by Dr. Eugene J. Fisher Distinguished Professor of Theology, Saint Leo University
On August 11-12, 2017 a large group of racist KKK, Neo-Nazis and White Supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, the state in which I have lived for over three decades, ostensibly to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, the military leader of the South in America's tragic civil war. A smaller group of Americans marched to uphold basic American values of equality and human dignity. A 32 year old counter-protester was viciously murdered and many were injured in the violence that ensued. Other such incidents are still taking place around the country, though thankfully without more deaths.
On August 14 the association Christian Ethicists Without Borders issued a very clear moral statement condemning the hate groups, their racism and white supremacy. The text is posted on this site. I would here like to add a personal reflection and some historical perspective.
To begin, one must understand that racism, as we understand it today, is a relatively recent phenomenon. While for centuries the Jews of Europe were consigned to second-class citizenship (if that), placed in ghettos, used as scapegoats for everything from drought to famine to plagues, and all too often forced to convert or be killed if they did not, if a Jew did convert to Christianity s/he was considered among the “saved.” Those who refused such forced conversions, of course, are considered to be martyrs in Jewish tradition. But racism, while history linked to the Christian teaching of contempt against Jews and Judaism, which paved the way for the development of racial antisemitism, was and is different. Beginning with “enlightened: thinkers such as Voltaire and Diderot, Jews were seen as the irreducibly other, inherently incapable of full citizenship, whether they practiced Judaism, Christianity, or no religion at all.
Voltaire’s idea that Jews were inherently, we would say genetically, incapable of reform and assimilation into “enlightened” society was the basis for a new and radically different form of anti-Jewishness than anything conceived by the Christian teaching of contempt, since the “disease” of Judaism could always be “cured” by conversion to Christianity. There could be no cure, however, for Jewishness conceived in racial terms. Thus the enlightenment, ironically, provided the theoretical basis for what was to become and to be so-called in 1897 by Wilhelm Marr, who sought to mask his race-hatred under the guise of pseudo-scientific terminology) racial “anti-Semitism.”
Parallel and linked historically to the development of racial antisemitism, there developed a racial rationale for the slave trade to the Americas. Africans were deemed an inferior “race,” subhuman so that the slave-owners could do anything they wanted with and to them. This was ironic in America since most of the slave-owners considered themselves to be Bible-believers. The Hebrew Bible, reflecting the times in which it was written, does speak of slavery.
But the Hebrew Bible, biblical Law, gives the “slaves” many rights and carefully prohibits slave-owners from doing things like breaking up families. Slaves were to be allowed to rest on the Sabbath and could only be held as slaves for a certain period of time.
All slaves were to be freed in the Sabbatical/Jubilee year. Indeed, biblical slavery was more like “indentured servitude” than what American slave owners practiced toward their “subhuman” slaves. And if one wanted to “purify” one's country as the Germans led by Adolf Hitler did in the mid-20th century, the first thing one would do is exterminate the sub-human Jews to protect the purity of the Aryan race, an attitude that led directly to the death camps and the Holocaust/Shoah in Europe. And the KKK, Neo-Nazis and White Supremacists want to “purify” America especially of African-Americans but also Jews (and Muslims).
Racism in Western history was invented to rationalize the persecution of Jews and the enslavement of Africans. It had and has no foundation other than “justifying” using other humans as mere chattel, lower even than many animals. U.S. slaveowners often treated their horses better than their slaves. But it became deeply embedded in Western and certainly in the culture of the United States. We are seeing it rise again in movements such as the KKK, neo-Nazis and White Supremacists.
The Charlottesville marchers chanted the Nazi slogan “Blood and Soil.” The phrase evoked and evokes the idea of purifying the land/soil of Germany by ridding it of the “pollution” of Jews. It evokes and pushes for genocide. The KKK, Ku Klux Klan, was/is understood to mean, if the reader will excuse the use of the following foul language, hatred of Koons (African Americans), Kikes (Jews) and Katholics. Note the inclusion of Jews and Catholics in those deemed by the KKK to be not worthy of being part of society. This was WASP (White Ango-Saxon Protestant) bigotry carried to the extreme. Catholics, the Irish, Italians, Poles, Jews, eastern and southern Europeans were coming into America seeking a better future, fleeing from famine as in Ireland and political turmoil on the continent. Jews as we have already noted were the racial “other” in Europe, much as African Americans were and are the racial other in this country. On the social ladder they formed the middle rungs between the WASPS on top and African Americans on the bottom.
Jews were not seen primarily through the lens of racialism, though like Catholics they held wrong beliefs and were considered a danger to the “true” America, ethnically and religiously. Catholics and Jew were rigorously kept out of the “best” neighborhoods, colleges and occupations. They were discriminated against even by “mainstream” hospitals. This is the reason for the proliferation of Catholic and Jewish hospitals and Catholic colleges and universities, which invariably accepted Jewish students. So an implicit partnership between Catholics and Jews began in this country a century before the Second Vatican Council. It is not accidental that the early leaders of the labor movement were Catholics and Jews.
On the personal side I would note that my father, of blessed memory, was the first Catholic ever to become a partner in a major law firm in the history of Michigan. No law firms before the time he joined his would ever have a Catholic or a Jew or an African American as a member. As a member of this major law firm he was expected to join the Detroit Athletic Club, but was rejected once it was discovered that despite his name (which was not Italian or Polish but, well, Anglo) he was (horrors!) a Catholic. And I was beaten up, albeit not badly, by three public school kids one day on my way home from school.
They surrounded me and asked my if I was a Catholic. When I said yes they knocked me down and started to kick me. I was saved by a classmate of my older sister who recognized me and chased them off. So I do know something about religious prejudice. And I learned about antisemitism as a student at the Institute of Hebrew Studies of New York University, where I was the only non-Jew in most of the classes I took. That was where I learned to think in “Jewish” as well as in “Catholic.”
The above, of course, is history not present reality. Mainstream American Protestants have acknowledged and put behind them such prejudices, as the list of signers of the statement of Christian Ethicists illustrates. Catholics and Jews have gained acceptance in society. The recent acts of violence against mosques and synagogues has brought these two communities together in mutual support, with the help of Protestants and Catholics.
The upsurge of the KKK, Neo-Nazis, and White Supremacists represents the evil underbelly of American history. Linked to this is the antipathy toward Hispanic immigrants, another group the haters believe will water down the “purity” of white American culture. What these groups stand for is contrary to what this country stands for and what they stand against are the fundamental values of this country embedded in our Constitution and rule of law, the equality of all Americans, of all humans.
The Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament and the Quran agree on this fundamental equality. We are all, male and female, Jew and gentile, African, American and European, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, agnostic and atheist made equally in the “image and likeness of God.” This fundamental truth of all the world religions and great philosophies is what the KKK, the Neo-Nazis and the White Supremacists deny: the full humanity of all humans. These hate groups, in short, are fundamentally anti-American. They are out to destroy our country and what it stands for, what we Americans hold in common and stand for.
The Statue of Liberty is weeping in the harbor of New York which saw so many of our families pass by and salute its welcoming torch of light in the darkness of persecution and conflict around the world. We are not just a state. We are the United States. United we stand. Divided we fall. These groups and anyone who seeks to justify their hatred or refrains from speaking out against their hatred are acting to divide and destroy our united land.
As a Catholic I would note that Jesus the Jew and his Jewish mother and Joseph, Paul and the apostles, all of whom were Jews, join with the Statue of Liberty in weeping and calling upon all of us to heal the wounds of division and racial hatred.
Shalom. Salaam. Pax.