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Racism is a sin

“Racism is a sin that constitutes a serious offense against God,” to quote Pope St. John Paul II. (Aug. 26, 2001)

Abraham Lincoln on March 4, 1865, shortly before his assassination, made this comment about the effects of slavery on our country:

"If God wills that [the civil war] continue, until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn by the sword, as it was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"

The effects of sin and evil are not easily erased.

While baptism has freed us from the original sin of Adam and Eve – that original disobedience to God, that original making of ourselves little gods – nonetheless, baptism “has not abolished the frailty and weakness of human nature, nor the inclination to sin.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1425) Indeed, St. Paul affirms that “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit.” (Gal 5:17) In other words, some of the effects of original sin remain in each of us. This fact calls us to a daily openness to and cooperation with God’s grace so that the Spirit might triumph in our lives.

By analogy, our country has an original sin or sins, which still affect us. The enslavement of so many African Americans and the near genocide (whether intentional or not) of the Native Americans have left a mark on our national soul, which then manifested itself in other acts against racial minorities such as the internment of Japanese during World War II. True, the events have passed, but the effects of such treatment of people of color remain. These affect not only their descendants but all members of this nation. These are the effects of racism, again, both intentional and not intentional.

The catechism (#1935) makes clear: “The equality of men rests essentially on their dignity as persons and the rights that flow from it …” That is why one of the key principles of Catholic social teaching is solidarity with all people.

Yet, as Professor Eddie Glaude of Princeton has noted, “We have a long history of prematurely proclaiming that our race problems are long over.” (Democracy in Black, p. 40) And we don’t often recall these words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in August of 1967: “The vast majority of white Americans are racists, either consciously or unconsciously.” Do we hear the pain behind these statements?

What, then, are we to do? First of all, we do need to see the human dignity of each and every person, something that we Catholics proclaim all the time and something that is always a challenge to live out.

Second, we must not forget our past. I love history, but our history is not entirely beautiful. And we forget our past, the whole past, to our peril. That is why it is important to know the stories not just of the winners but also of the vanquished or those who have been oppressed along the way.

Third, we need to be intentional about examining our habits, both individual and societal. We do and say many things which we really don’t think about, which are habitual. Sometimes they can hurt and we must be aware of that. Certainly, there are times when the truth may cause some people pain; so then we must speak the truth in love, but at least be aware that it does cause pain.

Fourth, we need to listen to one another and share our stories with each other. I know that people of color are more than willing to share with the rest of us their experiences; are we willing to be intentional about hearing those accounts? I have often heard the phrase that we should develop color-blindness. But to deny our senses is impossible and is not the correct path for us to follow. Rather, we need to develop what Pope St. John Paul II often spoke of as the “exchange of gifts.” We need to be enriched by one another, seeing each person as a treasured gift from God to us. We are all sinners. We know that. That is why we love the sinner and not the sin. That is how God loves each of us.

My sisters and brothers, racism is a sin. Let us examine our consciences to see whether we are committing this sin, which is a fight against the Spirit of God.