The Weed of Racism
As part of my day job, I spend quite a bit of time on the road, visiting operations that the company I work for has in Camden and Darlington. An app that I've discovered that helps on the long car trips is called LibraVox, which are audio books read by volunteers for public domain works. Since all works must be past their copyright, this means that most are over one hundred years old, when US copyrights usually expire. There are some very old works, such as translations of Church Doctors such as Augustine and Aquinas, but also modern writers such as G. K. Chesterton, to name some Catholic authors. I tell this to explain why I was recently listening to a book that I'd not read since I was in high school, one that has several lessons for this weekend.
Mark Twain was a master of exposing hypocrisy in society. His classic of American literature, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, contains many lessons which are still relevant today. In one story in the eighteenth chapter, Huck finds himself in a small town in the Mississippi Delta area where the two major families of that town are feuding with one another, a kind of Hatfield/McCoy affair. The only time that the two families came together was at the town church, where there was an uneasy truce for the length of the weekly Sunday service. Huck, who is the brutally honest narrator of the book and best described as agnostic, detailed his reaction to the service, and more specifically the sermon: “It was pretty ornery preaching—all about brotherly love, and such-like tiresomeness; but everybody said it was a good sermon, and they all talked it over going home, and had such a powerful lot to say about faith and good works and free grace and preforeordestination, and I don’t know what all, that it did seem to me to be one of the roughest Sundays I had run across yet” [The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, chapter 18].
Twain then details how, that very afternoon, a Romeo-and-Juliet-type affair between a girl of one family and a boy of the other results in six or seven people from both families being killed. This is an example of Twain's greatest rhetorical weapon that he wields with unstinting accuracy: juxtaposing a scene where people listen to the word of God as proclaimed and preached in a church, and saying all of the correct things about it afterward that propriety demands, and then immediately disregarding everything they just heard and continuing with their immoral behavior. Twain was a keen observer of people's ability to say one thing and do another, to listen to something and to hear what they wanted to hear after passing it through a filter meant to confirm themselves in their already held beliefs.
Jesus knew this propensity in people, and this is one of the messages that He is sending to us today in the Gospel reading. He knew that He could teach any number of things about God and His expectations on how we should act, each one a seed that was looking for fertile ground in us in which it would grow. We could reject it out of hand, the seed falling on the hard ground of the walkway, but that probably doesn't describe most of you here, since you've at least come to listen to the Word of God. We can listen to it, but not understand it and where it will fail to take root in the rocky ground our lives, usually because we don't take the time to really study and contemplate it and really examine how it should cause real change in what we do. We can also hear it, but let the cares of the world, the weeds, choke it off. Twain's little town was the proverbial Southern briar patch.
Another aspect of the Gospel today is the question of how bountiful the harvest will be. It is not like no seed has taken root within us: many seeds from Christ's teachings have taken root in all of us. However, is our harvest a hundred-fold, or just thirty-fold? This is why our Mass always includes the Liturgy of the Word and a homily that explains it and hopefully brings the relevance of its teachings into our everyday lives. We should never stop growing and learning, becoming more like Christ.
With all that is going on in the world and our country right now, I think we have a learning opportunity to apply the lessons of today's Gospel. Since the events, sometimes violent, in recent weeks have dug up the ground here, maybe this is the opportunity that people of good will to tend the seeds of Christian teaching to come of out this better than we were before it. The Catholic Church has a proud history of standing up for the God-given dignity of the human person, from conception to natural death. We cannot argue that all life is precious, deserving of human dignity and respect, and then not spend some time looking at the treatment of others which affect this dignity as humans at all stages of life, and therefore we must all take a hard look at the sin of racism.
I would challenge you today to look for weeds that may be choking off the seeds that Christ has planted in you of which you may be unaware. There is a type of sin known as social sin. Social sin is a sin that is so widely practiced within a society that people, growing up and seeing it from their infancy, become unaware of it and practice it without thinking, as the way that the world is. Slavery is a good example of this, which is the second lesson Mr. Twain can help us with today. Although he wrote Huckleberry Finn almost forty years after the civil war, he sets it in the time before it, when slavery was legal. Throughout the book, Huck is confronted with the cruel treatment of the slave Jim. He is conflicted by what he sees, since it doesn't seem right given his own vicious treatment at the hands his drunken father, but usually does nothing about it because the law condones it and because people who are respected in the community engage in it. This, then, is social sin: sin which we either do not see at all because we become used to it, or when we do start to question it we have society either telling us or showing us that it is okay.
We have come a long way historically on the issue of racism. The social sins of slavery and Jim Crow laws have been dismantled. But having said that we've come far does not mean that we've arrived. If you believe that we have achieved perfect love of neighbor as required by Christ, I think you may be underestimating the harvest of the seeds that Christ has sown in us, and that we all are sinners and should strive to become even better. If you feel that this is not possible in the real world, then the seeds of Christ's teachings have already been choked off, and like Twain's townspeople are just waiting to get this over and get on with life.
I'm not talking about “them.” Everyone always knows what “they” should do. The TV and internet are full of people ranting on about what “they” should or should not do. I'm asking that we, you and I, try to see where we can love our neighbor more fully, give them the love that we give ourselves and our loved ones. We have a Christian duty to use the fruits of the Holy Spirit to grow and become better, as Paul says in the second reading, “and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God” [v. 21].
Our bishop has asked all parishes to have discussions about this, and our pastor fully supports this. A meeting here at Saint James earlier this week brought together parishioners who had many stories to tell of mistreatment due to their race: assumptions about their ability to pay a bill, assumptions about their legal status for remaining in this country, assumptions of base motives for conduct that was in fact requests due to true need, and other stories that were both sad and infuriating. There were also parishioners who genuinely wanted to better understand what was happening and what they could do to help. Father Patrick Tuttle, the pastor of a predominately Black parish in Greenville who spoke at the gathering, had many recommendations based on his observations of racism that he has observed as a white man. He recommends that we start by being open to our own blind spots, and genuinely listen to others and understand what they are experiencing and why they are hurt and angry. People who are hurt and angry lash out in ways that are often inappropriate and ultimately self-defeating, but that should not give others, it should not give us, the ability to dismiss the cause of the root problem.
Two thousand years ago, the Jews in power were threatened by a man named Jesus because he espoused different ideas, which threatened them and what they believed was their way of life, the culture around their interpretation of sacred scripture and daily Jewish life. They told Him, in essence: “This is our culture. This is our way. You have no right to question it, nor ask us to change.” The Acts of the Apostles is full of stories where the dominate Jewish society continued, even after putting Christ to death, to reject the new Christian teachings based on their faith, with people such as Saul taking up arms against what he saw as threats to his way of life. Jesus intervened in the life of Saul, showing him the error of his ways, and He is intervening in our lives today by speaking to us through His Gospel, if only we will listen and believe.
We cannot be blind to the sufferings of others, and cannot let social sin be a cover, wittingly or unwittingly, to excuse things since they have “always been that way.” Society changes when we, the people that make up society, you and I, change, and Christ demands it of us if we wish to claim the name of Christian. As we continue with the Liturgy of the Eucharist, let us pray for the grace of God that we become a hundred-fold harvest of Christ's teaching.