To be a Christian is to be antiracist

The only way we’re going to succeed in the fight against racism is by imitating Jesus.

Dr. Jim Langley

Let’s talk about racism. A caveat to this article is that I am a white, straight, Christian male, and as such I have not had a lived experience of my opportunities, relationships, and whole life being limited simply because of the color of my skin. However, I can’t call myself a Catholic and avoid speaking up. Jesus’ second greatest commandment to love our neighbors as we love ourselves is critical to any Christian’s mission to overcome division, and as Christians, we need to continue standing up for our brothers and sisters who experience racism.

Christians should strive to meet people right where they are at and strive to show them just how much they are loved by God. There need not be any qualifiers of any kind; this should permeate literally every interaction you have with people. You should do it with your children, your coworkers, the checkout person at the store, and even people you really don’t like; everyone deserves to experience God’s boundless love. 

Something that makes this challenging is that our brains are wired to have prejudices. Our base wiring is very tribal; there is research that shows that our brains think in terms of groups of about 150 people. That makes it hard for us to mentally extend our tribes beyond small groups. Because of this, our brains are constantly scanning to see who fits into the tribe and who doesn’t. It is easy for our brains to do this regarding race, of course. If a person looks substantially different from us, then they probably are not in our tribe. But we do this all over the place – we have our tribes at work (are you in the group that agrees with the boss or are you not), and we even do this among our friends (this is part of the function of gossip), seeing if people are in your tribe and cutting out people who don’t fit. 

What’s crazy is that we extend this prejudicial dividing even to people who are in our own group. Think about this: if you are an American traveling in Europe and you run into a fellow American, it’s amazing how an instant camaraderie develops. You run into someone who you can say is “in your tribe” even though back in the good ole’ U.S.A., you probably would never hang out with that person in a million years! 

On the other hand, we divide our tribes even into little “microtribes.” You probably know a lot of people at church who share 90% of your values. You’re in the same parish, neighborhood, and school. Even so, it’s easy to find reasons to not associate with them: “That family is too conservative or that family is too liberal. They are friends with so and so, so we don’t hang out with them.”

We are all fighting against these internal prejudices all the time — prejudice is a universal human experience. As Christians, we are in a unique position to respond to this specific issue. A Gospel-centered approach turns tribalism on its head. If you think about Old Testament Jews, they were pretty darn tribal! They were constantly invading people living literally across the river, and they made the Samaritans total outcasts…so Jesus’ ministry is directly applicable to the racism battle we face today.

One beautiful thing Jesus did was that he was able to demonstrate to others that they were all of one family, one tribe, while at the same time he specifically acknowledged people’s specific differences. Jesus didn’t “whitewash” anyone. When he talked to Samaritans, he spoke to them as Samaritans, when he talked to the Romans, he spoke to them as Romans. He didn’t ignore differences, he honored them. 

The only way we’re going succeed against racism is by imitating Jesus. The fight isn’t just in society, it is against ourselves. Our tribal brains aren’t going away anytime soon. We have to bring down the systems that reinforce prejudice, but it starts by taking a deep look at our own prejudices. 

We have to remember that every single human soul is handcrafted by God. Our biological parents give us our genetic identity, but it is actually God Himself who forms our souls. If we have disdain for someone, it means we have disdain for one of God’s personal works of art!

If it is true that each soul is handcrafted by God, then we have to be intentional about honoring that fact. Truly, every one of our interactions with others should be directed at showing people just how much God loves them. Imagine what would happen if we all started doing this. We could sweep away so much of the pain that people feel and revolutionize racist institutions overnight. The hard thing is that it starts with us, and we can only do it one soul at a time; every color, every identity, every person, deserves to know how much God loves them. So maybe today, try an experiment. Be intentional about your interactions with others; people long for respect and kindness, but really it starts with just noticing them. When you’re in line at the check-out be sure to say the checker’s name. Make eye contact with people; smile at them. This makes people feel loved, and it also gradually reshapes our tribal brain. Fighting racism is the responsibility of every Catholic, and we have to take intentional action. Here are some starting points to consider:

Do your homework: We have no excuse to be ignorant of this topic. Racism exists – it disempowers and demeans the dignity of people all around us, every day. Take time to learn more about your own prejudices and privilege and stay plugged into the larger dialogue going on right now. Seek out books and other literature to read and continue educating yourself so you can think critically about the issue and cut through the politicized noise on the topic. 

Talk about it…and listen too: Avoiding our discomfort around racism only perpetuates it. Talk about it with your spouse, children, and friends. Open up to others and allow them to share themselves as well. Never underestimate the power of deeply listening to another’s experience; it brings healing and insight to both sides. We have to step out of our self-defined tribes and be apostles to people different from ourselves. This doesn’t have to be as overwhelming as it might feel. It can begin by befriending a more diverse group of people within your own parish.

Be fully pro-life: We can’t call ourselves “pro-life” and passively allow racism to continue. Catholics must honor both the life and dignity of all people. While we can’t help having prejudice, racism is sinful. Antiracism should be reflected in how we participate in civic life and what institutions we support in addition to how we treat others. 

We have huge institutions to tackle, but it’s not going to happen if we don’t do it brick by brick. 

COMING UP: Five tips for reading the Word of God

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Sunday, Jan. 24 marks “The Sunday of the Word of God,” instituted by Pope Francis last year and to be held every year on the third Sunday of Ordinary Time. This may strike us as odd, as we might think to ourselves, “but isn’t the Bible read at every Sunday Mass?” Certainly so. Not only that, but every daily celebration of the Mass proclaims the Word of God.

What’s different about “The Sunday of the Word of God,” however, is that it’s not just about hearing the Bible read on Sundays. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith notes, it “reminds us, pastors and faithful alike, of the importance and value of Sacred Scripture for the Christian life, as well as the relationship between the word of God and the liturgy: ‘As Christians, we are one people, making our pilgrim way through history, sustained by the Lord, present in our midst, who speaks to us and nourishes us. A day devoted to the Bible should not be seen as a yearly event but rather a year-long event, for we urgently need to grow in our knowledge and love of the Scriptures and of the Risen Lord, who continues to speak his word and to break bread in the community of believers. For this reason, we need to develop a closer relationship with Sacred Scripture; otherwise, our hearts will remain cold and our eyes shut, inflicted as we are by so many forms of blindness.’” This gives us a wonderful opportunity to pause and reflect on the Sacred Scriptures. 

There are two means by which God Divinely reveals truths to us: Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. As such, the Bible is not merely a human document, nor simply a collection of amazing stories that call us to do heroic things, or a collection of wise sayings. Rather, the Scriptures are “inspired.” St. Paul has a beautiful teaching about this in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 – “All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice, That the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.” By “inspired” we mean that God is the principle author of the Bible.

Certainly there were different men who physically wrote the words on the papyrus. Yet these men were influenced by the grace of inspiration to write, not just their own words, but God’s. And so the Scriptures are a mysterious congruence of Divine and human authorship – the human writers capably made full use of language, literary forms, creativity, and writing style to communicate their message, yet they did so under the grace of Divine inspiration. This means that while they wrote in such a way that they had full freedom to write as they wanted, what they wrote was also, “to a tee,” exactly as God wanted written. God is the principle author of the Bible, the human author its secondary writer. Such inspiration is how, despite the various human authors, events, and historical and cultural contexts behind the 73 Biblical texts, we’re still left with only one story since they all have the same one primary author. 

Given that the Bible is the written word of God, I’d like to offer a few “tips” for reading the Bible, since it certainly cannot be read like any other text. 

1. Pray! We must pray before opening the Scriptures for enlightenment from God. We must pray after reading in thanksgiving to God. And we must pray throughout reading in order to encounter God in Scripture and apply it to our life. Of course, the tried and trusted practice of praying the Scriptures is Lectio DivinaThe Ladder of Monks by Guigo II is the ancient resource for Lectio Divina, while a helpful book to get you started is Dr. Tim Gray’s Praying Scripture for a Change: An Introduction to Lectio Divina

2. Remember that you are in no rush. The important point is encountering Christ in the Scriptures, not racing through them. Speed reading isn’t reading, after all, much less when applied to the Word of God. It’s not about getting through the Bible, but encountering Christ therein. That may be a few chapters at a time or may actually be only one verse that you pray with. Whatever the case, slow and steady wins the race, as Aesop reminds us. 

3. We have to read the Scriptures regularly, daily if possible. We read in Psalm 1, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Meditating day and night. A good way to start would be to read one Psalm a night as a part of your nightly prayer. Ever better would be praying that one Psalm with your spouse, if married. 

4. Do not worry about starting on page one and reading from cover to cover. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and lost in the text. We all know about Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Moses and the Plagues. But how many understand animal sacrifices in the Book of Leviticus or its purity laws? It’s very easy, starting from page one and flipping straight through, to lose sight of the story of salvation history. Start from page one if you’d like, but don’t feel like you can’t start with whatever book (especially the Gospels) that you find yourself drawn to. 

5. Come take classes with the Denver Catholic Biblical School! In chapter eight of the Book of Acts, we read of an Ethiopian Eunuch reading from the Prophet Isaiah. When the Deacon Philip asks him if he understands what he’s reading, the Eunuch responds, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” This is what we at the Biblical School are here for – to guide you in your encounter with Christ in the Sacred Scriptures. We’re in the middle of our Scripture classes already for this year, but we always start new classes in the fall every September. And in the meantime, we have plenty of things still coming for this year – a class on Catholic Social Teaching that begins on Jan. 27 a lecture series for Lent that starts on March 1, a conference on the Sacred Heart being offered on May 15 and Aug. 28, and a six-week class on St. Joseph in the summer starting in July. We have something for everybody – just reach out to us!