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On Catholicism and Identity Politics

An acquaintance of mine was once distraught upon learning that I celebrated Easter. From his reactions, it followed that he saw proclaiming the truth of Christianity as inseparable from a colonialist mindset and an implicit Western supremacism disparaging other religions and cultures. In other words, he considered my public affirmation that Jesus Christ has truly risen, to be a form of racism.

To little avail, I carefully explained that while the West is founded upon the faith and will surely crumble without it, Catholic Christianity is far more than a mere vessel of a Western culture that is now mostly secular anyway. She belongs to all of humanity. Christ came to us as a Palestinian Jew; the greatest Church Fathers were from Syria, North Africa and Anatolia, and the early church was chiefly a Middle Eastern phenomenon. Moreover, today, the center of Christianity is shifting from Europe towards the global south. Its strongest growth seems to be in Africa, Latin and South America is probably our most vivid stronghold regarding cultural penetration, while worshippers in the underground churches of China likely outnumber US churchgoers on any given Sunday.

But incomparably more important than mere geographical conditions is of course the essential nature of Christianity itself and its revolutionary dogma of universal human dignity. The norm implied in my supposed transgression would hardly be conceivable without the Pauline exclamation that there is now neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. Were it not for the transcendent affirmation of our common humanity in Christ Jesus, God incarnate, the fellowship of mankind we moderns take for granted becomes a mere fiction, devoid of any true authority.

Nothing in this otherwise arbitrary abstraction can bind us to any duties whatsoever. Leave behind the notion of a universal and unique human dignity anchored in the transcendent, and every ethical precept will reduce to identity politics. A struggle over power and resources between clans or classes linked by blood and culture, wherein proximity and subjectivity rules all.

Indeed, if none of the central truths of Catholicism hold, however expressed, then the Nazis were right all along. If there is nothing to mankind but the blind struggle of evolutionary processes, why would I care about anything but the well-being of myself and my kin? If push came to shove, and if duty is nothing more than will and desire, it would be my blood above yours.

No, rather than something intrinsically bound up with the Catholic faith, racism is built into the secular naturalism which despises it. Rooted in the progressivism of Enlightenment modernity, the subjugative drive of empire and industry is really what summoned racism into this world. Our godless endeavor to fashion the pristine paradise in the image of the conqueror and his science, sacrificing every allegedly primitive holdout on the altar of societal evolution. All must be ”modern”, and the current victor decides just what that means.

And unfortunately, some equivalent of ethnic chauvinism is an inevitable feature of the very program. Accordingly, it is being reproduced in the framework of our modern worldviews in a wide variety of ways, projecting our fear and hatred upon the unclean other. Whether we know them as deplorables or aliens, they’re an obstacle to utopia which must be destroyed.

If we are left to our own devices within this structure, the weeds of racism and sectarian strife can never be conquered, since we can never ourselves muster an authoritative and transcendent negation of our petty hatreds. We can produce no real check on those chauvinist prejudices which in the end are but an extension of our satanic pride and self-love. In a world of limited resources, the deep-seated darwinistic outlook of modernity is prone to lock us into strife, to portray for us as natural the never-ending struggle of brother against brother, persisting for as long as there is fresh water or arable land to kill for. My children shall eat, yours be damned.

It is only with Christ that we can truly say that the blood which the world holds to be of such supreme importance is ”nothing but liquid dust”, as Fr. Seraphim of Mull Monastery brilliantly put it. With Him, we are free to reject the meaningless rivalries of the City of Man and the tyrannies of the flesh, for their authority is ultimately empty.

Yet in Christ, we are now also free to truly love this dust in our veins, the dust in which we are rooted. For without the sanctifying transcendence which renders our mere affections a love which grows higher than soul can hope or mind can hide, without a love ultimately pointing beyond itself, our chauvinism is really just that. Without a reference point in a life more splendid than life itself, whatever affection or good will we may have towards our kin, our friends, or our country, will always crumble to nothingness in the end.

But through Christ, the Word incarnate, it is raised up into love everlasting.

Indeed, in Him, we are both obliged to a love for every culture, race, and family on this earth, and duty-bound to perfect the specific ones we have been chosen to be part of. To render their transient beauty a reflection of His most ineffable charity.

It took a stern Nigerian priest sent five thousand miles from his home to evangelize apostate Scandinavia to convince me that I actually was indebted to my forebearers. As I assisted him in the parish, he always indicated that Catholicism is never something alien, introduced from the outside, but a remedy, a panacea reviving and bringing to fruition the goods inherent in the cultures, peoples and individuals it touches. Accordingly, he requested that we who were responsible for the music during Mass made sure to make liberal use of old Swedish hymnody rather than submit to rehashed American pop music, for ”this is your culture”, he maintained. And he thought we ought to keep it and honour it, bringing out that peculiar Norse Catholicism which once sprouted from this hard ground and its inhabitants, placid and always somewhat forlorn. Just like the Eritrean community among us was more than welcome to sing their lively, to me incomprehensible, and magnificently beautiful hymns at the end of a few Masses every month.

She belongs to all of humanity.

Today, I serve in another parish, working most closely with two men of cultures ostensibly as distant from mine own and each other’s as can possibly be. I have never had friends of such fervor, of such charity and humility. And I sincerely wish my anti-racist detractor would come to visit, and observe what fruits Christian fellowship brings. To see how a misfit goth, a Hakka Han restauranteur, and an Ibibio priest in common service of the Lord can share a mutual love and admiration which disregards all boundaries of culture, identity or ethnicity, while steadily growing more true to themselves and their unique contributions in the sanctifying light of our Saviour. United by our secret humanity and its transcendent purpose in His Mystical Body, our comradeship is ineffably more profound than anything the world could ever offer. In Christ, we are one, and in Christ, we are most authentically ourselves:

here is the deepest secret nobody knows

(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud

and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows

higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)

and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)

(from E. E. Cummings, ”[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]”, Complete Poems: 1904-1962, Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1991)

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