The Racial Divide

Bishop Edward Braxton

Bishop Edward Braxton

I was speaking today with my friend, Franciscan Friar Ed Mundwiller and he called my attention to a document written by Bishop Edward Braxton of Belleville, Illinois, called The Racial Divide in the United States: A Reflection for the World Day of Peace 2015.  

First, let me say that I think Bishop Braxton is a brilliant man.  If you’re not from the midwest you may not be familiar with him, but I first met him when he was Auxiliary Bishop of Saint Louis.  The good Bishop is a rarity in the U S Catholic Church.  He’s one of just a handful of black Bishops.  He has his share of detractors, most likely because he is an African American and because he is extremely intelligent, a combination that’s not necessarily popular in our lily white Church.

Let’s be honest, racial prejudice is not unknown in our Church in spite of Jesus’ teachings against it.  His current assignment in Southern Illinois puts him in the heart of “white country”.  He points out in his letter that there is only one African American Catholic church in the whole diocese.

Given his background, this pastoral letter, dealing with the subject of race, is extremely even-handed.  He details the recent history of young Black men being killed by white members of law enforcement, but he does it in a way that doesn’t place blame or call for vengeance.  He outlines steps that we can all take to work toward a solution to our racial problems.

I’m not going to attempt to dissect the document, mostly because I know when someone is smarter than I am and there is no reason to think that I can add anything to what he’s said.   What I am going to do is urge you to read the document and draw your own conclusions.

He begins by asking his White readers to imagine ourselves in a Catholic church where all the statues are depicted as African Americans and most of the parishioners are African American as well.  Would we feel welcome in such a church?  I know I wouldn’t.

Infant of Prague

Statue of the Infant Jesus of Prague

Having said that, we have historical evidence that Jesus wasn’t Black.  On the other hand, He wasn’t European with light brown hair and blue eyes as He is most often depicted in our churches either.  We don’t know exactly what He looked like, but we know He was a Jew, as were Mary and Joseph.  He may have looked more like George Castanza.  We just don’t know.  In my church we have a great devotion to the Infant of Prague.  One look at the image of the Infant should cause all of us to say, “Wait a minute!  Is that what the Infant Jesus really looked like?”  I don’t think so.

Like I said, I’m not going to attempt to analyze the good Bishop’s letter or to point out the one or two minor points where I don’t agree with it.  Again, I urge you to take a look at the document.  It’s kind of long, about 25 pages.  It is very readable.    But it’s well worth your time, especially during Lent.  Read it.  Think about it.  Pray about it.  Then ask yourself what you might do in your corner of the world to effect change.  I think you’ll be glad you did.

Here’s the link again:  The Racial Divide in the United States: A Reflection for the World Day of Peace 2015.

 

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20th Sunday of Ordinary Time

The prophet Isiah lived in the 8th Century B. C., or about 800 years before Christ. Nearly 3,000 years ago he’s writing about racism. He writes that “foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, ministering to him, loving the name of the Lord, and becoming his servants” will be brought to the holy mountain. He says, speaking for the Lord, “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

 

Remember, the Jewish people didn’t play well with others. Foreigners were the enemy. But here’s Isiah telling the Jewish people that foreigners who join themselves to the Lord will enter the heavenly kingdom. This was pretty radical stuff and you can bet that a lot of people didn’t like it.

 

Then we have today’s Gospel, where a Canaanite woman asked Jesus to have pity on her and to heal her daughter. Jesus ignored her. Again, the Jews and the Gentiles hated each other. Jesus’ disciples came to him and said, “Send this foreigner away. She’s bothering us.”

 

What Jesus does next is surprising. He tells the woman that He’s been sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Do you think maybe He’s trying to teach the disciples a lesson? Maybe He wants them to see for themselves how wrong they are. He even calls the woman a “dog”. But this woman is no dummy. She says that even the dogs get to eat the scraps that fall from the table.

Finally, Jesus praises the woman for her faith and heals her daughter.

 

Then we have our second reading where Saint Paul is writing to the Romans who are gentiles. Keep in mind that on most Sundays, our readings aren’t in chronological order. The first reading is usually from the Old Testament. The second reading is taken from the New Testament, after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Then we have the Gospel which usually falls between the other two readings in time.

 

Because the Gospel is Jesus’ words, it deserves the place of prominence as the last of the three readings. It’s like when you go to a concert, the headline act comes on last. The opening acts get the audience ready for what’s to come. It’s not a great analogy, but I hope you get the idea.

 

Anyway, Paul’s job is to convert them to the gentile Romans to the new Christian faith. He tells them, “I glory in my ministry in order to make my race jealous and thus save some of them…..For God delivered all to disobedience, that he might have mercy upon all.” Like Isaiah, Paul is making a pretty radical statement. Again, the Jews and the gentiles hated each other. But here’s this new religion claiming that they’re all equal in God’s eyes.

 

See, racism isn’t new. Over the centuries, Jews have hated gentiles, then Muslims. There’s centuries-old animosity between the English and the Irish. And of course, today there’s the issue of black and white Americans.

 

The people who started this church were the victims of discrimination. When they came up the Mississippi River they weren’t allowed to settle in Saint Louis. Like the other immigrants, they were forced to locate outside the city limits. When word got out that the Bohemians were going to build this beautiful church, there were a lot of people who thought they couldn’t do it. Face it, a lot of people hoped they would fail. Who did these Bohunks think they were, anyway?

 

When my Irish ancestors arrived in America they were faced with help wanted signs that said, “No Irishmen need apply.” Newspaper editorial cartoons depicting Irish as monkeys were common. There’s even a term for anti-Irish, Hibernophobia. Here in Saint Louis, in 1854, the year our church was founded, there were anti-Irish riots.

 

You may not be aware of it, but there are people who hate us because we’re Catholic. Because Saint Louis is a fairly Catholic town, after all it was named after a Catholic saint, we don’t see as much of it as you might in other places, but believe me it’s there. I was shocked by some of the literature that was handed out here during Pope John Paul’s visit. It was pretty bad. Even our local media have an anti-Catholic bias that’s hard to overlook. You may not realize it, but every one of us has suffered some form of discrimination because of our faith.

 

We all have prejudices, some of us more than others, but we all have them. It’s only human nature for us to want to be around people like ourselves. But, that’s no excuse for hating someone just because they look different than we do, because they worship differently than we do, or because they have different political opinions than we do. There’s just too much hate in the world.

 

Muslims and Jews hate each other. Blacks and whites hate each other. Democrats hate Republicans and vice versa, so much so that nothing ever gets done.

 

You’ve probably figured out by now that what I’m leading up to is the situation in Ferguson. I have no idea what happened in the confrontation between Michael Brown and the police officer who shot him. Nobody knows except the people actually involved. We have to trust the investigators who are trying to figure it all out.

 

What we do know is that there’s a tremendous amount of racial tension in Saint Louis and all over America. Sadly, it seems to be getting worse. The thing is, the government isn’t going to solve the problem. Maybe it can’t be solved considering that Isaiah wrote about it 3,000 years ago. But God calls us to love one another. That doesn’t mean that we have to hang out with people who make us uncomfortable, but it does mean that we shouldn’t be so antagonistic to each other.

 

I’m sure you’ve noticed that most of the people who’ve been trying to diffuse the situation in North County are ministers; black ministers, white ministers, Catholics and protestants, including our own Archbishop Carlson. With the exception of a few misguided souls who think that they’re above the law and entitled to just take the things that they want, nobody wants to see people get hurt. Nobody wants to see violence in the streets. People in North County, and all over the country for that matter, just want to live their lives in peace.

 

Jesus used the Canaananite woman to show the disciples how wrong they were to dismiss her just because she was different from them. Isiah said that the kingdom of heaven was for all. Saint Paul risked his life to take the new faith to the gentiles, even though he was Jewish himself. God is love. He doesn’t want to see His creation destroy itself with hate.

 

So, what can we do? The biggest thing we can do is to pray. We should pray for those who are victims of discrimination, whether it’s racial, religious, or philosophical. Churches all over the area have been holding special prayer services during the last few days. And, guess what? It’s working. Things are calming down. The violence has subsided. But until every one of us, black, white, or whatever, starts looking at others as God’s creatures, there will always be an undercurrent of hate and distrust.

 

We should also pray that God opens our own hearts to those who are different from us. Of course we have to use common sense and be vigilant for our own safety, but we have to accept the fact that just because someone looks different from us, it doesn’t mean they’re a danger. We all want the same things; peace, safety, a loving family, food on the table and a roof over our heads. We all want to live in a world where violence is a thing of the past. Will it ever happen? I don’t know. But I can sure pray for it and work for it. So can you.

PRAY FOR PEACE!