By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
A story. Some time ago I had lunch with a black friend in a major city. I asked him what it was like when he first met the couple that informally adopted him by mentoring him after he aged out of foster care. He said something like, “During the first six months I was suspicious, because I had been burned many times before, but then I began to see they really cared about me.”
While he was speaking, a man approached and sat down at the table next to us. To my surprise, he pluckily chimed in saying, “Just get out of jail? You’ve got to do the time, not let the time do you!” He seemed to think he was being friendly, because he went on to try to impress us with his knowledge of rap artists.
Now, I don’t know what my friend had said to make this man think he was speaking about jail, but I could not help wondering whether it was his skin color, hair, clothing or the fact that he spoke about “six months” — in any case, I was shocked.
Another story, another side. I remember few things from my childhood. In fact, I can think of only three days from all my years at public elementary schools. On one of those days, when I was in fourth grade, my teacher asked the class to gather around as she showed us a picture. I remember it like yesterday: a black and white photo in which there were several white men in cowboy attire standing around a pile of buffalo carcasses.
My teacher told us that western settlers eradicated the buffalo and thus destroyed the livelihood of the Native Americans. Then she looked at us with an unforgettable intensity and said, “I am ashamed to be white.” I was 9 years old and shocked to hear my skin was shameful.
Does our culture have a problem with race? I think so, and I share these stories together to suggest that it is complex. I do not remember ever meeting someone who claimed one race is superior to another. Nevertheless, my stories tell me we have not yet arrived to Martin Luther King’s beautiful dream, where we are all no longer judged by the color of our skin but by the content of our character.
How do we get there? I don’t know, but I believe the road to racial harmony is paved with humility and faith.
King remains one of the most powerful figures in the civil rights movement, and he fought for equality by marching in peace – he unequivocally rejected the “descending spiral” of violence.
He believed in the power of Christ, who banishes “chariots” and all the instruments of war by marching into Zion, the capital, “humbly, and riding on a donkey” (cf. Zech 9:9-10; Mt 21:5). King, like Christ, met violence with “creative suffering” (as he called it). And he won over the conscience of a nation.
We need this long-suffering love today. Reading the news, I think there are at least two obstacles to that love: spiritual stagnation and toxic indignation.
Spiritual stagnation tempts us to focus on ourselves and to let the “professionals” (governments and charities) care for others. We boringly ignore the Christian call to spend our freedom giving life to others. Changing laws is not enough to heal the racial divide. We must befriend, work and sacrifice together for solidarity. God is speaking in every heart to show us how to build trust, strengthen the weak and thrive together. It begins with me, my neighbor and the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
On the other hand, toxic indignation tempts us to demonize others just to feel good about ourselves or to gain political power. We scapegoat: we pick our favorite sin to condemn, ignore our own, and then divide the world between the good and the evil. We absolve ourselves by an alliance with the Pharisee and pray, “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity!” (Lk 18:11). Despite the “beams” in our eyes, we permit ourselves to judge the hearts of others (Mt 7:3-5). The cloudier our vision, the more merciless we judge. This is wrong and unhelpful; it is certainly not social justice. Demonizing others who insist their complaints are political and not racial only sows further discord. Let us admit the complexity of our challenges. We will then find it easier to understand, teach and learn from each other.
Our country faces challenges. Let us cultivate the love that enables us to work together for real solutions. We have a mission. Wherever we walk in our world, let us remember, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Mt 5:9).
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.