I must have been eight or nine-years-old at the time. I had been playing soccer in the local park with some boys my age, and as well as my friends there were some children we’d not seen before. In that pitch-perfect music of innocent childhood we didn’t care or judge, but just played and had fun.
At the end of the day, one of my new friends asked me if I wanted to come back to his home for a drink and cookies or something like that. Off we went. We laughed, chatted, played. Delightful. Then the boy’s dad came home and started to ask questions that I didn’t fully understand. He then became loud and angry, and my friend was suddenly sad and frightened. “I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to leave” he said. None of it meant anything to me, and I simply left.
Memory is a funny thing. It was only years later that I realized what had actually gone on that day, and I’m still not sure why I submerged it all. The father had shouted, “Is he a Jew; is he a Jew?” The boy had not known what a Jew was, but his dad certainly did. The father had gotten progressively more angry, and then I had to leave. Actually I have three Jewish grandparents and my mother’s mother wasn’t Jewish, so I’m not quite the real thing. Perhaps I should have asked the old Nazi if I could have stayed for a quarter of the arranged time!
I mention this because of the recent Zimmerman trial and verdict. I suppose that few, if any, white people can fully comprehend and appreciate the nature and pain of racism, and I won’t claim for a heartbeat that I can in any way empathize with the black experience. But most of us have some context of pain and suffering, and we’re not unfeeling automatons. One doesn’t have to be something to know something. I wasn’t alive in the 1530s, for example, but do I understand the English Reformation!
Race will always be an issue, and incidents such as the Zimmerman case and trial tend to briefly open the windows of the cloudy room. Nobody understands this more than the Catholic Church. For all of the real failures of individual Catholics, the Church itself has always been color-blind. There have been black bishops for centuries, black leaders of the Church for millennia, and the Church preached racial equality while secular states and Protestant denominations were segregated and discriminating. As I say, only a fool would argue that every Catholic has seen the humanity rather than the color of other people, but this is a body – the Body of Christ – that has aimed as high as the stars.
I happen to think that justice was served in the Zimmerman case, but that doesn’t mean that the pain and anger of so many black Americans came from from some imaginary place or experiential fantasy. This all takes place, of course, at a time when the President is a black man, and when many of the leading political, police, and power positions in the country are occupied by black men and women. Yet the “post-racial” American claim is clearly not convincing everyone, and nor should it or will it. The story of prejudice is an old story, one that goes back to the arguments between Peter and Paul, to the followers of Jesus asking if they should reach out to the Gentiles, to Christ’s enemies condemning Him for bringing salvation to everybody and not just the people of the first covenant. Our fallen nature, our broken humanity, means we judge; we judge in any and every way, and nothing is more obvious and easy than to judge by what we tend to notice first, a person’s race or color. Racism, then, is a product of the fall, of original sin, of our failure to live as God’s creatures and to instead divide ourselves up into insular and often hostile tribes.
This isn’t about cultural differences or particular gifts that one race might possess, but about living God’s plan to embrace all as brothers, sisters, and neighbors. “The equality of men rests essentially on their dignity as persons and the rights that flow from it”, explains the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Every form of social or cultural discrimination in fundamental personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design” (par 1935). But it also involves love and – important this – forgiveness. If a people, if a person, feels wronged and hurt and denied and deprived, it is extraordinarily difficult to forgive. We could argue that some of these grievances are historic rather than contemporary, even sometimes imagined rather than authentic, even self-imposed rather than the fault of others, but the leap of love is nevertheless one that requires God’s grace as well as human determination.
When I met the woman I married I was still living in Britain. I showed a photograph of Bernadette, who is from an Anglo-Indian family, to my father. He was a good, fine, working-class man; a cab driver from a tough background who tended to speak his mind. He looked at the picture. “A bit dark isn’t she,” he said. I shouted, stormed off, called my “dark lady” all the way in Canada. She’s a much better Catholic than I could ever be. She calmed me, said that I had to understand my dad, that she was sure he didn’t mean anything by it. By the time I had finished the phone call there was my dad, apologizing for his “stupidity” and asking for my and her forgiveness. He grew to love her very much, and Bernie prays for his soul at every Mass.
Race is not easy, and it’s usually only white people who think racism is dead. But then the most important things are never easy and perhaps it’s supposed to be that way. It was the old pagan Nietzsche who said that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Dealing with prejudice and even hatred, looking deeper than the obvious, allowing old hurts to evaporate, are all so challenging, but lead to a purged, cleaned, more Catholic person and a soul so much closer to God. In Heaven the colors of the universe will be brighter and more vibrant than we can even imagine, but fleshy, earthly differences will be as irrelevant as a raindrop in a thunderstorm.
Pray for Trayvon Martin, pray for George Zimmerman, pray for all of us.