There is little that I, a middle-class white guy from Canada, can add of much value to the conversation on racism now happening, a conversation that will hopefully bear fruit in all of our lives and societies, from those of us unconsciously complicit in systems that oppressed, to active oppressors, to those unjustly oppressed. In Canada, we are coming to realise that we have our own share of anti-black racism, but also, since we have proportionately fewer black people for white people to oppress, more than enough oppression of and racism against indigenous people. In Australia, I understand the Aborigines are out marching as well.
So, as we all become painfully aware, I will only offer what little I can by way of what tiny part of stuff is my expertise: a sliver of ancient Christianity …
A few days ago, Death to the World posted this amazing icon of St Moses the Black, one of the fourth-century Desert Fathers of Egypt:
Before getting to Abba Moses, it is worth pausing on Death to the World’s caption and tags that accompanied the icon:
This is precisely what I would expect from Death to the World, and it’s always worth pausing to remember that. Death to the World, if you didn’t know, is an Eastern Orthodox group whose originally membership was drawn from the counterculture on the US west coast, especially those into heavy metal. It stills has a counterculture vibe. It actually started out as a zine back in the day! They are very big into the work of Father Seraphim Rose, who himself came out of the ’60s counterculture of hippies, New Age, and Marxism.
Death to the World will always point us in this direction. We are to abandon it all. There is no political saviour. We must give all to gain everything (okay, that’s St Clare of Assisi). We need to remember this, always. We will never build Jerusalem in this green and pleasant land (contra William Blake). The last true rebellion is the overthrowing of self, the death to a corrupt and dying world, and a wholehearted embrace of truth. Be holy. Sainthood is your protection.
Abba Moses would agree. Abba Moses was a former robber who was converted late in life and became great and holy monk amongst the Desert Fathers in Scetis. I am not sure where exactly he was from, whether modern Ethiopia or Sudan or southern Egypt. But he was definitely one of the few black saints of the patristic era before the conversion of Ethiopia.
Here are four instructions from Abba Moses. The full ‘seven’ gets very long. From Sister Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 141:
- The monk must die to his neighbour and never judge him at all, in any way whatever.
- The monk must die to everything before leaving the body, in order not to harm anyone.
- If the monk does not think in his heart hat he is a sinner, God will not hear him.
- If a man’s deeds are not in harmony with his prayers, he labours in vain.
The first, last, and greatest rebellion lies here, within us, within the putrid wickedness of our own hearts.
The statement, “No political saviour,” should remind us that humans are evil and will perpetrate evil. If we fight for justice and a more just society, we must be ready for failure at some level.
The tension is that the same Desert that nourished St Moses the Black — who actually received some abuse from fellow monks for his skin colour — also calls us to care for the poor as part of our death to the world:
A brother asked an aged monk: ‘There are two brothers: one of them leads a life of solitude six days a week and does much penance, while the other is dedicated to the service of the sick. Which of the two is behaving in the way that is more acceptable to God?’
The old man answered him: ‘The brother who is always making a retreat would never attain the heights that the one who serves the sick has reached, not even if you hoisted him with a hook in his nose.’ -Anonymous Collection of Sayings of the Desert Fathers no. 224, quoted in Thomas Spidlik, Drinking from the Hidden Fountain, 175
St John Chrysostom, who had been a monk in the Syrian desert before becoming a priest and later bishop of Constantinople, spoke often and at length about the abuse of the poor by the rich, and called upon his wealthy, aristocratic audience to care for the poor. His audience included the emperor, remember. St Basil of Caesarea, who lived an ascetic lifestyle and had visited the famous monasteries of Egypt, also exhorted people to care for the poor, but he went a step further and built a place where the poor and sick could be cared for.
Their political system was very different from ours, but those fathers of the church who had the ear of emperors tended to call upon them to care for the poor.
Our cultural world is also very different from theirs. Ancient Romans are a fine example of how bigotry and xenophobia can exist without modern concepts of race. Not that an ancient person wouldn’t be aware that Abba Moses was black and Patrick of Ireland was a pinkish white colour. They just had a variety of other markers of ethnicity that they took into account when being cruel and oppressive, frankly.
Our questions of racism and race are, therefore, not their questions. Nevertheless, justice cries out. We do live in this particular world, this iteration of human bigotry and oppression, this cultural moment. Injustice is being wrought against fellow human beings made in the image of God. St John Chrysostom and St Basil and the Desert Fathers would all call for just treatment of black people. They would consider kneeling on a man’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds until he asphyxiates and dies, with people looking on calling for mercy, to be wickedness. To be murder.
Therefore, seeking social justice in our society, in ways that we hope are effective here and now, is an act in line with the spirit of the writings of these great Fathers of the Church.
The Kingdom of the Heavens, when a great multitude from every tribe, tongue, and nation will gather around the throne of the Lamb, has not yet come in its fullness and power. It will not come until Christ returns to exact justice upon evildoers. Until then, all our efforts at building a just society will be partial. Nevertheless, we are called to do these things, to preach repentance to racists and our own selves for our complicity, and to seek justice for the victims of the racist oppression that to this day plagues our societies.
I suspect that the only sustainable way to do this is to die to ourselves every day so that we can more fully love our neighbour.
This is the tension of the Christian life. Now and not-yet.