We Must Root Out All Forms of Racism

We Must Root Out All Forms of Racism September 19, 2017

MTBcropOne of the more famous and beloved of the Desert Fathers, St. Moses the Black, had an incredible journey to sainthood. Born into a life of slavery, he escaped only to become a brigand fighting back at society before finding faith in God through the intervention of a desert monk; this led Moses himself to have a change of heart and seek a life of peace as a monk as well.

Nonetheless, as an Ethiopian with dark skin and a checkered past, he found himself constantly fighting against the racist prejudices of those around him. Even as he sought peace and comfort in the Christian faith, he found the harsh reality of racism followed him all the way into the desert, and he had to find a way to make peace with himself while fighting unjust treatment from his fellow monks. The monastery which should have served as a refuge sometimes reminded him of the vices of the secular world, so that the injustices of the world followed him into his cell. He was not able to get beyond the domain of racism, for he was tested in a way which others were not, due to the color of his skin:

Another day when a council was being held in Scetis, the Fathers treated Moses with contempt in order to test him, saying, ‘Why does this black man come among us?’ When he heard this he kept silence. When the council was dismissed, they said to him, ‘Abba, did that not grieve you at all?’ He said to them, ‘I was grieved, but I kept silence.’[1]

While the saying seeks to justify the abuse Moses received as a kind of test, and in doing so it showed that he proved himself with a heroic level of virtue not expected out of anyone, the mere fact that he had to face such an inquisition indicates that his judges were the ones who failed their own test because they treated him differently. They would not have to face basic prejudice because of the color of their skin; they were, in this respect, established in the monastery with a privilege which Moses did not have: he was seen as suspect because of the color of his skin. While we often remember the great desert fathers who showed wisdom, and therefore are rightly remembered for the holiness of their lives, we must not turn the whole of the monastic community as a kind of paradise on earth; various forms of systematic evil could be found within the monastery system which the great Abbas often tried to remove. Nonetheless, because of the quantity and quality of the people who were found in the desert, the desert was not turned into some utopian ideal. It often was the battlefield between earth and hell, with the monsters of hell constantly making their appearance to the Abbas and Ammas many have come to know and love, sometimes coming from within the psyche of the heroes of the desert themselves before they found victory against their own demons.

It is quite important to realize that the sin of racism has had a terrible influence on Christians throughout the centuries, with Christians not always realizing the infidelity to Christ which comes from their prejudice.  Scripturally, as the Pontifical Commission of Justice and Peace realized, this evil is shown to us to have been with us since pre-historical times: “Racist ideologies and behavior are long-standing: they are rooted in the reality of sin from the very beginning of humanity, as we can see in the biblical accounts of Cain and Abel as well as in that of the Tower of Babel.”[2]

Even the Apostles s had to deal with and overcome similar prejudices in themselves, as can be seen in the way St. Peter had to learn how to incorporate the Gentiles into the domain of the church. Peter had to reject the prejudices he inherited which not only saw Jews as special but which also saw everyone else as inferior, with some being entirely impure and unclean. He was not alone with this, but once he was shown the error of his ways, he spoke up, saying, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit any one of another nation; but God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean” (Acts 10:28 RSV). Peter, who had heard the Parable of the Good Samaritan, still had to learn to apply its message, with St. Paul sometimes making sure Peter did not go back to his old prejudicial ways (cf. Gal. 2:11- 21).

Paul further affirmed Christian anti-racism by his Christology: in Christ, human nature was assumed, a human nature which did not know falsely constructed racial distinctions: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28 RSV).   St. Jerome, reflecting upon this, said it was the quality of the person (seen in the quality of their faith) which should lead us to determine the moral character of a person, not their race nor cultural background: “The Jew is not superior because he is circumcised, nor is the Gentile inferior because he is uncircumcised. Rather, the Jew or Gentile is superior or inferior depending on the quality of his faith.”[3] The quality of faith, of course, is to be measured in the quality of the works, as St James indicated (cf. James 2:18).

Racism is about establishing some unjust preference, some partiality, which denies the common good and gives some one or another groups special rights while undermining the rights of people seen connected to some other artificially constructed grouping. This, of course, is evil. “These also are sayings of the wise. Partiality in judging is not good” (Prov. 24:23 RSV). The truth of this is easily discerned, even without dealing with Christology; it is an issue of natural law. Racism impacts the dignity of the human person by finding ways to undermine and disregard it. Human rights are recognized as a good by people of many faiths or of no faith whatsoever, because when wise people reflect upon the human condition, they will see the need for all to be treated equally if we want to have a society in which everyone can thrive, as Patriarch Bartholomew stated: “We insist that all humans are equal both before the law of God and before secular law, a view surely also espoused by all sensible and sensitive people, regardless of religious conviction.” [4]

By Abernathy Family (Abernathy Family Photos) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Abernathy Family (Abernathy Family Photos) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It is of tremendous importance that we have come to realize, as a society, the evil of racism, but we must not stop there. We must move beyond the recognition of the general evil associated with generic racism and realize that racism comes in many forms, all of which we must denounce. As Pope Benedict XVI stated, the problem shows itself more in the real-world situations when we look for groups suffering from economic and social disparity:

How important it is, especially in our time, that every Christian community increasingly deepens its awareness of this in order also to help civil society overcome every possible temptation to give into racism, intolerance and exclusion and to make decisions that respect the dignity of every human being! One of humanity’s great achievements is in fact its triumph over racism. However, unfortunately disturbing new forms of racism are being manifested in various Countries. They are often related to social and economic problems which can, however, never justify contempt and racial discrimination.[5]

Indeed, it is often the norm that those who are well off justify themselves and arrogantly seek to keep things as they are, no matter the systematic evil around them. As St. Basil pointed out, it is certainly true that those who are abused and suffering have their own forms of temptation, but for those who control the system and seek to keep it in place because it gives them prosperity and privilege, the temptation is for something worse, an evil which encourages us to arrogantly mistreat everyone else so to keep our sense of privilege:

Temptations comes in two forms. Sometimes affliction proves the heart like a gold furnace, testing its purity by means of suffering. But for many, it is prosperity of life that constitutes the greatest trial. For it is equally difficult to preserve one’s soul from despair in hard times, and to prevent it from becoming arrogant in prosperous circumstances. [6]

This is exactly what lies behind systematic racism (and, also, other forms of systematic evil, such as sexism). Those who have privilege often enjoy the privilege unaware of how they live off and experience the good life from those who are not so well-to-do. Racism reinforces this arrogance by justifying it through all kinds of racial prejudice, even as sexism does it through gender prejudice: they believe that there is something in the other which is seen as making them unable or unwilling to better themselves and this is turned into an issue of nature instead of nurture. Those who are privileged have more responsibility, not less, to the common good and helping others get out of abuse; if they do not face the responsibility given unto them their evil is greater as a result.

It is easy to think we are not a racist if we are not actively acting out in hate by mouthing off, cursing and subhumanizing the other. It is equally evil, and often more detrimental to society, for us to passively accept the goods which racism has given unto us, accepting the situation which previous forms of racism have established without considering the benefit it has given to us with a privileged position in society and the harm it has done to others who do not have the resources needed to lift themselves up out of the hole racism has put them into. This is why so many, who do not positively assert racist views, still passively demonstrate the evils of racism, for they might not sin in active deeds, but they certainly sin in the deeds which they have failed to do. Thus, as was stated in Gaudium et Spes:

Excessive economic and social disparity between individuals and peoples of the one human race is a source of scandal and militates against social justice, equality, human dignity, as well as social and international peace.[7]

The disparity has to be overcome through solidarity; those who are privileged must use their privilege in solidarity with the poor and oppressed; and while we might not make for paradise on earth, we can still make things better. We must work for such progress instead of giving up and shrugging it off because utopia is no place on earth. “This solidarity must be constantly increased until that day when it will be brought to fulfillment; on that day humanity, saved by grace, will offer perfect glory to God as the family beloved of God and of Christ their brother.”[8]

This disparity is often found, and indeed, reified, in and through the ideologies which contend against immigration. The other, which is suffering and needs a place to find refuge, is cast aside, with racist excuses used to justify turning them away. The stranger challenges us with their otherness; they want to join in with us, but we find it hard, because it means we will have to give up a share of our privilege which have for no other reason than the accident of our birth. With mass migrations, we find the return of racist ideologies through the rise of a militant nationalism, and the truth of the Gospel which knows no such bias, is lost by those who call themselves Christian. This truly a great evil which leads to mass destruction, as the history surrounding the Holocaust demonstrates (for so many who were killed by the fascist state were turned away by other countries which should have welcomed them).  Thus, we find the hidden forms of racism demonstrate themselves as immigration reform, seeking to help the other, is rejected by those who want to keep their accidental privilege:

The phenomenon of spontaneous racism is still more widespread, especially in countries with high rates of immigration. This can be observed among the inhabitants of these countries with regard to foreigners, especially when the latter differ in their ethnic origin or religion. The prejudices which these immigrants frequently encounter risk setting into motion reactions which can find their first manifestation in an exaggerated nationalism-which goes beyond legitimate pride in one’s own country or even superficial chauvinism. Such reactions can subsequently degenerate into xenophobia or even racial hatred. These reprehensible attitudes have their origin in the irrational fear which the presence of others and confrontation with differences can often provoke.[9]

It is not surprising that as this dormant passive racism reveals itself, it is defended until it becomes extreme, an extreme which then seeds religious destructive religious fanaticism as Patriarch Bartholomew also understood well: “For such extreme racism undoubtedly breeds religious fanaticism and fundamentalism.”[10] To help stop this, we must actively undermine our own latent defense of our personal privilege and to do this, the suggestion of Pope Benedict XVI (writing when still a Cardinal) is key:

The face of the other addresses an appeal to my liberty, asking me to welcome him and take care of him, asking me to affirm his value per se, not merely to the extent to which he may happen to coincide with my interests. The moral truth, in this case the truth of the unique and unrepeatable value of this person made in the image of God, is a truth that makes demands on my liberty. When I decide to look him in the face, I am deciding on conversion, I am resolving to let the other address his appeal to me, to go beyond the confines of my own self and to make space for him.[11]

We must make room for the other. We must love them in their otherness. We must see in them the image and likeness of God, which makes them worthy not only of our love, but our desire to elevate them and raise them up as equals to ourselves. All prejudice and bias is to be rejected. Yes, we will differ, person to person, but such differences must not be used to justify discriminatory abuse:

Undoubtedly not all people are alike as regards physical capacity and intellectual and moral powers. But any kind of social or cultural discrimination in basic personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language or religion, must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design. [12]

We must struggle with the racism within ourselves. We must realize it is not always outright actions of hate, such as swearing at someone at another race or beating them up just because they are different, but the unconscious acceptance of the system and the unjust privilege it gives which we must fight against and seek to overturn. It is a challenge which faces us all, indeed, as Gustavo Gutierrez realized, it is a special challenge for Christians who have to work and rework their theologies to make sure they undermine and reject the sin of racism which might run implicitly in what has been established: “The situation of racial and cultural minorities and of women among us is a challenge to pastoral care and to the commitment on the part of the Christian churches; it is therefore also a challenge to theological reflection.”[13]

[Top Image=St. Moses the Black by unknown, modified by User:ZX95 [FAL], via Wikimedia Commons]


[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 139.

[2] Pontifical Commission of Justice and Peace, The Church and Racism: Toward a More Fraternal Society (Nov 3, 1988), ¶2. Found on http://www.ewtn.com/library/CURIA/PCJPRACI.HTM

[3] St. Jerome, Commentary on Galatians. trans. Andrew Cain (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 201), 152.

[4] Patriarch Bartholomew, Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 198.

[5] Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Sunday August 17, 2008 ( http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/angelus/2008/documents/hf_ben-xvi_ang_20080817.html )

[6][6] St. Basil, “I Will Tear Down My Barns” in On Social Justice. trans. C. Paul Schroeder (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009), 59.

[7] Gaudium et Spes in Vatican Council II: Constitutions, Decrees and Declarations. Revised edition. ed. Austin Flannery, OP (Northport, NY: Costello Publishing Company, 1996), ¶29.

[8] Gaudium et Spes, ¶32.

[9] Pontifical Commission Justice and Peace, The Church and Racism: Toward a More Fraternal Society (Nov 3, 1988), ¶14. Found on http://www.ewtn.com/library/CURIA/PCJPRACI.HTM

[10] Patriarch Bartholomew, Encountering the Mystery, 197.

[11] Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures. Trans. Brian McNeil (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 66.

[12] Gaudium et Spes, ¶29.

[13] Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation. 15th Anniversary Edition. trans. Sister Caridad Inda and John Eagleson (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), xxii.


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