By Father Robert Gregorio
I knew a rational, accomplished man — let’s call him Bill — who had an illogical contempt for African-Americans. I asked him why, and he emotionally said that a long time ago he was driving and saw a black man on the roadside with his car hood up. It was snowing, so he thought he would pull over and help. To his astonishment, the man attacked him, and not because he feared Bill but because it was a ruse to hold someone up.
I should have thought to ask him if he would hold in contempt all women if his assailant had been a woman, unlikely as that would have been. Or what if it were an Italian-American like me, or a Swede or an Eskimo? Would he have so written off the whole subset, stereotyping every member of the group because of the one? No doubt he would have said no. Yet he had no problem years after, mocking and joking with racist humor, tearing down blacks as inferior.
Bill was a decent man who attended church every Sunday and went on an annual retreat. He was respected in the community and in his line of work. But all his life he carried this needless burden of bigotry against a whole class of people, many of whom had helped him or done him good. If he noticed the help, he would dismiss it as exceptions and think nothing of it. The Gospel reading of the Good Samaritan had no effect. It did not occur to him to apply it to himself.
When we are very young, and if we have good parents, they see to it that we learn our ethics. The baptismal ritual calls them “the first and best teachers in the ways of the faith.” Psychologists explain that children quite normally have a pleasure-pain way of thinking about right and wrong: do good and get rewarded, do bad and get punished. Parenthood has a lot of this, they tell me. It’s not very sophisticated.
Later, we should mature into another, better kind of ethical thinking. We choose the right not out of fear of being sat in the corner. We choose it because it makes for better relations with those around us. But the really best ethical evolution is coming to see how our daily behavior affects our relationships with a God whom we have found to be a loving Father and with a brother whom we feel we owe for having heroically died on a cross for us, all unasked.
Modern studies show how teens and twenties are bailing out of religious membership — Catholic and other —by the boatload. One of the main reasons is their rejection of an authoritarian, law-obsessed God. Their relationship with God never got past the childhood fear of punishment. They never came to discover Jesus as anyone other than a miracle-working historical figure who founded a church characterized by a lot of rules made by celibate men.
While racism is a sin as serious as any other mortal one, the emphasis should be on how each person of another race is brother and sister to me, just the way our Father created them to be. The “our” in Our Father tells us the wish of the Lord that we see each other as equals. Samaritans were the African-Americans of the Lord’s land, so he purposely used them to exemplify how wrong it is to prejudge anyone as automatically less than me. When Jesus quotes the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus to say which of the Torah’s 613 prescriptions was the most important, he broke new ground by putting on the same par our love of God with our love of neighbor. As St. John says, we can’t say we love God if we hate our neighbor. The second cancels out the first. And there is no hatred like that of racism.
So why go to church at all and affect a Christian discipleship if we righteously cling to a contempt for a whole race or class of people? It becomes a charade, a bit of pious fraud. Better to drop the fakery. People of middle age years do just that, but by quitting church, rather than seeing racism as the counter-Christian thing it is, the sabotage of our very training and incorporation into Christ and his church through the sacraments of initiation, something else good parents see to accomplishing.