THERE IS CONSIDERABLE EVIDENCE that the rise in popular nationalism all over the world has given some people space to express racist views in ways which until recently would have been unacceptable. Politicians and others who promote such divisiveness in society capitalise on poverty and economic uncertainty: when people find it hard to find jobs or to acquire a home, it is not surprising that they want someone to blame. For many in power it is tempting to find scapegoats to avoid taking responsibility for their own ineptitude. National narratives of fear and insecurity give people licence to utter the unspeakable.
Every year the churches in this country observe a special Racial Justice Sunday to help us become more aware of the danger of all this, both to the wider communities in which we live and to our own churches. For Catholics this involves also a special collection for our official agency in this field, the Catholic Association for Racial Justice (CARJ). Details of its work for this Sunday’s theme, Justice for all Workers, can be found on their website here [external link to ‘read more’ does not appear to be working]. The theme recognises the problems faced by people due to racism and ethnic discrimination in the workplace. Please give generously to the second collection.
This observance is important at two levels. First of all we need to remind ourselves that racism is sinful. To harbour negative attitudes towards other people because of their ethnic background or the colour of their skin is to deny their human dignity as children of God, to deny our fundamental equality in his sight. Of course the extent to which we can be blamed for such sinful attitudes may be qualified if it reflects how we were brought up, but that doesn’t alter the fact that the attitudes (and in some cases actions which result from such attitudes) are intrinsically wrong and wicked. Nor should that qualification prevent us from changing our attitudes – all the time, we can be converted and ask forgiveness for our sins; human nature is not fixed and static. The idea that human beings are doomed to be perpetually divided, living in mutual suspicion, is seriously erroneous in terms of Christian anthropology. If we take this seriously we need to look critically at our own attitudes, including our background and education, to try and discern what may have gone wrong. Racism is always much more pervasive than we think, both in our own hearts and in our society; it is easily cloaked and hidden. Since the last Racial Justice Sunday the ‘Windrush scandal’ has shone a terrifying torchlight on official policies over decades towards people in this country from the Caribbean, a sustained culture of racism and official deceit.
Secondly Racial Justice Sunday is important because of the changing character of our Catholic communities. Ever since the end of the eighteenth century the Catholic community in England has become a largely ‘migrant’ Church – and migration led to the community’s growth and sustained strength. There has always been a changing demographic in our parishes, but in outer London this has become more marked in recent years so that suburban communities like ours are much more diverse than they were even twenty years ago. Our parish has been immeasurably enriched by the change – the International Mass we celebrated in the autumn of 2016 was a celebration of this, and another is planned for later this year.
There are challenges for the whole community: the Catholic Church in this country, for example, has far fewer leaders (that is bishops and heads of Religious Communities) from ethnic minority communities (other than those from an Irish background) than other churches, and most clergy from these communities were not born here. In terms of how we nurture vocations this needs to be addressed.
Today’s gospel reading happens this year to be the version of the ‘Beatitudes’ in the gospel of Luke. Jesus’ statements, ‘Happy are you who are poor’ and (balancing that), ‘Woe to you who are rich’ are statements about the action of God in history. Historically the ‘poor’ have often been largely composed of people from ethnic minority communities who suffer not only economic oppression but racial discrimination and disadvantage. If we take seriously what the Lord says to us, we will take seriously the reality of the sin of racism, in all its fell forms – and take his words to heart.