When I was a kid, the New York City neighborhood in which my family had lived ever since my grandparents immigrated from Europe underwent a racial and ethnic shift. Eventually, when I was in high school, we were able to move out of our decrepit tenement to newly built public housing in another neighborhood. A couple of evenings before our move, there was a knock on our apartment door. It was a family that lived down the block, members of the now dominant Hispanic group. They did not know us but had heard that we were leaving the neighborhood and before we left, they wanted their children to see the last family on the block that spoke English at home. My parents invited them in. After they left, we all joked about being exhibits at the Bronx Zoo. A decade or so earlier than that, when the changeover was just beginning, I had another experience that I cannot and must not forget. I suppose I was about five years old, since I did not yet know how to read, but was old enough to be out on my own. Friends and I were headed into one of the local playgrounds when a group of older boys stopped us. It was a tight-knit neighborhood, so I recognized them, and they knew me. “See this sign? It says ‘No (two racial and ethnic slurs) allowed.’ Billy, you can go in, but you (ethnic slurs) can’t.”
What was I to do? They were big boys; I was a runt. They were the children of people who had grown up with my parents. They were “my kind of people.” I suspected that the sign did not say any such thing, but I still did not know my ABCs. (When I eventually learned to read, I checked and found that the sign was on a police call box.) Throughout my life, out of cowardice, thoughtlessness, selfishness, expedience, indifference, or plain stupidity I have done many things of which I am rightly ashamed. But I can at least find comfort in the fact that I was a better boy than I am a man. “I’ll stay with my friends.” The threat to Catholics’ faith in God’s creation of the universe does not come from scientists whose research contradicts the two creation stories in Genesis. That book and the whole Bible is about theology, not biology. At least as far back as St. Augustine in the fifth century we Catholics have been expected to be open to new knowledge that modifies or supplants any literal understanding of what we find in that book. We would never have the sort of mural I once saw in a fundamentalist Protestant chapel that showed a stegosaurus in Noah’s ark. (Shouldn’t there have been two? Is that the reason that, apart from birds, dinosaurs are extinct?) The theological message of the creation is that the world is a gift from God – the whole world, including human beings, all human beings. The story does not claim that different races were created separately. We are all, as the animal characters in C.S. Lewis’ children’s stories call us, sons and daughters of Eve. Our DNA tells us that there is only one race, the human race, and faith tell us that we are made in the image of God. Christians should be at the forefront of opposition to anything that makes superficial differences of appearance, language, nationality, religion, gender identity, age, physical or mental condition, education or anything else a justification for abusing, oppressing, and even killing people who, whether we like it or not or find it convenient or not, are our sisters and brothers. To do otherwise is to deny the truth of Genesis, the truth of creation. It is a terrible sin that we commit as individuals, institute in our social structures, and instill in our children. Around the world, sparked by yet another killing by American police of a man of African ancestry, people are demonstrating against racism. Their protests are not limited to the racism of whites against blacks, but all racism and exclusion. While their methods may not always be the best, we must not deny that the underlying impetus is the work of the Holy Spirit, challenging the world to better fidelity to the justice of the Reign of God. And where is the management of the Catholic Church in this? As usual, the statements of bishops and pastors are for the most part anodyne generalities: “Racism isn’t nice but be nice as you protest it.” An American archbishop not noted for any forceful, specific, and effective championing of the Church’s social justice teaching against attacks on the flesh and blood image of God in the Church or society has issued an attack on people who destroy bronze and stone images of historical racists and oppressors. When will bishops and other Church management become leaders, first confessing, then challenging the sin that attacks the image of God? When will they move beyond generalities and get involved in the battle against sin? When will we hear them saying in the face of evil, “I’ll stay with my friends”?
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