Every so often, after prayer and discernment, the Archbishop asks his priests to preach on a single topic on a certain weekend to provoke an Archdiocesan-wide reflection on a pressing issue of our times. On this first Sunday of Lent, Archbishop Carlson has asked us to preach on the topic of racism but has given latitude for how each priest does that.
To be honest, I wasn’t real excited to undertake this task. Not because I am so naive to think that racism doesn’t exist in our city, in our Church, and even in our parish; I know that it does, in both blatant and subtle forms. The reluctance comes from knowing how politicized, manipulated, and convoluted this topic has become in our society. It is very difficult to have a rational, honest, respectful discussion about racism and its possible causes and remedies without it devolving into labels, judgements, and self-righteous indignation which perpetuate the “us-versus-them” mentality. As a result, I think many of us go into our shell and avoid talking about the issue all together, almost hoping it will just go away. But of course it won’t. My reflection today will focus on the spiritual component of the sin of racism. Specific topics like the historical, socio-economic factors that contribute to this evil are more complex and contentious and probably best left for discussion outside of Mass.
Racism, and for that matter, any “ism” like sexism and ageism, are products of original sin. Before Adam and Eve turned against God in their pride, they could see the world and each other with God’s eyes. In other words, they wanted what God wanted. Selfishness, hatred, and using another person was unthinkable. But with the introduction of sin, every terrible thing became possible. Adam and Eve became afraid of each other and of God. They lost trust in each other and covered themselves. They hid from God. Within one generation, their children murder each other. The original unity and kindness God intended vanishes quickly when sin enters the human heart. After the introduction of sin, human beings tend to use each other for profit and pleasure. A person is judged by appearance or in terms of what they can do for me rather than accepted as a reflection of God and a brother or sister in Christ. For these reasons and more, racism, in both its subtle and blatant forms, is sinful and cannot be compatible with our beliefs or the portrait of God described in the first reading.
It is hard to give a perfect definition of racism but a good start would be “the belief that a particular race is superior or inferior to another and that a person's social and moral traits are predetermined by his or her inborn biological characteristics”. It is not racist to observe that people look, think, believe, and act in very different ways. Racism happens when a person or a whole group of people is judged and condemned based on the color of their skin.
Because racism is a spiritual problem and a moral evil, it’s remedy will be the same as other sins we struggle with. We cannot fix it by human efforts alone! We have to do our part but without God’s grace our initiatives will always fall short and disappoint. We need, as Christians, to make God part of the solution. Faith has to guide our thoughts, words, and actions.
Think again of our first reading today with Noah and the Ark. After the flood, God reaches out to the whole human race through Noah; not just that small group of survivors but every single human that will ever live! God doesn’t just shake hands with Noah, he enters into something called a covenant with humanity. So, what is a covenant?
A covenant is more than a legal contract or serious promise or even a solemn oath. A covenant is a living relationship where one person or party binds themselves to another person or party in a unique relationship. In a covenant, the two people or parties become family, intertwined in the most intimate way. To break a covenant is to tear away from the family and destroy the bond of kinship. An example would be marriage. In marriage two people enter into a union and form a family. Even their extended families are drawn together by this bond. A good marriage is beautiful thing in the life it fosters and the way it brings people unity, comfort, healing, and strength. When a marriage goes bad, when that covenant is disrespected or destroyed, it is incredibly destructive, divisive, and hurtful.
God wants humanity to be his family. He takes the initiative and reaches out to Noah as soon as dry land appears. His language is very beautiful and clear. Never again will the earth be destroyed by a flood. Not only that, but every time the clouds fill the sky, when rains falls to earth, and a rainbow appears, each and every time, God thinks of that covenant and remembers his love for each and every creature he made.
God is a loving father, patient savior, merciful judge, interested listener, loyal spouse, dedicated brother, compassionate friend, and tireless advocate. Any words, beliefs or behaviors that contradicts these qualities and divides the human race doesn’t come from God!
This loving invite from God to Noah was not simply a neat moment in history; it is a living relationship. The Lord is still inviting people into this covenant, not simply as a group, not just as anonymous members of the human race, but as individuals. God is constantly seeking a personal, unique, one on one covenant with you and me that is different than the one he has with any other person. He will not get discouraged, disgusted, or give up. He doesn’t love me more than you or anyone else. He doesn’t give preference to one race over another. Each and every person is a member of his family who was worth the sacrifice of His Only-Begotten Son. We enjoy that dignity regardless of what country we were born in, our income, social status, education, or any other metric society imposes. But just as we enjoy that divine dignity, we also realize we owe it to every single person. We have no right to take it away or refuse it to another.
Lent is a special, focused time to let go of anything that separates us from God or divides the worldwide family He unconditionally loves. It is an opportunity to invite God deeper into every aspect of our thinking and acting so that He can heal the wounds of sin in our hearts and in the world. May God bless these holy days and may we all accept the invitation to be a part of His family, treating each other with respect, charity, and fairness without exception!