Years ago I had lunch with someone who would eventually become a good friend. But our friendship got off to a rocky start when he used a racial slur several times at our table. Afraid someone would overhear us and somehow associate St. John’s with those racial slurs (I was wearing my clerical collar), I told my eventual friend that, while I knew I couldn’t change his mind about things, he would have to stop using that slur around me. I told him I found it offensive and that I didn’t want him, or anyone overhearing it, to assume I was condoning such behavior. He apologized and we went on with our lunch. It was risky for me to address the matter. It has been gracious of him to work hard on forming a friendship with me since then.
Bishop Stough, who grew up at St. John’s and whose ashes are interred beneath our altar, used a certain phrase as part of his Episcopal blessing at the end of Eucharist: Make no friend with oppression. He wanted us to know that God blesses each of us but God does not condone oppression in any form. Lately I’ve been wondering about my own friendship with oppression and my personal responsibility to name it when I see it and to examine my own conscience.
I’m at a point in my life where I’m feeling a sense of immediacy. If something is important, I’m thinking I should address it sooner rather than later. One of the things I’m really noticing right now is our prejudices. I hear people saying negative things about groups of people and I don’t like that. It feels wrong. For over thirty years now as a priest, whenever I’ve heard something offensive like that, I’ve tried to smile and say something in a friendly way like, “Hey guys, as a priest I really need to remind you that those comments are just not right.” It feels like I’m having to say that a lot more these days. Maybe that’s because people let down their guard when they’re around someone they’ve known for a long time. Or maybe it’s because we’re getting more prejudiced instead of less. I don’t know. But just in the past couple of weeks, I’ve had to tell several folks that I couldn’t agree with a disparaging comment about someone else because of their race, or their gender, or their sexual orientation.
I’m also at a point where I’m feeling immediacy about becoming a better person. Someone recently asked me what my goals for the future were. I told him I really wanted to become a kinder person and develop a little softer approach to things. He said, “Maybe that shouldn’t be just a future goal.” Exactly.
Why do we think such mean things about others who are different from us? And why in the world do we say such things out loud? I think the answer to the first question is that we are sinful and self-centered, that we fear people who are different, and that we don’t like our world changing from what we’re used to. And I think the answer to the second question is that we’re hoping to get others to agree with us so we can justify such thoughts about other human beings.
My own heart needs to change. Whenever I fall into thinking others are less than me, I have traveled a long way from the kingdom of God. As a priest, I really need to be careful about how I address prejudice when I hear it. I don’t need to be careful not to offend those who speak prejudicially. I need to be careful that others don’t assume that a priest agrees with them because then they might even think that God agrees with them.
It’s never time to make friends with oppression but I’m feeling some pressure to address it my own life immediately. There are so many ways in which my heart needs to be cleansed and my behavior needs to change. If I don’t make those changes now, I really may run out of time.
Examine your own conscience. Admit your prejudices. We all have them. And we’re all called to change. Surely there is no room for oppression in the kingdom of God. So why we would tolerate it here and now? Isn’t this the kingdom too?
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.