 billion. But what did I know, coming from a small village of less than 800 people in the rural West of Ireland? I didn’t know I was supposed to be afraid living in that neighborhood. Ironically, I have only fond memories of my time at Holy Name, and the goodness of the people who lived in that neighborhood still lives on in my heart’s memory. Yet it was here I had to confront my own racism. In a heated conversation within the RCIA group one Sunday morning, I came face to face with my own prejudices. It wasn’t skin color, or cultural experiences that loomed large for me, but I came to see and to understand that my own upbringing and education had brought me to a deep appreciation of my own Irish history, but in such a way as to leave the hair on the back of my neck standing whenever I heard a British accent. I had to consider that my racism was rooted in my cultural experience, my upbringing, and in my education. Anyone familiar with the long history that exists between Ireland and England might not be surprised, but once I became aware of my inherent racism, I had to work to address it. I had to learn to arrest my almost instinctual reactions and to instead learn to meet individuals as the people they were, and not as a representative of all the slights and wounds, real and imagined, that existed between our two peoples. I can be proud of my heritage without being disparaging of others.
We are all children of the one, the true, and the living God. We are all made in God’s own image and likeness, and we are - all of us - wonderfully made, as the psalmist reminds us. My experience helps me to understand how deeply entrenched and how subtle institutional racism can be, whether that institution is a social construct, such as in our civil society, in our schools, or even in our churches. It behooves us all to be attentive to how we interact with and engage others who are not us. Without that level of self awareness, we risk colluding with the evil that is racism, and our society will be blighted and impoverished into the years ahead.