In recent week, there have been several discussions on racism at St. Peter’s in preparation for our lenten symposium. Like other sensitive topics, just figuring out how to approach racism in a non-judgmental way has proven difficult. Nobody wants to think or even begin to believe that they could in anyway be considered racist. As I have pondered this reality and the struggle we are having just broaching the topic, I am reminded of my Great Aunt Jean.
Aunt Jean was truly a woman of her times. She was born around 1910. As a young woman she taught grammar school, at one point in her life she was briefly married. During the fifties and sixties, she lived with her aging and in firmed parents while working as a buyer for a local New Haven department store known as Edward Malley’s. The department she managed and was a buyer for she would always politely tell us was ladies foundations.
I remember my aunt as a kind but a somewhat eccentric individual. I suspect if one was to ask her today if she was racist, she would respond in the negative, because she spoke positively and kindly of every one. I don’t believe there was a bigoted or prejudicial bone in her body. Her word’s, however, betrayed her as a woman of her times as she would affectionately refer to the young man who delivered her newspaper and inter-office mail as her, “little black gumdrop.”
As awful as those words may sound to us today, I know from my aunt’s perspective there was no intention of malice or to be demeaning, but simply a title of endearment for a young man she was fond of and who served the company well. I alsosuspect the young man was gracious enough to accept her words in the context of the kindness they were meant, despite the connotations they carried.
This is the problem when discussing racism, it has as much to do with societal understanding and expectation as it does with how we treat people. Often racism is not found in how we treat each other, but in how we, as a culture, understand those who are different from us. This is what makes the discussion so difficult, racism can be so subtle, so insidiously interwoven into the context of our culture that we are blind to our own subtle racial tendencies.
In many ways racism is similar to Augustine’s understanding of sin. St. Augustine believed none of us are born with the taint of sin, instead each is born pure and untainted. However, he taught, we are born into a cloud of sin with the propensity towards sin. Ultimately, he claims, the deck is stacked against us and it is only a matter of time before we fall into the ravages of evil. In fact, he wrote, that even when we believe we are doing what is right, we are sinning. This goes hand in hand with St. Paul’s convoluted statement to the Romans:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.
With the words of St. Paul and the thoughts of St. Augustine we are led into this morning’s Gospel and John the Baptist’s call to “prepare the way of the Lord.” Often it is easier to preach on this passage from the global perspective as it is easier to see the myriad of ways change needs to happen in order for us to prepare the way for God. It is more difficult to look at this passage on the personal level. Yet, this is where preparing the way for God begins. It begins with each of us being willing to look into the dark valleys of our souls. To become open to or to become aware of how we too are riddled with sin.
The Book of Acts contains the story of Paul’s conversion. It openly shares his history as a zealot and persecutor of the early Christian church. Although from our perspective it remains unclear why he thought executing Christians in the name of God was doing God’s work, the fact is, it was not until he encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and spent three days with Anaias that scales fell from his eyes and he could see both the grace of God and the evil he had committed.
A few weeks ago we heard the story of Bartimeus, the blind man who begged on the side of the road to Jericho. While Bartimeus was blind to his physical surroundings, he was not blind to his own shortcomings or to his sinful reality. Also, Bartimeus was not averse to humbling himself before Jesus and to ask for divine mercy. He was able to do all this while the others around him were blind to the Son of Man due to their own sinful reality and being too arrogant to see their need for mercy.
The Pharisees of the Gospel, just like each of us, needs to delve into the darkness of their souls and to trust no matter what they may find, there will be forgiveness on the other side. This is the continuation of John the Baptist’s message, as he calls us to prepare the way of the Lord, he also calls us to prepare through repentance. Because where there is remorse, there is opportunity for repentance. Where there is repentance, there is the assurance of divine forgiveness. For it is when we are able to accept our own darkness that the words Jesus offered for those who brought him to Golgatha. “Forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing,” become the words of forgiveness for us as well. . .because we too, do not know what we are doing.
Let us therefore, Prepare the way of the Lord by making straight a path for God in our hearts and souls.