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Homily on Racism

From the AUSCP newsletter: With the need to address the topic of racism from the pulpit, we are passing on to you a homily given on August 27th by AUSCP member James Dallen. (This was given at a Mass where Anointing of the Sick was part of the liturgy.)

Eighty years ago, in mid-March of 1937, a letter was smuggled into Nazi Germany and copies secretly distributed to the Catholic bishops. Thousands of copies were printed and distributed to parishes. The Gestapo did not learn of the letter until the last minute. In some parishes the priests hid the copies in the tabernacle, in the company of the Blessed Sacrament! On Palm Sunday, the encyclical Mit brennender Sorge from Pope Pius XI was read from the pulpit in all the Catholic churches of Germany.

Though the encyclical was very cautious and didn’t even mention Hitler or National Socialism or Jews by name, Hitler was enraged. The letter is primarily concerned with the Church’s rights and privileges, yet it clearly ruled out racism as idolatrous. 1937 was, of course, too late for the Church to really make a difference. Hitler had been elected democratically and had taken the first steps toward dictatorship legally by claiming to oppose Communist “terrorism.” Anti-Semitism was too strong, even in the Church, for pope or bishops to call Catholics to stand in solidarity with Jews.

It was another 28 years before Vatican II would condemn anti-Semitism: “We cannot truly pray to God the Father of all if we treat any people as other than brothers or sisters, for all people are created in God's image” (Nostra aetate, 5).

The U.S. bishops 40 years ago put it simply: “Racism is a sin: a sin that divides the human family, blots out the image of God among [some] members of that family, and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father.”

What happened in Charlottesville is a relatively minor indication of how deeply infected by the sin of racism our society is. Racism is America’s original sin. It has recurred again and again in our history: first in the European conquest, enslavement, and genocide of Native Americans; then Africans were kidnaped, brought to these continents, and enslaved. (A few months ago an administration official euphemistically referred to them as “African immigrants”!) Asians, Mexicans, Middle Easterners, and others have also been the object of prejudice and discrimination.

There is a new public character to racism. Some people have come slithering out from their hiding places to claim to be a superior race. Rightly or wrongly, they feel empowered by last year’s election campaign and believe the president has their backs. The pardon for Sheriff Arpaio they’ll probably take as a pat on the back. In the first quarter of this year, for example, incidents against Jews increased by 86% over the same period last year, which was itself higher than previously. Nazis now wear polo shirts rather than brown shirts, but their message is still “Blut und Boden,” “blood and soil.” The Confederacy may have lost the battle for slavery, but the Ku Klux Klan still marches to uphold the claim to white supremacy and the inferiority of all others. Nationalists want to make America white again.

I think a major reason for the resurgence of racism is that white privilege is threatened by demographic change. By 2020 only half the babies born in this country will be white. By 2050 whites will no longer be the majority in our population. Whites will still have a disproportionate share of wealth and power, but that cultural change frightens some. That’s why immigration has become a lightning-rod issue. Fear of others, fear of those who are different, is at the root of racism.

Even though on a conscious, intellectual level we know that racism is immoral and heretical, it still affects us. Take the statement that has been controversial over the last couple of years: “Black lives matter.”  Black lives matter. Many of us might think, as others have angrily responded: “All lives matter!” True. But do we react the same way if the statement is “unborn lives matter” or “women’s lives matter”?

The Church is not exempt. Augustus Tolton was born a slave in Missouri in 1854 and became the first black Catholic priest in the United States. The process for canonizing him a saint has begun. But he had to study and be ordained in Rome because no seminary in the U.S. would accept him.

Back in the 1960s a seminary classmate of mine from Kentucky told of a black woman from Chicago who came to visit family in his town. When it came time for communion at Sunday Mass, the black woman went up and knelt at the communion rail with everyone else. The priest passed her by and passed her by until her turn finally came . . . after all the whites had received.

In the 1930s a Catholic priest, Father Coughlin, was well known around the country. He drew radio audiences rivaling Roosevelt’s fireside chats. Along with Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh and others he was well known for being anti-Jewish and pro-Hitler.

Today controversies over Confederate monuments and flag are among the clearest signs that we have not repented of our sin. They stand witness to the historical effort to preserve slavery in the Civil War and to uphold white supremacy subsequently and still today. The argument is made that these figures are part of our history and heritage. Perhaps. In a museum. If the rationale is history, are there also statues of Nat Turner and Charles Deslondes, Jemmy and Gabriel and other slaves who led revolts seeking freedom? How many statues of Lincoln or Martin Luther King are there in the South? When we put someone on a pedestal, literally or figuratively, it’s to honor them and what they accomplished. How many others do we honor for violating their oath of allegiance, turning traitor, and fighting against the United States?

Racism is not a matter of politics. It is a matter of morality and faith. As Christians we make the profession of faith that Peter made in today’s gospel: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” If that profession of faith is more than words, we cannot discriminate against anyone for whom Jesus gave his life. (Jesus, of course, was not Caucasian!)

There is only one race that counts, the human race, and anyone who thinks that one part of it is better than another is a loser. Perhaps the day will come when we will recognize how ridiculous racism is. The black comedian, Dick Gregory, who died last week, offers an example. He tells of walking into a restaurant in the South and sitting down at the counter. The waitress came over and said, “We don’t serve colored folk.” Gregory responded: “That’s OK. I don’t eat colored folk. Bring me some fried chicken.”

Whether we recognize it or not, there are probably prejudices, traces of racism, within everyone of us here. I’ve recognized it in myself. I was a senior in high school before I ever had a conversation with a black person. Several years ago I led a trip to the Holy Land. While we were in Jerusalem I needed a haircut. It was during the Intifada and I was a little uneasy.  I asked someone where we were staying about a barber shop. I misunderstood the directions and got lost. A Palestinian boy came up and in broken English asked what I was looking for. I told him and he offered to show me. It wasn’t the barber shop I was looking for, just a barber chair on the street, a group of Palestinians sitting around, and no one who spoke English. I was even more nervous! After the barber finished I paid him and walked off. As I got about a half-block away I heard someone behind me, running toward me. I almost took off running myself. It was the barber—he had shortchanged me the equivalent of a quarter and ran after me to give it back.

I’ve reflected on that many times, thinking how easy it is to be afraid of someone just because they look a little different. We need to face our fears and see them for the irrational things that they are—prejudices.

As we celebrate the sacrament of anointing, let us pray not just for healing for our physical, emotional, or mental ills but also that we may be healed of the spiritual disease of prejudice and racism. Let us pray for healing, peace, and unity for our country.