There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28).
The New Year is a pagan holiday, really, no more than a number arbitrarily imposed on a certain day. So what? Nevertheless, it might give cause to examine conscience. Beyond personal foibles, as a global community, where are we headed? My intuition, looking back on 2015 and to the year ahead, is that demonization of otherness is taking hold.
There is no brotherhood without otherhood. This is a strategic concept for the formation of strongly cohesive groups. To create an invincible human column, leaders define the border and declare outsiders undesirable. Internal secrets help, but the determining factor is the fabrication of a clear and visible enemy. This channels violence outside the group and strengthens bonds within. This is perhaps why human beings have a tendency to invent stereotypes, project evil intentions and demonize those who are different. In today’s world, immigrants, blacks and Muslims are in danger.
I was born in 1958. I grew up believing that racism was a thing of the past, a chronic evil since the dawn of civilization that was happily overcome by the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Racial segregation disappeared in the United States in 1965. Apartheid vanished from South Africa in 1994. The issue seemed to have been resolved. So, we thought, what would the next challenge be?
But it didn’t work out that way. In 2015, racial, religious and ethnic bigotry was a determining factor in human relations. This is not a rebirth. We never really got over it. Black youths get shot and nobody goes to jail. Same as 1955. An Ohio grand jury has just decided not to charge a police officer who killed a teenager playing with a toy gun. Tamir Rice was black. So was Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Emmett Till. And there are more.
Choosing Our Neighbors
In human history, racism is a relatively recent phenomenon. Slavery existed in ancient times, but it was a civil status, not a racial condition. In the United States, racial discrimination in Southern states became the law of the land starting in 1880. “Jim Crow” laws stripped African-Americans of rights they had formerly enjoyed.
Apartheid in South Africa was a novelty in 1948, in defiance of the U.N. declaration. The Nazi persecution of Jews was a 20th-century thing. These are the dark secrets of an age that considered itself modern, enlightened and rational. What were people thinking?
Radical Darwinism theorized that humanity continued to evolve toward a state of greater perfection. Against all empirical evidence, it was believed that certain races were inferior and destined to terminate via natural selection. Charles Darwin never said any such thing. Evolution is a scientific fact, but racial discrimination is a dehumanizing ideological option. Followers of Jeremy Bentham and Thomas Malthus thought that capitalism would help nature to vaporize blacks and poor people, and that would clear the planet for exclusive use by rich white people. Intellectuals of the late 19th century called this science.
In the 20th century, eugenics was also considered a science, and not just in Nazi Germany. It was practiced proudly in the state of California, where 20,000 people thought to be weak or unfit were involuntarily sterilized between 1909 and 1963. It was supposed to improve the race.
Emmanuel Levinas, a French Jew of Lithuanian descent, survived the European holocaust of the 1940s and dedicated a large part of his philosophical effort to the phenomenon of otherness. Why is it that human beings have a tendency to demonize the other? Anyone of another race, religion, sexual orientation, nationality or ethnic group is frequently feared and catalogued as dangerous by those who have accumulated money, prestige and power.
Globalization has brought greater diversity to our horizon, but universal brotherhood did not come with it. Every generation must learn the love of neighbor, but this generation has tried to choose who its neighbors really are. Whoever doesn’t fit the desired profile is excluded from the circle. And we do not love those we have excluded.
Monolithic uniformity calms the weak-hearted. Fear of diversity returns undaunted like the immortal hydra. In our day, hate for the unknown continues to poison human relations. But hate does not act on its own. There are powerful people who use generalized panic to encourage enmity in order to increase their own power, wealth and prestige. Many now speculate that panics have been created in order to take advantage of them. It is time we learn to identify the demagogues, denounce them for what they are, and be free of their bloody and genocidal discourse.
Nowadays, it is considered bad taste to use language that expresses ethnic bias. Our discourse has to be politically correct. And yet, Islamic is accepted as a synonym for terrorist, and Mexican as a synonym for drug dealer. We allow violence against youth, supposing that a hand in a pocket probably hides a firearm and an intent to kill, if that hand is black.
Here in Brazil, 3,000 young people died over the course of the past year because they seemed suspicious. Military police have learned that it is easier to process a cadaver than a prisoner. People applaud instead of protesting. They like it when all the bad people die. It reinforces the myth that everyone gets what they deserve. Forget about justice. The decision about who deserves to die is made in the instant a trigger is pulled.
Demagogues assure us that, this way, the world is, every day, a bit safer. The truth is quite the opposite. It becomes more and more dangerous. He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword. Violence has become our new cornerstone.
The irrational tendency to categorize people according to race, religion and ethnic origin is subtle and accepted. The logic is this: I saw a movie in which a black guy held up a convenience store. Therefore, you have to be careful of all of them. Evil is projected upon a caste of scapegoats. The imaginary enemy is the hobgoblin who commands strict devotion.
It’s not real. Lies belong to Lucifer. The demon obliges you to vent all of society’s pent-up anger on a few innocents. In the long run, this destroys us from the inside.
The Gospel calls us to love our imaginary enemies and do good to those we have been taught to hate. The good news is universal brotherhood, without otherhood. We are all sons and daughters of one good Father, brothers and sisters of one compassionate Christ.