The image of God

The crisis involving racism has not ended over the last two weeks (if it hadn’t ceased after more than four centuries of Anglo-American culture on this continent, it was not likely that it would disappear in a fortnight). We Catholics continue to be called upon by Our Lord to love our neighbors as ourselves. 

To do that we truly need to know our neighbor. We also need to know ourselves better, as Dave Jolivet indicates in his thought-provoking column on page 15, so that we can repent of our sins, including those societal ones in which we have unwittingly participated — maybe unwittingly up until recently, but now with the terrible “wake up” call of George Floyd’s death, we do not have an excuse for not making this examination of conscience for our sins of omission and commission in the area of racism (this, of course, is also true of all other areas of sin).

At the interfaith service at the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption on Sunday, June 14, Rabbi Raphael Kanter offered a reflection and a prayer that can help us in our trying to do this review. He began, “I don’t know what it feels like to be a black man or woman in America. I don’t know what it feels like to be judged by the color of my skin. I don’t know what it feels like to wear a hoodie and be considered a menace. I don’t know what it feels like to go for a jog and fear someone may think I am a threat.”

After summarizing our history of racism, Rabbi Kanter then changed tack. “Here is what I do know and that we must remember today and every day — that every human being is created in the image of God and is of infinite value. White prejudice and racism is a lifelong fight that must be eradicated from each and every one of us. God, as we condemn the murder of George Floyd, we know with Your presence guiding us, we can build a world, and a country, in which the dignity of people of color is affirmed and cherished.”

The New Bedford rabbi then quoted the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who taught: “There is an evil which most of us condone and are even guilty of: indifference to evil. We remain neutral, impartial, and not easily moved by the wrongs done to other people. Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself; it is more universal, more contagious, more dangerous.” Bishop Edgar da Cunha preached a very similar message later in the service — you can read his homily on pages two and 14.

Praying to God, Rabbi Kanter continued, “We hear Your Word in [Rabbi Heschel’s] words and they must enter our heart that we must not remain neutral and impartial in the face of continued devaluation of black bodies and acknowledge the evil that lives among us that would allow a policeman to believe that this murder would be condoned. We can do this if we truly sense Your presence. Alohaynu Velohai Avoteynu, Our God and God of our ancestors, give us a new heart, a heart that turns to Your truth, a heart filled with peace and justice.”

Rabbi Kanter concluded, “We pray now for the day when the words of the psalmist become a reality, ‘How good and how pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity’ (Ps 131:1) Amen.”

The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” sounds a similar theme. “Respect for the human person proceeds by way of respect for the principle that ‘everyone should look upon his neighbor (without any exception) as “another self,” above all bearing in mind his life and the means necessary for living it with dignity’ (Gaudium et Spes 27). No legislation could by itself do away with the fears, prejudices, and attitudes of pride and selfishness which obstruct the establishment of truly fraternal societies. Such behavior will cease only through the charity that finds in every man a ‘neighbor,’ a brother” (CCC 1931).

The “Catechism” is not saying that we should never use legislation to work against racism; rather, it is reminding us that legislation alone is not enough — a change of heart is essential.

On March 12, 2000 St. John Paul II led a “Day of Pardon” at the Vatican, asking forgiveness from Our Lord for the past sins of Christians, but also with an eye towards our continuing need to examine our consciences and repent of current sins. “The recognition of past wrongs serves to reawaken our consciences to the compromises of the present, opening the way to conversion for everyone.” When he mentioned compromises, he meant the negative type — our compromising with evil.

This was not the first time that the Polish pope had mentioned the need to repent of racism. He spoke about it repeatedly over his decades as the successor of St. Peter. On Feb. 22, 1992 in Senegal he said, “This sin of man against man, this sin of man against God, must be confessed in all truth and humility. How long the human family must travel before its members learn to look at themselves and respect themselves as images of God, to finally love themselves as sons and daughters of the same Heavenly Father!”

It’s taking too long. But God hasn’t given up. May we not, either.



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