A sin such as racism is contrary to God’s law, and God does not act against himself
If Jesus is God and all-knowing he cannot act ‘unwittingly’
The message of Epiphany is that all people, regardless of race, are invited to become children of God. Photograph: Getty Images
The Epiphany, which Christians celebrate on January 6th, was traditionally more theologically significant than Christmas. The star that led the Magi to Bethlehem was a divine invitation. The presentation to a tiny infant of marvellous gifts signified his recognition by all peoples as king, God and saviour.
Most, whether grudgingly or otherwise, can recognise the history-shattering event that was Christmas. Whatever you may think of him, the birth of Jesus literally divided history in two, becoming the moment from which all time is reckoned.
Yet few nowadays recognise the significance of the Epiphany, which speaks particularly in our times when so much religious and racial persecution abounds.
According to a BBC report, a review ordered by a former British foreign secretary found that the persecution of Christians worldwide is “at near genocide levels”. Another report covering 2017-2019 by Aid to the Church in Need says that Christians are the most persecuted in the world, and relates harrowing stories of the rape, torture and murder of Christians in Asia and Africa.
Although Jesus was born into the Jewish people – who were specially chosen by God – his coming was for everyone – Jew and Gentile alike. Tradition has it that the Magi came from all three of the known continents at the time: Europe, Asia and Africa. The message of Epiphany is that all people, regardless of race, are invited to become children of God.
This is part of the reason I was taken aback by comments at the recent Christmas carol service at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, by the president of the college, Reverend Prof Michael Mullaney.
The theme of the homily was racism. The president challenged us to confront our sense of “cultural and economic entitlement and privilege”, and suggested that it would require a “lot of critical thinking and intentional unlearning” to overcome racism when understood at the “structural level”.
This was not an unheard of comment for anyone with an interest in current affairs, but I gave a start at his next remark: “Even Jesus had to confront his ingrained prejudices; indeed, even racism.”
The charge was becoming clearer: Jesus, although possibly not fully responsible for this, himself harboured racist prejudices.
This was news to those of us who, as Catholics, believe that Christ was not merely a man but God.
The case study was the incident – recounted by both Matthew (15:21-28) and Mark (7:24-30) – of Jesus meeting with a Canaanite woman, who pleaded with him to heal her daughter.
Jesus stood accused of calling a foreign woman seeking help for her daughter a “dog”. In case we were in any doubt the president described this as a racial slur, adding that her repartee was the only recorded encounter that left Jesus speechless. This is despite the fact that in both accounts Jesus answers the woman, praising her for her faith and heals her daughter immediately.
It also seemed to me to be in contradiction of Catholic tradition that reads this passage as Jesus testing the woman and her faith, and simultaneously exposing the prejudices of his own disciples, not to mention teaching everyone in earshot (and they were in a foreign land) that salvation was not for the Jewish people alone. It was also for the Gentiles, who were considered “unclean” by tradition.
Workers in the field
The universality of Jesus’s message is reinforced many times in the Gospel, including the passage that relates the parable of the workers in the field: those who come late in the day to the master’s vineyard will nonetheless share equally in the master’s generosity.
As expounded in the homily, this was a “transformative encounter”. However, it was Jesus who was transformed. It was he who was dislocated “from his narrow tribal suppositions and prejudices about the ‘other’.” It was he who, just like us, was “unwittingly and unknowingly…part of the problem”.
In this reinterpretation the woman is the agent of change. Less a humble supplicant, who approaches Jesus in humility, faith and hope; more a modern-day “woke” heroine.
Two things struck me particularly. The first was that the remarks seemed (and still seem) to be incompatible with the profession of faith that Jesus is God. The second was that no one present – and I include myself in this – said a word to challenge them.
As to the second point, I know from later conversations that many others in attendance were also perturbed by the homily. Maybe they, like me, felt the pressure of convention and good manners, and were deterred from causing a scene. However, the subsequent publication of the text persuaded me to write about it.
Which brings me to the first point. There are many places in contemporary life where the divinity of Jesus is denied or doubted. I did not think to hear such an implication at the national seminary.
If Jesus is God, and all-knowing, he cannot act “unwittingly”. If Jesus is God, and all-just, all-holy, then sin is an impossibility for him. Sins are acts contrary to God’s law, and God does not act against himself.
I suppose another interpretation could be that Jesus’s so-called racism – being “structural” – was not itself wrong, but I do not think this was the intended meaning of the address. In any event, Catholic teaching on the matter is absolutely clear: racism is wrong and a sin.
At this time of Epiphany rather than levelling charges of racism against the creator of all races, perhaps we would do well to ponder the arduous journey made by the Magi – men of different races and nationalities – who became united in wonder and thanksgiving for God’s generosity to all of us.
And remembering that Christians are the most persecuted religious denomination in the world at present, perhaps we could unite in prayer for our brothers and sisters, of all races and nationalities, who face displacement, torture and death because to Jesus’s perennial question “who do you say I am?”, they answer “God”.