“With her dark skin and Indian features, the Lady offered an image of divine compassion for a demoralized people. Speaking to Juan Diego in his own language, she presented herself in terms of compassion and solidarity, not power and domination. Through him, she called the Church to heed the voice of the poor, to serve as a vehicle for their cultural and spiritual survival.”Robert Ellsberg, “Our Lady of Guadalupe” in Give Us This Day, December 2019, p. 129
We in Europe and the United States (in what is sometimes referred to as the Christian West) are living in a time not only of great turmoil but of judgment and reckoning. One of the most unfortunate results of Constantine’s appropriation of Christianity as the state religion was the loss of the universality of Jesus’ message. The religious and the secular motivations of the great missionary endeavors of the Church became indistinguishable. As James Baldwin wrote almost 60 years ago, “White Americans find it as difficult as white people elsewhere do to divest themselves of the notion that they are in possession of some intrinsic value that black people need, or want.”
Today we celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I remember quite young being struck by the fact that most artistic renderings of Jesus and Mary that we would see pictured them as Europeans, often Florentine Italians. The European form tradition had come to dominate the Christian faith tradition. In the appearance of Our Lady to Juan Diego, she comes to a people as one of them. As Robert Ellsberg puts it, “she presented herself in terms of compassion and solidarity, not power and domination.”
To be among a dominant people is insidious, for it is unrecognizable to those who are dominant. The turmoil of our time in the West is due in no small part to the historical reality that we are on the threshold of the end of that dominance. So, what makes that so fearful for us? To begin to understand the root causes of “our” own fears would be the beginning, perhaps, of the possibility of a new and much freer perspective.
Many years ago I realized that I had a touch of the paranoid in me (perhaps or perhaps not in the normal range). I would often think/fear that others were belittling or making fun of me. When I mentioned this to a therapist, she asked me if I did that to others. I had to admit that from my youth I would have an eye for a sense of what I, or my family, saw as the ridiculous in others and so attempt to extract humor from it. In short, it was what I did to others that had me fearing what they were doing to me.
Through and through what we see as American society and culture is riddled with racism and the effects of slavery. Recent research has demonstrated that so much of how we organize our society, our very refusal to take more account of the “common good” in our political decisions, our societal view of crime and punishment, and even our very view of ourselves as workers are all the result of the country’s “original sin” of slavery. American society was built, to a large degree, on the displacement and servitude of an entire people. The great fear, unspoken but repeatedly acted upon, is that should black people become empowered they would seek retribution for how they have been treated.
So, it is not surprising that as we stand globally on the threshold of the emergence of the “global south” as the new hegemonic power, those who have wielded their power, far too often unjustly, are terrified. It is not surprising that in both the Americas and and Europe there is resurgence in racist and nationalist movements. Today’s feast is, thus, both challenge and possibility.
Faith is not a matter or pride but rather of grace and humility. We see this in today’s gospel. Mary’s response to the angel’s message is “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” The coming and indwelling of God in us does not inflate us. Rather, it puts us in our true place as servant of the Lord and of all of humanity. Yet, as we hear and see the expression of contemporary Christianity in our culture, we see it proclaimed as a source of privilege and power. In the United States this takes a rather perverse form, as the dominant force is forever declaring its victimization. True faith is not a source or right and entitlement; it is rather a vocation to serve the least among us.
In his very challenging, and timely, essay from 1962 entitled “Letter From a Region in My Mind,” James Baldwin unmasks the very illusions of even what we see as our liberality. It is from a sense of superiority that white people believe that it is their holy task to help non-whites accept and adopt their values and standards. Yet, even more than when Baldwin wrote, we are all coming to know the impoverishment of spirit, of community, and of the environment to which our prevailing values and standards have brought us. Through our repression of others we have achieved power and dominance, but we have also produced our own misery.
In our relationships with each other and in our relationship to our “common home,” we are in serious trouble. As Alcoholics Anonymous understands, the first step to “recovery” is a very difficult one. “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” The first step of spirituality, from a Xaverian perspective, is that we allow ourselves to be “put in our place.” It is only in the truth of ourselves that we can become free. Instead of raging on by falsely asserting a power and dominance that no longer exists, we need to acknowledge the truth of our situation. What we think we fear in others is merely fear of ourselves. It is our own violence born of our own sense of impotence that we fear. Physical violence, the subjection, lashing, and lynching of the “other,” is but the ultimate manifestation of impotence. Bullying and intimidation by private or public figures is the same.
Unfortunately it is impossible to separate the assertions of “make America great again” from its history of slavery and racism. The time of greatness to which the phrase hearkens back was a time of dominance of one race (white) over others (black, red, and brown). Unfortunately in the American religious comprehension, this was the halcyon time of Christian values. But God has no “race.” God doesn’t even have a religion. The great human sin is idolatry. And we are forever making gods and religious teachings out of our own desires, prejudices, and even sins.
It is often said that the only way out is the way through. Perhaps the only way out of this apparently hopeless religious and political quagmire in which we find ourselves is to recognize the otherness and the universality of God. It may well be that “we” who have maintained hegemony in the Church and the world for so long are now the demoralized people who need the message of Divine compassion which Our Lady of Guadalupe brought to Juan Diego.
White Americans find it as difficult as white people elsewhere do to divest themselves of the notion that they are in possession of some intrinsic value that black people need, or want. And this assumption—which, for example, makes the solution to the Negro problem depend on the speed with which Negroes accept and adopt white standards—is revealed in all kinds of striking ways, from Bobby Kennedy’s assurance that a Negro can become President in forty years to the unfortunate tone of warm congratulation with which so many liberals address their Negro equals. It is the Negro, of course, who is presumed to have become equal—an achievement that not only proves the comforting fact that perseverance has no color but also overwhelmingly corroborates the white man’s sense of his own value. Alas, this value can scarcely be corroborated in any other way; there is certainly little enough in the white man’s public or private life that one should desire to imitate. White men, at the bottom of their hearts, know this. Therefore, a vast amount of the energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem is produced by the white man’s profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white, not to be seen as he is, and at the same time a vast amount of the white anguish is rooted in the white man’s equally profound need to be seen as he is, to be released from the tyranny of his mirror. All of us know, whether or not we are able to admit it, that mirrors can only lie, that death by drowning is all that awaits one there. It is for this reason that love is so desperately sought and so cunningly avoided. Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth. And I submit, then, that the racial tensions that menace Americans today have little to do with real antipathy—on the contrary, indeed—and are involved only symbolically with color. These tensions are rooted in the very same depths as those from which love springs, or murder. The white man’s unadmitted—and apparently, to him, unspeakable—private fears and longings are projected onto the Negro. The only way he can be released from the Negro’s tyrannical power over him is to consent, in effect, to become black himself, to become a part of that suffering and dancing country that he now watches wistfully from the heights of his lonely power and, armed with spiritual traveller’s checks, visits surreptitiously after dark. How can one respect, let alone adopt, the values of a people who do not, on any level whatever, live the way they say they do, or the way they say they should? I cannot accept the proposition that the four-hundred-year travail of the American Negro should result merely in his attainment of the present level of the American civilization. I am far from convinced that being released from the African witch doctor was worthwhile if I am now—in order to support the moral contradictions and the spiritual aridity of my life—expected to become dependent on the American psychiatrist. It is a bargain I refuse. The only thing white people have that black people need, or should want, is power—and no one holds power forever. White people cannot, in the generality, be taken as models of how to live. Rather, the white man is himself in sore need of new standards, which will release him from his confusion and place him once again in fruitful communion with the depths of his own being. And I repeat: The price of the liberation of the white people is the liberation of the blacks—the total liberation, in the cities, in the towns, before the law, and in the mind. Why, for example—especially knowing the family as I do—I should want to marry your sister is a great mystery to me. But your sister and I have every right to marry if we wish to, and no one has the right to stop us. If she cannot raise me to her level, perhaps I can raise her to mine.James Baldwin, from “Letter From a Region in My Mind”