Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Sin of Racism (Mid-week Message)

Norman Rockwell, "The Problem We All Live With", 1963. Oil on canvas, 36” x 58”. 
Illustration for "Look," January 14, 1964. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections. ©NRELC, Niles, IL.

The Sin of Racism
Fr. Tony’s Mid-week Message
August 16, 2017

“Take away from me the voice of your songs
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
And righteousness like an everflowing stream” (Amos 5:23-24).

The Church teaches clearly that racism is sin.  White supremacy is sin.  Hatred of Jews and of foreigners is sin.  Oppression of women is sin.  Hatred of gays and oppression of them is sin.  Privilege and unfair discrimination are sin.  In recent days, we have heard voices in our nation that have said somehow that these are not sin, but something needed to preserve the nation.  We have heard some say, while reluctantly confessing racism is wrong, that fighting against it is equally wrong. 

When we talk about things that are controversial or that trigger emotions, it is all the more important to be very clear in our use of language.  People often confuse and conflate “prejudice,” “discrimination,” and “racism,” but these words refer to very distinct, though related ideas.   “Prejudice” is a judgment or opinion about others made before all the facts are known, often unfairly applying stereotypes or caricatures of groups to individuals based on some label or group identity.    “Discrimination” simply means making a distinction, but in this context means making an unfair distinction, usually an action depriving a person of their commonly held human or civil rights.  “Racism” is the systematic oppression or exclusion of one group of people based on race, national origin, or skin color.  It is when those who enjoy a position of dominance use their power to discriminate on the basis of their prejudices. 

Imagine a weak person surrounded by strong bullies: he is on the ground on his back; they are all standing and kicking him.  This person, in desperation and self-defense, tries to use his feet to get the people around off of him.  Both the bullies and the person on his back are kicking.  But they are not doing the same thing at all, and there is no moral equivalence between them.   The difference is that one is from a position of privilege or power and is aimed at building or continuing oppression.  The other is from a position of the downtrodden, and simply seeks to escape oppression.   This does not mean that the downtrodden are free to practice violence.  As Jesus taught, those who live by the sword often die by the sword.  But it does means simply that we must not say it is the same as violence of the oppressor. 

This is why talking about “reverse racism” or equating the intentional violence of white supremacists and anti-Semites with efforts to resist such violence is so wrong.   The inability to see the difference is a mark of enjoying privilege and of having the system of oppression working on your side.  If a person sees a “Black Lives Matter” sign and sees it not as a statement that “Black lives matter too!” but rather as a “White lives don’t matter,” it is clear they are blinded by their privilege.  Again, these things are sins. 

This coming Sunday’s Gospel lesson includes Jesus’ revolutionary teaching that defilement and impurity does not stem from what we eat or drink (clear group identifiers in his culture), but from what we say and how we act.  “It is what comes out of the mouth that defiles, not what goes into it.” It also tells a story of Jesus trying to exclude a woman from blessing because she was not of the chosen people.  She gently reminds Jesus that dogs under the table, though excluded from the meal, get to lick up the crumbs fallen to the floor.  He hears her, marvels at her trust and faith, and then welcomes her to the banquet by healing her daughter. 

Jesus calls us to follow him in opening our hearts to those different from us, listening to them, and serving them.  There was nothing that made him quite so upset as the hypocrisy of people claiming righteousness, justice, and purity even as they ground others into the dirt.  He calls us to non-violently struggle against unfairness and crushing people under foot to maintain or reclaim our own group’s advantage.   

Grace and Peace. 
Fr. Tony+