The Hebrew prophets were the best social critics of their time. Reading the “signs of the time” appealed to the new social order, where justice becomes the norm. The new social order is about right relationships, first with our neighbor, who is the gateway to the Living God. Right relations, the prophets emphasized, should focus especially on the marginalized, such as the poor, the widow, the orphan, the alien, etc. Even the natural environment reacts to the imbalance in the social order, the land withholding its produce. Often times, these social critics were reviled, persecuted and even killed. (Matthew 23:37) Knowing their messages were not popular, they often resisted their calls to speak on behalf of the Lord. Jeremiah sums it up best, “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped; you were too strong for me, and you triumphed. All the day I am an object of laughter; everyone mocks me.” (Jeremiah 20:7) Their messages disturbed the status quo, asking for a change of attitude and lifestyle in exchange for “right relationships.”
The Lenten Season is the right time for introspection, pondering on our personal and community right relationships. When we think about Lent, the default requirements are “Praying, Fasting and Alms Giving.” Such an autopilot default system remains a seasonal ritual and superficial, with little or no effect on the inner conversion. The scripture readings for this liturgical season remind us, “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; rend your hearts, not your garments and return to the Lord, your God.” (Joel 2:12-13) Returning to him, God measures by our relationship to our fellow person, especially those on the periphery, outside the orbit of our circles. Prophet Amos puts it better, “Hear this, you who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land … you ask, … we will buy the lowly man for silver, and the poor man for a pair of sandals; even the refuse of the wheat we will sell.” (Amos 8:4-6) Prophet Amos’ admonition still rings true in our society – with exploitative low wages, unbridled consumer appetite, and price gouging whenever a natural disaster or social crisis happens. For example, gas prices in the Central City of Milwaukee are an average of 30 cents higher than in the suburbs. These are visible signs of structural racism and redlining still operating, directed at those members of the society, especially people of color, who least can afford such price gouging.
The structural racism that many institutions consider as nonexistent or a thing of the past, the example of price difference is concrete evidence that racism in our society persists. Subtle racism becomes a daily routine, corrupting our conscience as the norm. An African proverb says, “When sin is repeated, it looks like righteousness.” We are resigned to the evil of racism, the victim, passive beneficiary and perpetrator. We become surprised and even scandalized when prophetic voices rise up condemning overt and covert racism. Like the prophets of old, we villainize and denigrate our modern prophets as well. Instead of rending our hearts, we are ready to pounce on those who prickle our conscience for disturbing the complacency or numbness to the lack of racial and social justice.
I am writing this article on the anniversary of the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery. Since his death, many similar incidents have come to light, the killing of George Floyd topping them all, exposing how our institutions are infected with the virus of racism. In spite of mounting evidence, many in the position of power deny the existence of structural and institutional racism, as if things have been resolved by the Civil Right Laws in the 1960s. Some outright deny the existence of racism, while others actively promote racism and discrimination, underlining their sense of superiority and entitlement. First, racism is about rending our hearts, not only amending racist laws. The cure of racism, however, rightly rests on the silent majority and our moral leadership, regardless of faith tradition. Moral authorities have the bully pulpit to prophetically proclaim and influence. We need, in the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “a revolution of values.” Our society is hungry for a “revolution of values” from the seats of power, denouncing the sins of racism. Prophets admonish, console and inspire for a society where and when justice and peace are the norm. Our society expects no less than prophetic voices from our moral leadership, who will move us to rend our hearts, not our garments, challenging us to promote justice, not only the handouts of charitable goods. The Great Lent is a gift in the Church’s liturgical cycle, inviting us for introspection and conversion in our journey of faith, curing the sin of racism.