Well, somebody got the timing right: January 15 was designated by the OFM Franciscans of the English-speaking world as the annual Day of Prayer to End Racism. Landing on a Monday morning, I can only say, “Good timing!”
After the recent reporting of the president’s remarks about immigration, and the reaction from a variety of viewpoints, including political and religious leaders. The most honest of them branded our president as “racist” for remarks attributed to him and confirmed by those present.
It’s good to call out such remarks, no matter who voices them. But after the shock and repudiation of the president’s remarks wear off, there remains a deeper issue—systemic racism. And on the remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we have an opportunity to address that issue.
Some 25 years ago when I was helping to produce a video on Thomas Jefferson, race and slavery, one Southern historian we interviewed called slavery “the original sin” of America. That remark has stayed with me.
The historian was, of course, using the metaphor of “original sin” not in a theological sense, but to underscore how our country was born with racism as part of its fabric. I don’t know why white leaders–politicians or bishops or news commentators—shy away from this fact. If you were born into our culture, you are prone to that original sin. I speak here as someone from white society, of course, which is the only way I can. A black preacher would address this issue from a different point of view, perhaps.
The “original sin” of slavery means that racism touches each of us—black and white—who have grown up in this culture. It is possible that, on a given day, I might act in a racist manner myself. I have done so. I was taught to be racist by my grandmother, who warned me not to drink from a Coke bottle because “black people drank from it before you.” What else is a little boy to think?
“You’ve got to be carefully taught,” went the song in the musical South Pacific. And the society—white society—I was born into taught me to be a racist. But that doesn’t make me unredeemable. That was part of the message of hope brought to us by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He learned it in the Gospels. He declared:
I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.
And with Dr. King, we can profess: Thanks to the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, I have a way out! Thanks to the Lord’s grace, working with many great teachers, black and white, who confronted me and mentored me over the years, I can choose not to act in a racist way.
That gives me hope for our present-day situation. What people were careful taught, can be “unlearned.”. That is the good news of our Scriptures. Hear again what St. Paul tells the Romans and us:
Therefore, sin must not reign over your mortal bodies so that you obey their desires. …. For sin is not to have any power over you, since you are not under the law but under grace.
If I can share the life of Jesus, which draws me out of death, out of deadly choices, I can choose life. This is what we pray for today. This is what we must preach, and this is how we must act.