St. Ignatius and the spiritual blindness of racism
A year after his conversion in 1521, St. Ignatius was riding a mule on his way to the shrine at Montserrat, when he encountered a Moor—a man with black skin, who may have been a Muslim. As the two men rode along together, they fell into a conversation about the Virgin Mary. The Moor remarked that although he believed Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus, he found it difficult to believe that she remained a virgin for the rest of her life. Ignatius insisted that she did, and when the Moor refused to change his opinion, Ignatius became increasingly indignant.
After the two men parted, Ignatius rode on, still thinking about their conversation. As he did so, he became more and more outraged. Eventually, he worked himself up into such a fury that he began to fantasize about turning around, chasing down the Moor, and killing him. Perhaps, he reasoned, that was what he should have done in the first place. He should have had the courage to defend the Virgin’s honor.
Ignatius had just enough sense left to realize that murder might not be a good idea. Still, his violent fantasy would not leave his mind. Finally, he decided to leave the decision up to his mule. When he reached a fork in the road, one road leading into town and the other going into the hills, he dropped the reins and let the mule go whichever way it wanted. If the mule took the road toward town, Ignatius made up his mind to seek out the Moor and stab him. But if the mule took the road into the hills, Ignatius would let the Moor live.
The decision to follow Christ does not automatically enable us to see with the eyes of Christ.
The mule took the road into the hills. The Moor was spared, and Ignatius did not become a murderer.
When Ignatius included this story in his autobiography, he understood what the reader would see: a man still ruled by both his sense of honor and his hot temper, a man who was ready to take another’s life because of a religious disagreement. His spiritual transformation would take time. His military fervor and quick temper lingered with him. Ignatius certainly did not see the image of God in the Moor. He perceived this Black man’s beliefs and culture to be so “other” as to make him unworthy of life. If not for the mule, the Moor might have been wiped off the face of the earth, all in the name of religious doctrine.
Racism as blasphemy
The decision to follow Christ does not automatically enable us to see with the eyes of Christ. We also need the eyes of our understanding to be opened so that we are able to see God more clearly. As we gain greater clarity, we will begin to look into the eyes of other humans, and we will see God looking back at us. We will be enlightened by the image of God shining out of every human being we encounter.
And yet this form of spiritual blindness persists in our world. Last year, Rick Santorum, a political commentator and former U.S. Senator, had this to say about America: “We birthed a nation from nothing; I mean, there was nothing here.” While praising the pioneer spirit of white people, he belittled the people who were already in the Americas when white settlers arrived and ignored their contributions to American culture. “I mean, there was nothing here,” Mr. Santorum said of the lands on which the United States was founded, and on which these native people lived. “I mean, yes we have Native Americans, but candidly there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.”
“We birthed a nation from nothing; I mean, there was nothing here.”
His comments ignored the richness of native cultures of some seven to 18 million indigenous people who lived in North America before whites settled the continent. This type of disrespect of Native people and cultures, taken to its extreme by the early colonists, contributed to the deaths of millions of human beings.
Today we allow the existence of a societal system that literally kills people of color, through lack of good medical care, unequal legal rights and the effects of poverty. This curse on people of color lives side by side with white Christianity. As James wrote in his epistle, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness” (3:9).
Archbishop Desmond Tutu affirmed this sentiment:
Each person is not just to be respected but to be revered as one created in God’s image. To treat a child of God as if he or she was less than this is not just wrong, which it is; it is not just evil, as it often is; not just painful, as it often must be for the victim; it is veritably blasphemous, for it is to spit in the face of God.
We have been spitting in God’s face for a long time. Slavery was just the beginning. The racism that undergirded slavery did not end with Abolition.
“With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings."
In 1906 a Congolese man named Ota Benga was put on display at the Bronx Zoo in a cage with chimpanzees, a parrot and an Asian orangutang. Tens of thousands flocked to see him, the sign outside the cage proclaiming, “The African Pygmy, ‘Ota Benga’...Exhibited each afternoon during September.” When a group of black ministers complained, zoo officials declared it was merely “an ethnological exhibit.” Their justification was defended in an editorial in the New York Times, stating that pygmies, “whether they are held to be illustrations of arrested development, and really closer to the anthropoid apes than the other African savages, or whether they are viewed as the degenerate descendents of ordinary negroes…they can be studied with profit.”
Who is fit and unfit
Soon after this, American eugenicists began using false biological distinctions between human beings to justify federally funded, coerced sterilization that sought to limit so-called “undesirable” populations, including Asians, Mexicans and Blacks. The practice of medical students performing unnecessary hysterectomies on Southern women of color was so common it became known as a “Mississippi appendectomy.” A third of the sterilizations were performed on girls younger than 18; in at least one case, the girl was only 9 years old.
This was not merely a long-ago practice with no relevance for today. The forced sterilization of Native American women continued into the 1970s and ’80s. And as recently as 2020, a nurse alleged that women detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement were forced to undergo sterilization.
The bigotry behind these sterilizations meant, as Alexandra Stern, professor at the University of Michigan, writes, that “White elites with strong biases about who was “fit” and “unfit” embraced eugenics, believing American society would be improved by increased breeding of Anglo Saxons and Nordics, whom they assumed had high IQs.” However, this also meant that “anyone who did not fit this mold of racial perfection, which included most immigrants, Blacks, Indigenous people, poor whites and people with disabilities, became targets of eugenics programs,” she writes. Those perpetrating these terrible procedures saw in their fellow human beings something undesirable, something unworthy of existing. Something they would rather not see at all.
The forced sterilization of Native American women continued into the 1970s and ’80s.
The spirituality of St. Ignatius Loyola can be a tool for us to see the sin of racism for what it is—the murder of the image of God in our fellow humans. Ignatian spirituality asks that we never look at a human being as less than ourselves. Instead we are called to see the full reality of one another, as sisters and brothers, all sharing in the divine DNA.
But I never engaged in forced sterilizations, you might say. I don’t believe in eugenics.
Have you ever seen a person of color in a hotel and assumed they were a housemaid? Or taken for granted that a person of color wandering through a garden must be a groundskeeper? If so, you may not have meant any harm by these assumptions—but you failed to see the divine image when you looked at these individuals.
A Black novice?
When I was a Jesuit novice, our community sometimes invited friends and benefactors to come and share a meal with us. I love to cook, and enjoyed the opportunity to show off my skills. On one particular occasion, I was running late. People were already eating the first course, while I was still scurrying to produce more food to feed our hungry guests. As I was working, one of our guests came into the kitchen. “Which restaurant do you normally work at?” she asked me.
Have you ever seen a person of color in a hotel and assumed they were a housemaid?
I smiled and shook my head. “No, ma’am, I’m a novice here.”
She could not believe me. “I have been coming here for years,” she said, “and I’ve never seen a Black novice. So please—be honest. Tell me what restaurant you work at. Your food is delicious, and I’d love to go to the restaurant.”
I shut my eyes for an instant, then took a deep breath. “I am a second-year novice here,” I said.
“Fine,” she said. “I know you’re lying to me. Thank you anyway for your hard work. Your food is delicious.”
She looked at a Black man and assumed he had to be a kitchen worker rather than a Jesuit in training. Perhaps, in her mind, people of color are more likely to be domestic workers, there to serve “normal” people (white people). It seemed she thought she was being gracious by complimenting my food.
I took a deep breath. “I am a second-year novice here,” I said.
After this experience, I found myself less eager to cook. When I saw this woman in the future, I avoided her. I also avoided the kitchen. I felt myself diminished in some way. She did not recognize the image of God in me.
In the first chapter of Genesis, God declared that we are good. Unfortunately, the temptation in the Garden of Eden is still alive today—the temptation to refuse to accept the goodness of our humanity, its reflection of the divine. When we fail to perceive the inherent goodness and dignity of each person, we are listening to the lies of the Deceiver, the evil force Ignatius referred to as the “enemy of our human nature.”
Jesus speaks directly to this in the Gospel of Matthew: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
As Mother Teresa said: “I see Jesus in every human being. I say to myself, this is hungry Jesus; I must feed him. This is sick Jesus. I must wash him and tend to him.”
I am reminded of a story told by another Jesuit author, Anthony DeMello. (Pretty much the same story is told near the end of the Disney Pixar movie “Soul”.) It goes like this: A small fish swims up to a whale. “Excuse me,” he says, “can you tell me where to find this thing called the ocean.”
The whale answers, “It’s right here. It’s where you are right now.”
“This?” asks the little fish. “This is only water. I want the ocean.” And he swims away disappointed.
Many of us are spiritual seekers, searching for connection with the divine. And all the while, God is right in front of us, all around us—present in the faces of our fellow human beings.