Racism is a sin. This summer, racism was on display in Charlottesville, Virginia. That’s when white supremacists carried torches in the streets, shouting racist and anti-Semitic chants. One white supremacist murderously drove his car through a crowd of counter-demonstrators, killing one person and injuring many others. Later, Bishop Terry Steib, S.V.D. (Bishop Emeritus of Memphis) reflected on this terrible event. He asked, “[W]ill this moment push each of us to eradicate the racism deeply hidden inside us? Or, will we simply allow our hatred, our prejudices, our biases, our bigotry to rule us?” In a Word (September 2017).
Racism is a sin
The U.S. bishops teach us that racism is a sin.
[It] divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of that family, and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father. Racism is the sin that says some human beings are inherently superior and others essentially inferior because of races. … [And it] mocks the words of Jesus: “Treat others the way you would have them treat you.” Indeed, racism is more than a disregard for the words of Jesus; it is a denial of the truth of the dignity of each human being revealed by the mystery of the Incarnation.
In the Mass, we thank God for the love he offers to every person
Christians believe that Jesus offers every person eternal life with God. In the Eucharistic Prayer, the Priest says that it is right and just to give God thanks through Christ our Lord. “For through him the holy exchange that restores our life has shone forth today in splendor: when our frailty is assumed by your Word not only does human mortality receive unending honor but by this wondrous union we, too, are made eternal.” Roman Missal, Preface III of the Nativity of the Lord.
There is no room in this offering of praise for distinguishing between people based on the color of their skin. Christ’s incarnation gives honor to all humans, not only white humans. He offers eternal life to all humans, not only white humans. Thus, racism is a sin because it denies God’s love for all people. Our worship of God is a communal action. In it, we join with our brothers and sisters to give God praise and thanksgiving.
The liturgy is gift and blessing for all
“In the liturgy, Christ speaks to each person and each community in their lived conditions.” Plenty Good Room (PGR) ¶ 12. For many years, “the Church in America, like most American institutions, tended to assume that European cultures were the only cultures and found it extremely difficult to imagine, much less value, cultures other than their own.” PGR ¶ 37. The Second Vatican Council, however, teaches: “Even in the liturgy the Church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters that do not affect the faith or the good of the whole community; rather, the Church respects and fosters the genius and talents of the various races and peoples.” Sacrosanctum concilium (SC) ¶ 37.
This does not mean “abandon[ing] the rich liturgical and aesthetic traditions developed in Europe. What must happen, and indeed what is already happening, is that the Church welcomes and strongly encourages the equally rich and diverse traditions of all peoples in every time and in every place.” PGR ¶ 42. The Church calls this inculturation. “The term inculturation … designate[s] a double movement: By inculturation, the church makes the Gospel incarnate in different cultures and at the same time introduces peoples, together with their cultures, into her own community.” Varietates Legitimae ¶ 4.
All cultures bring their different geniuses to the table of the Lord
A variety of ethnic communities within the Catholic Church in the United States exhibit this double movement.
Simbang Gabi: Anticipating Christmas
For example, my Seattle parish participates in the Filipino celebration of Simbang Gabi. This is a novena of Advent Masses in which the community prayerfully anticipates Christmas Time. It begins with an entrance procession in which the participants carry hand-made stars, called parols.
The Filipino community shares this delightful and colorful Advent celebration with the rest of us. This preserves an important part of their ethnic heritage. It provides to the rest of the Church a new insight into the Incarnation of Christ.
African American sacred song: Celebrating liberation
The horrific experience of enslaved African Americans is without parallel. But out of this experience came a deep faith in the liberating will of God. For beautiful and stirring examples of this faith, one need look no further than African American spiritual music. The late Sister Thea Bowman, F.S.P.A., Ph.D. wrote:
Among African peoples, art is designed for use, that is to express a feeling or insight, to have an impact in the real world. Song is not an object to be admired so much as an instrument to teach, comfort, inspire, persuade, convince, and motivate. Music is chosen precisely for its effect upon the worshipping community. The aim is effective worship. Black sacred song is designed to move. It moves because depth of feeling gives it “spiritual power.”
The Gift of African American Sacred Song pp. 4-5. Who does not feel this power when singing songs such as “Motherless Child”, “Go Down Moses”, or “Were You There”?
More and more, we bring African American sacred song into our worship. For many of our African American brothers and sisters, this is an invaluable contribution to expressing their deep faith. And it gives the rest of us new eyes, and ears, to know the liberating truth of God’s love
Our Lady of Guadalupe: Mary is the Mother of all
In 1531, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego, an indigenous Mexican peasant. The feast day for Our Lady of Guadalupe is December 12. It holds special significance for the Mexican people, and for Hispanic and Latino people now living in the United States.
The Virgin of Guadalupe has dark skin. She reminds Hispanics and Latinos that she is their compassionate mother. In 1999 Saint Pope John Paul II named her Mother of the Americas. This reflects the widespread devotion to her across two continents.
Saint Kateri Tekakwitha: a saint for people of every tribe, tongue, and nation
Finally, Catholic liturgical tradition includes the canonization of saints. Saint Kateri Tekakwitha was part Algonquin and part Mohawk. Notably, she is the first Native American to be canonized. On October 21, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI canonized Saint Kateri at St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. North American Catholics celebrated her canonization with the sights and sounds of Native American culture.
you called the virgin, Saint Kateri Tekakwitha,
to shine among the Indian people
as an example of innocence of life.
Through her intercession,
may all people of every tribe, tongue, and nation,
having been gathered into your Church,
proclaim your greatness
in one song of praise.
We can and must eliminate the sin of racism
Racism continues to exist in our country, in our Church, and, and in many of us. On the About Me page of this site, I talk about my experience as a teen of seeing racism in the 1960s. I saw racism’s evil. Still, throughout my life, I have found vestiges of racism in myself. Racism is an evil that I must defeat in my heart and in my mind.
Carrying a parol during a Simbang Gabi Mass, we come together as God’s holy people. Feeling ourselves in the presence of Christ crucified, singing “Were You There”, we share God’s saving love. Asking Mary for comfort, we turn to the mother of both dark-skinned and light-skinned people. Looking to the saints as examples for life, we find ourselves face-to-face with indigenous holy men and women.
“[T]he liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the fount from which all the Church’s power flows.” SC ¶ 10. That being so, we must take the liturgy seriously. God loves each of us equally. If we do likewise, we step closer to the day when racism becomes a sin of the past.