The Evil of Dehumanization

Reading Dispatches from the Race War by Tim Wise and RCL Pr23A

I am reading Tim Wise’s book, Dispatches from the Race War (City Lights Books, 2020.) Cornel West calls Wise “a vanilla brother in the tradition of (abolitionist) John Brown.” I think that qualifies him as a “white ally.”

Dispatches is a collection of short essays.  “Killing One Monster, Unleashing Another” is a meditation on the revelry and partying which followed the announcement that Osama bin Laden had been killed. Wise agreed that killing bin Laden was necessary, but he was disturbed by the raucous, beer-fueled, nationalistic celebrations which followed. Wise says that killing is always a somber deed, even when it seems to be necessary or justified.

Last Tuesday, President Biden spoke about the Hamas massacre. He said:

[T]here are moments in this life — and I mean this literally — when the pure, unadulterated evil is unleashed on this world. The people of Israel lived through one such moment this weekend.  The bloody hands of the terrorist organization Hamas — a group whose stated purpose for being is to kill Jews.  This was an act of sheer evil.

Remarks by President Biden on the Terrorist Attacks in Israel, October 10, 2023.

He said that acts were evil.  Not people. Evil is in the dehumanization that enables one person to humiliate, terrorize, torture or kill another. It is essential to racism and genocide, and it begins with language: Accusations, name-calling, scapegoating and mockery. The language of Hamas dehumanizes Jews.

We need to take care that our language does not dehumanize, which is why Biden also called on Israel to abide by the rules of war. The rules of war insist on the humanity of all civilians and even enemy combatants.

I can remember hearing this week’s gospel reading years ago when I was a little girl. I was bothered because my mother said I always had to wear a dress to church. I didn’t like dressing up. I did not like this Bible story because it seemed to say that a good Christian should be wearing Sunday clothes ALL THE TIME.

Of course, the story is not about clothes. It is about our values and whether we are willing to be faithful to them all the time. It’s about not laughing at the racist joke even though we are among white friends. It’s about not packing a picnic lunch for a lynching just because everyone else on the block does. And it is about not giving in to the understandable temptation to demonize an entire people for the reprehensible and evil acts of a few.

Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash

He who has been so long rejected must now be embraced

Reading The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin and RCL PR22A

It’s been a hectic week, and I found my mind still working out the implications of last week’s post. I wondered if maybe I should not try to write a new post. But I remembered that this is a camino. One walks as far as one can. If I need to “walk” a shorter distance this week, that’s okay.

I was able to read James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time.” It was published in 1963. Two convergences held my attention as I read: one was about history, the other was about the gospel reading in this week’s Revised Common Lectionary.

First, the history. In May of 1963, after the book was published, Time Magazine put Baldwin on the cover and ran an article entitled “The Root of the Negro Problem.”  Four months later, on Sunday, September 15, white men bombed Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church killing four young black girls.

Second, I kept hearing a passage from Matthew’s gospel.

The Fire Next Time consists of two essays. The first was a letter which Baldwin wrote to his nephew. He said:

“You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being…  [T]he details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear.

The Fire Next Time, Vintage International Books, 1993. Kindle edition at 7-8.  Emphasis added.

In the second essay Baldwin argued that the success or failure of the American experiment depended upon its willingness or refusal to deal with its racist past and present.

“[I]f we persist in thinking of ourselves as [a white nation], we condemn ourselves… to sterility and decay, whereas if we could accept ourselves as we are, we might bring new life to the Western achievements, and transform them. The price of this transformation is the unconditional freedom of the Negro; it is not too much to say that he, who has been so long rejected, must now be embraced, and at no matter what psychic or social risk. He is the key figure in this country, and the America future is precisely as bright or as dark as his.”

The Fire Next Time, Vintage International Books, 1993 Kindle edition at 94.

And the gospel passage I kept hearing was this:

The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.

Matthew 21:42