When I was in the first grade, I was part of a circle of a few students sitting in a circle while the teacher’s aide read a story to us. I recall that she described a character who had dark skin. I turned to the little girl who was sitting next to me—perhaps a Jamaican—and said, “Gee, just like you!” I was intrigued, pleased, and amazed that the story had immediately shown up in my real life.
To my surprise, the girl began to cry. I was puzzled and kept asking her what was wrong as she buried her face in her hands and her tears spilled over her fingers. The teacher came to her and asked her why she was crying, and she looked up and cried, “He said I had dark skin!”
My surprise turned to shock when the teacher became angry at me, hauled me over to my desk and made me sit down and cover my head with my hands, saying furiously, “Don’t you ever talk to anyone like that again!” I was completely at a loss as to what I had done wrong, but more than fifty years later I remember the injustice of how I was treated.
I know now that the little girl had already been hurt by racial prejudice, and she assumed that my observation was a slur—as did the teacher. I hadn’t hurt her, but someone else before me had done so, and my innocent comment touched the child’s hurt. She felt the pain another had caused her, and then assumed that I was causing the pain over again. I was punished for someone else’s sin.
The notion of racial prejudice has always been completely foreign to me. I simply have no understanding of it. I didn’t even know that it existed until I was probably about ten or twelve. This is because of my mother. One of the gifts she gave me was a deep appreciation of people of all kinds and the ability genuinely to rejoice in people of different cultures, races, ethnicities, economic and educational backgrounds, and all of the categories that are governed by “pc” today. I delighted in human variety as I enjoyed a garden rich with different flowers, each contributing to the beauty of the whole.
I didn’t even think to wonder until this very night where my mother acquired this worldview, which I now know was extremely unusual—especially considering that she was raised in the 1920s and ’30s in very privileged circumstances. But whatever its source it was so, and she passed that gift on to me.
I was raised in a mostly white neighborhood and went to a mostly white school—at least I think that was so because I didn’t think in terms like that—so whenever I saw someone whom, in a later era, we’d call a “minority”, I was excited. I wanted to learn about them and deepen my appreciation of the world in which I lived. (In my recent post, “Saturday”, I wrote about playing with one of the local Latino families in my neighborhood.)
Being falsely accused, tried, condemned, and punished as a six-year-old shocked me, but I don’t think it did me any harm. Though the memory stayed, it made it possible for me later to understand other people’s pain a little better and to empathize. Every now and again I am similarly falsely accused of something, and tried and condemned without a hearing, and there are times when I falsely accuse someone else—probably more often than I realize. Such an experience can be traumatic—sometimes incredibly so—but, sadly, it is part of human life in a fallen world. Even good Christian people can hurt others unjustly as they react to unresolved hurts that had been done to them.
At such times, the only peace, I think, that can be found in this life is to realize that we are entering into the experience that Jesus knew all his life and carries for us eternally. It is the meaning of his high priesthood. It is the grounding of one of the earliest Biblical passages used in the Church to preach who Jesus was. From Isaiah 53:3-5,
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows,
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
Yet ours were the sufferings he was bearing,
ours the sorrows he was carrying;
the punishment reconciling us fell on him,
and with his stripes we are healed.
If we want to conform our lives to Jesus, and if we are truly dedicated to sanctity, will that not mean that sometimes we will have to be like him in bearing the sins of the world a little bit in our relationships with others—and that such a thing can contribute to the process of their healing? “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ,” counseled Saint Paul in Galatians 6:2. Bearing the burdens of others, though unjust by human measure, is fully consistent with “the law of Christ”.
Simon of Cyrene alone among all humans, literally “took up Jesus’ cross and followed him”. He was compelled to do so, but there are obscure indications in the New Testament that his family became believers. If that is so, his “carrying the cross” became his life’s greatest blessing. For the rest of us, we must carry the cross figuratively, spiritually. If even a six-year-old is compelled to do it, albeit unknowingly, God must be in it—saving, preserving, healing, working all to his good, anticipating the time when we and others shall stand healed and forgiven, and love covers all.