Racism and the Gospel

Homily for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Image: Cover art from Racial Justice and the Catholic Church by Bryan N. Massingale (2010: Orbis Books).
Image: Cover art from Racial Justice and the Catholic Church by Bryan N. Massingale (2010: Orbis Books). (photo: Register Files)

Note: Last week, after the so-called “Unite the Right” white-identity rally in Charlottesville degenerated into murderous violence, I looked ahead to this Sunday’s lectionary readings and was struck by the running theme of the universality of grace and charity, and the implicit theme of the unity of the human race. I noted this on social media, suggesting that homilists seize this opportunity to address the topic of racism in the light of the gospel. I’m pleased to see that a bishop in Kentucky also took this opportunity to highlight the relevance of today’s scriptures to this urgent issue of today. This lightly edited text of my homily for today is my effort to address this need. — SDG

“It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” Did Jesus really say that? Did he really call Canaanites — Gentiles, non-Jews — “dogs”? This is one of those sayings of Jesus you probably won’t find on greeting cards in Catholic catalogues.

If it were anyone else talking, we might think it sounded racist. Comparing groups of people to animals can be a way of dehumanizing them, usually to justify discrimination or worse. “Dogs” is what leaders in Darfur call the non-Arab African population that’s being slaughtered right now. In Rwanda the Hutus called the Tutsis “cockroaches” for years before they started killing them.

The driver of the van in Barcelona who killed 14 people and injured dozens may have thought of the people he was driving into as animals. Or the young neo-Nazi in Charlottesville driving the car that killed that 32-year-old woman, Heather Heyer.

In the Bible, dogs are usually wild animals: pack hunters or scavengers. They’re unclean; they eat garbage, carcasses, even blood. For many Jews, that’s what the Gentile nations were. Unclean. Violent predators attacking Israel from all sides. Scavengers living on corruption: idolatry and immoral behavior.

But Jesus comes, ultimately, to change all that: to unite Jews and Gentiles. In fact, as harshly as Jesus seems to speak to this Gentile woman, elsewhere he outrages his fellow Jews with how positively he speaks about Gentiles.

One flock, one shepherd

Early in his ministry, in the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus reminds his neighbors of two Old Testament stories, about the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the leper. The widow of Zarephath’s life was saved thanks to the prophet Elijah and the miracle of the flour and oil that never ran out, and Naaman’s leprosy was cured thanks to the prophet Elisha.

And Jesus’ point was that neither of these people were Jewish. Naaman was Syrian and the widow of Zarephath was Phoenecian. And the woman Jesus is talking to is sort of both: She’s Syrophoenician. So Jesus has already told his own countrymen that God’s grace comes to people just like this woman, sometimes before it comes to Jews! (And they tried to kill him!)

Jesus says he was sent to the lost sheep of Israel, but he also says in John’s Gospel, “I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd.”

These other sheep are Gentiles, and while Jesus himself wasn’t sent to them, he sent his apostles to make disciples of all nations, Jews and Gentiles.

God’s plan to unite the human race

And this was always God’s plan, as we see in all of today’s readings.

Isaiah tells us that God’s house will be a house of prayer for all peoples — all nations, not just Jews. “Oh God, let all the nations praise you,” the psalmist sings — Gentiles as well as Jews. Saint Paul tells us that Gentiles who once disobeyed God have now received mercy while the Jews, God’s chosen people, have largely rejected Christ — but God’s plan is ultimately to have mercy on all, Jews and Gentiles.

The human race is one family, and we are all brothers and sisters. There’s a special sense in which Christians are brothers and sisters in Christ, but even those who aren’t Christians are still our brothers and sisters, members of one human family — whether we’re Christians or Jews or atheists or Muslims.

Saint Paul writes in Ephesians that Jesus has made Jews and Gentiles “one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility.” And not just that dividing wall, but all dividing walls, all tribal boundaries separating us and them. To do away with every form of tribalism or prejudice or racism. So every form of tribalism or prejudice or racism is the opposite of the gospel of Christ. This isn’t politics. It’s the gospel.

For Christians, Saint Paul writes in Galatians, “there is neither Jew nor Greek…slave nor free…male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Neither Jew nor Greek, neither black nor white nor Asian nor Indian nor Hispanic or Latino; neither rich nor poor, nor old nor young, nor citizen nor immigrant.

Knowing vs. real understanding and transformation

We know this, but there’s a difference between knowing and really taking it in and being transformed by it. How many Christian slave owners in the past went to church on Sunday and heard those words about “neither slave nor free” and then beat their slaves on Monday? How many Christian men hear the words “neither male nor female” but don’t really treat women as equals?

Even after slavery was abolished in this country, Christians continued to live in a world that some of us are old enough to remember where people of color couldn’t sit at the same lunch counter or drink from the same water fountain, use the same restrooms or attend the same schools as whites.

Segregation even existed in Catholic parishes, God forgive us. Even if people of color attended the same parishes as white people, they might have to sit separately and receive communion after white parishioners.

“Too often the Church in our country has been for many a ‘white Church,’ a racist institution.” Those aren’t my words. That’s the teaching of the American bishops from a pastoral letter on racism from 1979. The bishops go on to say:

Racism is not merely one sin among many; it is a radical evil that divides the human family and denies the new creation of a redeemed world. To struggle against it demands an equally radical transformation, in our own minds and hearts as well as in the structure of our society.

How far we still have to go

That was almost 40 years ago, and thank God we’ve made a lot of progress since then. Thank God that when I look around our parish, I don’t see a “white church.” And thank God that the Church, despite the failings of her members, has played an important role in resisting racism from the days of slavery to today. Resisting racism isn’t politics, it’s the gospel.

But last weekend in Charlottesville is a dramatic reminder (if we needed reminding!) that these attitudes are far from past. Last week Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia called racism a “a poison of the soul…the ugly, original sin of our country, an illness that has never fully healed.”

It’s not enough to be outraged. Archbishop Chaput went on:

If we want a different kind of country in the future, we need to start today with a conversion in our own hearts, and an insistence on the same in others.

Some of us may balk at those words. A conversion in our own hearts? What do I need conversion for? I’m not racist. I’m not a neo-Nazi or a Klansman. I hate racism.

You know where conversion starts? Resisting that defensive reaction — that conviction that I am a good person and therefore I don’t need to change. That might be the biggest and most stubborn obstacles to God’s grace transforming sinners and society we face today.

Just because we’re good people doesn’t mean we don’t have blind spots, or that we’re immune to the poisons infecting our culture or subculture, including more subtle forms of racism that persist today. The bishops’ pastoral letter says that racism

permeates our society’s structures and resides in the hearts of many among the majority. Because it is less blatant, this subtle form of racism is in some respects even more dangerous — harder to combat and easier to ignore.

Something that permeates the structures of society, that’s part of the culture we live in, can be practically invisible to us.

Fuller understanding to owning the problem

“I’m not racist, I’m colorblind,” some say. That may sound enlightened, but think about it. If you’re colorblind, you’re blind to racial discrimination. If you were colorblind in 1955, you could be on a bus where all the black people were sitting in the back and you wouldn’t notice. And you’ll be just as blind today to more subtle forms of racism all around you.

What we need, according to a 2016 document from the U.S. bishops’ Domestic Social Justice office, is a “fuller understanding and acknowledgement of the lived reality of people and communities of color.”

In other words, you don’t know what you don’t know. Many people who don’t experience racism assume that it’s largely a thing of the past because they’ve only talked about it with other people who don’t experience it. It’s amazing what a profound step toward healing it can be just to listen to someone different from you, to hear their side.

And then, as we grow in awareness of the problem, we need to own it. It’s not someone else’s problem. It’s my problem. It’s your problem. My neighbor who hasn’t yet recognized the scope of the problem — that’s my problem. “A conversion in our own hearts and an insistence on the same in others,” Archbishop Chaput said.

We must reject hatred and violence. Even hatred and violence toward haters, even toward Nazis. When someone hates you, it’s the easiest thing in the world to hate them back. This is the collateral damage of racist hatred: the temptation to hate the racist. “Punch Nazis,” a lot of people are saying today. Martin Luther King, Jr. was onto something when he said darkness can’t drive out darkness, and hate can’t drive out hate. Only the light of love can drive out the darkness of hatred. We must love and forgive even people who drive vehicles into crowds.

This is not politics. This is the gospel of Jesus Christ. God give us the grace to embrace it fully, to be transformed by it, and through it transform our communities and our world.

Ivan Aivazovsky, “Walking on Water,” ca. 1890

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