I remember in 1968, my mother enrolled me in a class at the Holy Family parish in Kingston, Ontario. The class was to prepare me for my First Communion. I was seven years old, and in the class, I received my first lessons from the Roman Catholic Church in its perceived need that I learn humility. I have fleeting memories of the classes–on the whole, I think I enjoyed attending them. After our lesson, we got to play games like hide and seek. One night we got to watch That Darn Cat. The experience that lingers in my memory was delivered by the young woman who taught the course. She told us that Jesus, as a boy did not talk back to his parents and teachers; neither did he fight with other children. I think the children in the class took this lesson to heart. The experience was not unreasonable in and of itself–Christianity, Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant, teaches that we should try to be like Jesus. Knowing that I talked back to my parents on occasion and got into scraps with my siblings left me feeling a little abashed–so I did my best to follow the example set by the boy Jesus. I learned at that early age that I am not perfect–that despite it, I should strive to do good and avoid doing evil. At the time, I did not appreciate that it was easy for the boy, Jesus, as He was Divine, unlike the rest of the children in the class and me.
I did not complete the preparation for my First Communion in 1968 as I left for England with my family when my father was posted to the Communications Centre in Gloucestershire, England later that year. Though I attended a private Christian school in England for the two years we lived there, my siblings nor I went on to receive our First Communion as children. On my initiative, I took my First Communion at sixteen. I was drawn to Roman Catholicism as a young man. I resumed my instruction in Roman Catholic theology when I enrolled at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, in 1980. I attended mass at St. Thomas More parish; I stopped by St. Mary’s Cathedral regularly to pray. I studied the sociology of religion and theology at Queen’s. I received a well-rounded education in Christian theology, Catholic and Protestant, and the study of religion as a social phenomenon. What I learned and took to heart is that as human beings, we sin when we “fall short of the mark.” It is analogous to an archer who aims for the bullseye and misses. No matter how hard we try to be righteous, we will always come up short. As such, we should continuously examine our conscience and seek forgiveness for the wrongs we cause others. We (as Roman Catholics) must surrender our agency to the Church’s authority and its teachings based on the Apostolic Tradition and the Sacred Scriptures. The Church means to keep the faithful on their knees.
I accepted this way of life for several years, but over time I became less comfortable. I get that I am not perfect, but neither am I any better or worse than anyone else. I am fifty-nine years old, and looking back, I can think of things I did, of which I am not proud. I made mistakes and poor choices along the way at times. Eventually, I stopped going to mass as I no longer believe. I have a soft spot for Roman Catholicism and the faith community at St. Thomas More parish. I underwent a program called the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults to prepare me for my Confirmation. I struggled with my sexual orientation at the time, and I was accepted as a gay man. I remember speaking privately to Father Bill on the eve of my Confirmation at the Easter Vigil in 1986. It concerned me that being gay made me ineligible to receive the Sacrament. Father Bill replied, “Geoff, we don’t expect you to be a saint when we Confirm you.” Yes, the Catholics I met at St. Thomas More parish judged me for who I am as opposed to what I was and welcomed me into the faith. Eventually, I got off my knees and left the Church but remain a cultural Catholic if there is such a thing. I celebrate holidays like Christmas and Easter, personally. I strive to do good and avoid doing evil–only without having to compromise my agency.
What got me thinking about my religious life and how I came to value my agency is the ascendance of divisive racial identity politics. The enthusiasm by which so many people embrace racial identity politics is akin to what I experienced in my practice of religion and my study of religion as a social phenomenon. I remember joining a discussion in an online group in which people discussed religion some years ago. I remember comparing and contrasting Christianity to the beliefs of the Mesoamerican Indians (Aztecs, Incas, Mayans, for example). The difference between the religions is that Christianity teaches that the Triune God, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, loves humanity and enters into our history on our behalf. Of course, Christians unleashed inquisitions, witch hunts and the Thirty Years War all in the name of their loving God. The theology of the Mesoamerican Indians held the gods were neither loving nor interested in the welfare of humanity. The gods demanded a steady stream of bloodshed and human sacrifice. While Mesoamerican Indians achieved a high level of civilization–as evidenced by the art and sculpture that remains in the ruins of their cities– their religious beliefs were barbaric.
After raising the comparison of Christianity and Mesoamerican religious life in the discussion, a young woman singled me out, not for what I posted, but for my race and sex. In her view, I am a white man and that somehow disqualified me from commenting on Mesoamerican culture. The young woman had quite a chip on her shoulder. Somehow, her non-white ethnicity put her at a disadvantage and me, a white man, in a position of unearned privilege. I calmly disagreed with her point of view; there is nothing about my sex and skin colour that disqualifies me from studying history and joining in a discussion about Christianity and Mesoamerican beliefs. In response, she raised the topic of the shameful treatment of Central and South American Indians at the hands of European conquerors. I told her I am well aware of this history but added there were Europeans like Bartolomé de Las Casas. He objected to the treatment of Central and South American Indians and pleaded with the King of Spain to intervene on their behalf. In her view, that did not matter. For too long had white men written the history of non-white peoples and me as a white man needed to learn humility and surrender my agency. I needed to shut up and listen uncritically to non-white people as they related their historical narrative–one of oppression at the hands of white people.
The young woman and I had a spirited discussion in which she repeatedly tried to shame me into crying “uncle” and agree to her demand that I bend the knee to the doctrine of racial identity politics to which she subscribed. I calmly stood my ground and did not give in. I spent enough time on my knees for all the years I practiced Roman Catholicism. There is no going back. In the years since I had this discussion, I found that being white, a white man in particular somehow translates into always “falling short of the mark” in this line of thinking. No matter what you do or not, as a white man, you will still be guilty of unearned privilege–you can never understand what it is to be non-white. Your only hope of getting past your unbearable “whiteness of being” is to take on the white man’s burden. In short, you must recognize that merely by existing, you are an oppressor of non-white people and surrender your agency in abiding by the doctrines pushed by the purveyors of racial identity politics. Only when you check your white privilege can you atone for the history of oppression your race unleashed on the rest of humanity.
I find this way of thinking appalling. My lived experience as a Canadian who resided in both the United States and the United Kingdom growing up taught me the legitimate way to judge others is as individuals according to the content of their character. I get that people need something to believe so that they may find meaning and happiness in their lives. Roman Catholicism met that need for me for many years. As I grew older, I came to appreciate the value of my individuality and my ability to rely on my conscience to guide me. I have a clear sense of right and wrong, governed by my life as part of a faith community and my studies of philosophy and theology. My sex and the colour of my skin are incidental–they have no bearing on the man I am and how I relate to others. As I said, I make mistakes, I have a few stains on my conscience (nothing criminal), but I tried to learn from my mistakes and carry on. As I make my way through life, I do my best to judge the people I meet according to who they are as opposed to what they are. I look into the character and the soul of everyone I meet and judge them accordingly. All I ask is that others be good enough to do the same for me.
Posted by Geoffrey