Image: Inuvialuit traditional dancers
Today we celebrate the memorial of Saint Charles Lwanga who, along with many other recent converts to Christianity, were martyred by the king of Uganda in the late 19th century. The supposed crime for which they were put to death was not participating in the immoral acts of the cruel king and of refusing to renounce their faith in Jesus.
After his canonization in 1964 Saint Charles was declared the patron saint of African Catholic Youth Action and Victims of Torture and I suspect that, in these past days, he has been interceding powerfully for the cause of those who have been voicing their protest to the murder of George Floyd and the systemic racism in the American justice system.
Of course, we know that injustice, racism, and oppression are hardly unique to the American way of life. It is a perennial problem that continues to divide and discriminate wherever one group has power over another. I was pleased, if that is the right word to use, to see that our own Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, when asked to comment on what was happening south of the border, took a long pause, and then stated factually that we have our own racism problem here in Canada. He has been criticized for failing to call out the oppressive policies of the American president, but I think he just knew that, living in a glass house, he would not get away with throwing stones. The problems in our neighbor’s country may be self-evident but too many turn a blind eye toward our own need for change here at home.
It is important to acknowledge that racism is still alive in Canada. Whether among immigrants, black people, or among First Nations and indigenous peoples who face some of the greatest inequality, it is a contributing factor to the disparity in wealth, health and education in our country. Our prisons are disproportionately filled with young indigenous men indicating a justice system that is also in need of reform. More important than admitting the problem are the ongoing steps to eradicating it, to fixing the problem.
In Saint Paul’s letter to Timothy, our first reading today, Paul is writing from prison. As a result of his conversion and missionary calling Paul, who once was among the powerful, now finds himself a victim of the same system of oppression and injustice that he had served. His advice to Timothy is not to avoid the fate that he has suffered, not to turn away from storm but to head into it with courage and conviction. “Join with me in suffering for the gospel”, Paul says, “relying on the power of God.”
This message goes out to all of us who have the gift of freedom and privilege and who have the power to shift the balance of equality for all people. This is the message of the Gospel. It is the voice of the Old Testament prophets who called upon the leaders of their day to pay attention to the needs of the poor, the widows, the orphans and the immigrants. It was the work of Jesus who spent time comforting and encouraging those on the margins of society while challenging those at the center and turning over the tables of injustice. It is the call of our baptism when we were anointed priest, prophet and king in order build a kingdom of justice and peace.