Lifting the huge and sinful burden of racism

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In an age of individual rights and privileges, institutions are suspect. In fact, they are blamed for being stodgy stumbling blocks for individuals seeking self-fulfillment and personal advancement. They are seen to have cumbersome rules that impede progress, showing sloth-like speed. So allow me to describe an institution within a larger institution. Double trouble? But I can claim after many years within both, they get things done. This is because by organizing people into groups, 10 men together can lift the capacity of 11, as an old labor union slogan says. Ten individuals working together can accomplish what single persons cannot.

Within the diocese there has long been a Racial Justice Commission. Bodies like this often suffer the accusation of socialism, meant in this case to be the intrusion of a group into the private reserve of people. If we go by Webster’s definition, this is “a political and economic theory of social organization based on collective or governmental ownership and democratic management of the essential means for the production and distribution of goods.”

For over a century the church has opposed confiscation of private property when socialism invoked a right unjustified by the courts. Eminent domain is the justified right of a government to condemn land for the building of a road that would serve the common good, but always compensating fairly the owner of the land. This is a far cry from China, a collectivist state that did not hesitate to dictate how many children a couple could have, let alone build the immense Three Gorges Dam. The contrast between the two uses of the term should be obvious. Sloppy use of the adjective “socialist” is merely a repaint of Joseph McCarthy’s tarring of left-leaning opponents.

Groups like the Racial Justice Commission are often mischaracterized as socialist when they object to racism, invoking Jesus’ great commandment to love the neighbor and not discriminate against her or him because of a racial or other difference.  The devious strategy is to repeatedly fix in the public’s mind that this group or person is socialist, making them unworthy of the listener’s attention.  Sen. McCarthy never produced enough proof to convict any of the scores of State Department workers he flamboyantly accused, yet he succeeded in getting many of them fired. People were not careful enough to apply the definition of communism or socialism or collectivism to the intended target. Their partisanship blinded them. 

The RJC’s mission statement directs it to be a catalyst “for identifying and eradicating the sin of racism, both personal and structural, from our diocese and society. We encourage our Church to focus on God’s love for each person. Responding to God’s call for each of us to love one another, we foster appreciation for the ethnic and cultural differences within our church.” Racism is a sin? After hearing confessions for fifty years, I attest that this is news to some. And since it hurts for so long and it goes so deeply, it is hardly venial.

Further, the RJC’s vision statement says it “strives to be an agent of transformation that explicitly and consistently affirms ‘our God-given dignity of those called to be children of the same Father’ (the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops). Rooted in the Gospel vision and Catholic social teaching that all races are equal, we encourage the Diocese of Camden to embrace the human right to be free from racial domination.”

When racial tensions in our Catholic high schools reached the local daily papers, the RJC has offered help. When teachers there wanted guidance, the RJC responded. When parish mergers were made necessary by declining numbers of priests and sinking collections, new, integrated parishes resulted. By such slow and small steps do we come to conform to the words we so often say, “Our Father” in what we call the Lord’s Prayer.

Jesus, born a Jew in westernmost Asia, within walking distance of Africa, wanted us to relate to God as siblings, he gave no monopoly to European or American members. He rejected any racial superiority —“Whatsoever you do to the least. . .”, — not even for those gifted with financial advantage, some of which came from 19th-century slavery.

With all their faults, we rely on institutions because we are social beings. Lifting the huge and sinful burden of racism demands everyone lifting together.