On the third day of looting, my train into New York arrives five hours late. We pull into a deserted Penn Station a few minutes after 10.30. I have just enough time to walk home before the first curfew in many years goes into effect.
People on social media have been cheering the looters. Some of our leaders have signalled their sympathy. But seeing my city shattered fills me with shame and rage. Groups of young men roam the streets, apparently undeterred by the smattering of police. Most are simply pleasure seekers. Others appear to be professionals. As I walk through Madison Square, an SUV stops a block away and a young man with a bag begins striding down the block. A rented moving truck comes careening down the street and takes a sharp turn. I later see it – perhaps another like it – zooming up 3rd Avenue.
Four policemen stand outside the Lego store on 23rd and Broadway, broken glass around their feet. Down the sidewalk, two men are trying to break into Eataly. On Park, I move towards the curb to make way for a group of masked men. One leaps onto the steps of Calvary Church and kicks a man who always sleeps there. “Wake up, b—!” he shouts.
On 20th and 21st Streets between 1st and 2nd Avenue, the police have set up a line of barricades, vans, and squad cars. Armed men stand guard. At least the police academy that sits on that block will not be vandalised. The next morning, as I look into the smashed window of a store on my block, an elderly woman comes up next to me. “Can you believe it?” she asks.
No actuarial table can account for what it feels like to see your neighbourhood torn up with impunity. In that moment, we had the smallest taste of what black Americans have experienced for centuries when they are subject to violence, prejudice and the indifference of the indifference of the authorities.
Some conservatives have cited statistics about police shootings to dismiss concerns about the death of George Floyd. “Facts don’t care about your feelings,” they say. But it is an intractable fact that men are not unfeeling. We are more than cold, calculating machines. Our political life cannot be reduced to consulting charts. It requires attending to what Lincoln called “the mystic chords of memory,” the inherited griefs and triumphs that bind a polity. Given our national history, it is right and fitting that we particularly mourn the death of George Floyd.
Yet those who would combat racism must not do so by unworthy means. Solutions offered on the left and the right both have glaring insufficiencies. On the left, racial injustice has justified the exaltation and essentialisation of “diversity”. In this view, racial differences are perhaps the most important thing about us. Ta-Nehisi Coates, the great sage of this outlook, describes whiteness as “an ancestral talisman … [a] glowing amulet … releasing its eldritch energies”.
As Thomas Chatterton Williams has noted, “The most shocking aspect of Mr Coates’s wording here is the extent to which it mirrors ideas of race – specifically the specialness of whiteness – that white supremacist thinkers cherish.” Like Richard Spencer and other members of the alt-right, Coates attributes to whiteness a unique, quasi-magical power. Spencer told Williams that views like the one expressed by Coates are “the photographic negative of a white supremacist.”
On the respectable right, writers eschew the rhetoric employed by Coates and Spencer. But diversity remains a prominent theme. Charles Murray’s recent book is titled Human Diversity. He draws on genetics and neuroscience to argue that different human races may have biologically determined differences in intelligence. “It is evolutionarily reasonable,” he writes, “to expect that phenotypic differences among races in cognitive repertoires could be at least partly genetic.” This is an appeal to a biological form of “diversity.”
Such arguments are common among thinkers on the right of a secular or atheistic bent. They look to human biology for a strictly scientific basis on which to critique notions of racial and economic equality. Advocates of this view sometimes describe their outlook with the ungainly and scientistic phrase “human biodiversity.”
One need not deny differences of nationality and race, be they cultural or biological, to doubt the wisdom of such exaltations of diversity. As Richard John Neuhaus said in his critique of The Bell Curve, an earlier book by Charles Murray that makes a parallel argument, basing our politics on an essentialised idea of diversity is “mischievous and naive, and may do a great deal of damage.” This is true whether those who would base their politics on human difference reside on the left or on the right.
On the left, diversity ideology threatens to become a new religion. Videos of protestors participating in quasi-religious rites have circulated on social media, attracting widespread mockery. They are part of a change in American mores sometimes described as “the Great Awokening.” Henri de Lubac noted something similar in the last century: “Today a new faith is rising,” he wrote. “A faith based on this evidence that … blood represents the mystery that dispossesses and replaces the old sacraments.” De Lubac realised that it was not enough simply to refute false claims about the special power of race. One had to assert in its place a truer faith: “To faith, one must oppose faith. To the racist faith, our Christian and Catholic faith.”
Christian opposition to racism is based on a fundamental belief in human unity, a unity that does not erase but transcends human diversity. Unlike the angels, each of which makes up its own separate species, humans constitute a single race. As the popes and Scripture have taught, we share a common descent from Adam and Eve. This view can be reconciled with modern science. It is not challenged by evolutionary theory, because it rests on a claim, not about evolution or “young earth” creation, but rather about our common descent from a couple that had human souls. Augustine praised God for creating man in this way: “You unite citizens to citizens, races to races, in a word, all men to each other, by reminding them of their common origin.”
Christian missionary activity, sometimes disparaged as “proselytism,” is another testament to the unity of the human race. In Sublimus Deus (1537), Pope Paul III affirmed that all men had souls capable of receiving grace. He attacked those who claimed that some races were “incapable of receiving the Catholic Faith”. The Church’s fulfilment of the Great Commission has been a powerful solvent of racism among Christians. “The great fact of the missions,” De Lubac observed, “tends to develop the awareness and the love of the Ecclesia catholica in the faithful people.”
Just as men are descended from Adam, they are called to unity with the ascended Christ. This unity can be found only in his Church – not in the state, not in a community of blood, not in a class-based solidarity, or in any other entity that pretends to be the highest society.
In Lumen Gentium, the Church is described as the “sacrament . . . of the unity of the whole human race.” It is, as Thomas Joseph White has written, “the sign and instrument by which human beings are united in authentic communion with God and with one another.”
On these three claims – man’s common origin, his shared rational nature, and his calling to life in Christ – rests the Christian rejection of racism. As Pope Pius XII noted, the basis of human solidarity is provided by our “common origin and by the equality of rational nature in all men, to whatever people they belong, and by the redeeming Sacrifice offered by Jesus Sacrifice offered by Jesus Christ.” Insofar as it involves the denial of theological truths, racism is a heresy.
Any theory of anti-racism that does not affirm these truths runs counter to the Christian ethic. The purely secular human unity proposed by some socialists and liberals more closely approximates the Christian vision than does the racial essentialism sometimes found on left and right. But because it fails to recognise the truth about man and the essential role in human unity played by Christ and his Church, it proposes a false brotherhood.
In the wake of the protests and rioting, some well-intentioned men have spoken as if the Church should simply repeat the mantras of the diversity regime. Others have dismissed concerns about racism because they assume that it can only be addressed by endorsing an un-Christian ideology. But the Church can draw on its own resources. It alone offers the true basis for human unity.
We need a restoration of law and order. But that restoration will be incomplete if it does not extend to the strict punishment of racial injustice and abuses of authority. It will be an unjust law and a merely apparent order if it does not conform to the law of God and acknowledge a higher order.
Our failure to achieve a merely worldly justice and peace, our inability to find human happiness on false pretences, even the absurdity of the woke religion which seeks a saviour apart from Christ, all provide a stark reminder of our need for the true sacrament of human unity, which is the Church.
Of course, even if all men agreed on the nature of Christian truth, this would not settle the problems we face. Questions of racial justice and policing require the exercise of prudence. They demand careful attention to present facts as well as historical memories. They will always be subject to debate. But the protests and riots wracking American cities are about more than narrow matters of policy. One of the many motives behind the present unrest is a longing for true justice and transcendent unity. The answer to that longing is found only in Christ.
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