Reported in the media last weekend were two serious incidents of racial abuse in Ireland. The first was in Dublin where a Chinese woman was verbally abused before being pushed into the Royal Canal by a group of young people. The second incident took place in Cork where two Chinese men were assaulted.
There was a time when we heard stories of how the Irish were discriminated against and racially profiled in a derogatory way abroad. Sadly, we are now seeing incidents where we Irish are responsible for racist jokes, language, attitudes and actions that belittle and even attack people from other countries. One might object that it is only a small minority who are responsible. Still, we all need to take collective responsibility for this problem because when people from abroad are attacked or racially abused by some Irish people, all of us feel ashamed.
The other point that needs to be raised is that those responsible for these attacks lack a basic respect for all human beings and not just foreign nationals. These attacks on other people are happening every day of the week and are symptoms of an increasing lack of respect for another person’s life and dignity. While this is certainly true, to target someone from another country is particularly vile because they are more vulnerable simply because they are different. So what can we Christians do by way of response?
The first thing to return to is the fundamental teaching of the basic equality and dignity of every human being, irrespective of race and nationality, found in Scripture. The first Christians were made up of a cross section of Jews and pagans who had converted to Christianity. There were people from Palestine, Greece, Cyprus, Syria, modern Turkey and the surrounding countries. For these first Christian communities, their ethnic and racial differences were second to their common unity in faith and love. And so, the Apostle James commands the Christian to “show no partiality as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” (Jas 2:1); “God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34; cf. Rom 2:11; Gal 2:6; Eph 6:9), since all people have the same dignity as creatures made in his image and likeness. In fact each race of people reflects something different and beautiful of the glory of God in a way that one single race could never do. The Incarnation of the Son of God with the birth of Jesus shows the equality of all people with regard to dignity. In the famous words of St Paul: “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; cf. Rom 10:12; 1 Cor 12:13, Col 3:11).
Time and time again, we need to be reminded of this teaching and what it demands. For if we lose sight of it, the door is left ajar for subtle attitudes of racism to enter our minds and hearts. Whenever there is a push to exclude, ridicule, mistreat, or unjustly discriminate against persons on the basis of their race or ethnicity, this is contrary to the spirit of the Gospel. Racism occurs because a person ignores the fundamental truth that, because all humans share a common origin, we are all brothers and sisters in Christ and share the same God as our Father. Racist attitudes and acts are sinful because they violate love and violate justice which is a demand of love. If we love people, then we must defend their right to justice. This pushes us further than a more passive attitude that says “live and let live”. It moves us to defend and protect the inherent rights they have as human beings.
For all of us, the problem of racism is tackled beginning with examining my own conscience. In the words of Pope Francis, “let no one think that this invitation is not meant for him or her” (The Joy of the Gospel, 3). Do I really believe people from other countries are equal to me? Have I hidden prejudices against people I don’t know or fear because they come from another land? Do these hidden prejudices come out in jokes I tell, comments I make or even disparaging looks I give to people with a different dress code, colour of skin, language or accent? How am I working for and praying for a bigger heart that acknowledges another person as a brother or sister, created in the image and likeness of God? If we really are committed to love and justice then each of us need to resist racism courageously.
From this viewpoint, racism is not just a societal problem but a moral problem that requires a moral remedy – a change of heart that impels us to see people of other race as being equal to me and a brother or sister to me. Here is also an attitude that prepares us for the future. We all hope to share the life of heaven at the end of our earthy pilgrimage – that existence of becoming in joyful union with God forever. We will share this existence with people from all over the world, from countries, tribes, backgrounds and traditions across the diverse human family. Therefore, being a brother or sister to them now is a preparation for the life to come. It de-romanticizes heaven while making this life more real. In the words of St John Paul II: “Each person is called to a fullness of life which far exceeds the dimensions of his earthly existence, because it consists in sharing the very life of God. The loftiness of this supernatural vocation reveals the greatness and the inestimable value of human life” (John Paul II, The Gospel of Life, 2).
So how then does this theology and spirituality translate into practical steps in tackling racism and making a difference. Here I suggest a few.
Communal Prayer and Listening to the Word of God
It is often said that we need to be reminded of things more than we need to learn something new. If this is true, then we Christians need to return to the sources of Scripture and the early Church to see how differences in race were subordinate to the radical equality of members of the Church. Racism can and does tear communities apart. Praying the Scriptures together and listening to the Word of God is a community building exercise that overcomes prejudice and visibly expresses that the Church is a family of families, made up of people from all over the world.
2. Humility and Confession.
Given that racism is a moral problem, it requires a moral and spiritual conversion that begins with each of us. It begins with each of us examining our conscience and humbly acknowledging the times when we have thought, spoke or acted disparagingly against people of a different race or nationality. We ask forgiveness for the prejudices we have acquired for ourselves or that we have inherited. For this we ask for mercy for: ‘In so far as you did it to the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to me’ (Matt. 25).
3. Recognizing our Privilege.
It is always a good exercise to ‘put myself in their shoes’. When we do, we can see more clearly many of the privileges that we enjoy that we take for granted and realize that millions do not enjoy the privileges that we do. Putting ourselves in the shoes of others helps us to see how much life can be a struggle, being different and being part of a minority.
4. Broaden our Horizons
This can mean an inventory of the people we know and who we are friends with. Are they from a cross section of society and reflect the diversity of the human family? Have we made an effort to welcome people from other countries and express an interest in how they are coping? Fifty years ago, almost everyone in our community was Irish. Now there are neighbours from all over the world. This is an opportunity to broaden our horizons by learning facts and educating ourselves about what counties they come from and to listen to their stories of how they came here. Education is key. Discussions about racism need not be conflictual. We need to listen to those concerns around the issue of emigration and immigration. To raise legitimate concerns does not mean that one is racist.
5. Educate Others
All of us adults have the power to make a difference against racism. Challenge racism when you find it. Speak up against racism and object to subtle forms of it in jokes, comments and attitudes that we might prefer to ignore. If you are a parent, you are in a great position to teach your children the dignity of every human being. Alert them to the danger of racism and empower them to abhor it. Introduce them to great leaders in history who were both black and white. The same opportunity is there for teachers, political and religious leaders. Together we need to have a greater resolve to tackle racism by addressing it consciously with younger people and helping them to see how much it damages lives.
6. Support those who have been Affected by Racism
We all feel ashamed when someone from another country is racially abused by Irish people here at home. Let’s show them we care. Simply acts of kindness and reaching out can make all the difference. Support them with a listening ear and explore with them what are their options by way of response and accountability. Report racism. Don’t handle it on your own. There are community and police resources to help you to help those who have suffered from racism.
The above are just six ways we Christians can make a difference and see how our faith translates into concrete attitudes and actions that can transform the culture in which we live – a culture that does not tolerate racism. Christianity is a robust religion of love and justice that changes things and changes us. For the Christian it is not enough to be non-racist. We must be anti-racist and help transform our country to be safe home to all who live here.
For more information, see the Irish Network Against Racism website on