On Chesterton, sin, and why racism is never a thing of the past

The politics of new movements can be questioned, the violent actions of groups can be called to account; and the arrogant virtue signaling of celebrities rightly can be ridiculed; but there is no doubt about the human condition.

A man and woman hold hands in London's Hyde Park following the death of George Floyd, an African American man who was taken into custody by Minneapolis police and later died at a Minneapolis hospital. (CNS photo/Dylan Martinez, Reuters)

Racism in America has been the hottest topic of the last few weeks, with many voices clamoring for dominance in the debate. Yet, certain conservative circles, which overlap with some Catholic circles and certainly oppose racism on principle, circulate the dismissive attitude that this is not a discussion we need to have.

From their perspective, shared in memes and social media rants, the problem of racism was already settled, and to renew the concern now is either silly or deceptive. After all, the reasoning goes, slavery was abolished long ago; the Civil Rights movement of the ‘60s was a success and segregation a faint memory; real racists now only exist in tiny fringe groups and everyone agrees that racism is evil. Some go further and make the issue completely bipartisan: modern examples of discrimination or “white privilege” are merely figments of the leftist imagination, they say, purely invented as a political tactic, and should be disregarded or vehemently refuted as such. But this thinking is disingenuous, especially when accompanied by assertions about the “real” problems, implying that racism itself is not a modern problem.

Of course, the issues at play are exceedingly complex, and it is equally faulty to assert, as many progressives do, that modern racism is the fault of conservatives. Progressive ideologies and their effect on our communities carry a heavy share of the blame for current tensions. Yet the sin of racism, and the blame game for the sufferings of black communities, is used as a political wedge by both sides to score points, to our shame. In this climate, it is unwise to fall into the habit of believing that racism is relegated to the past.

Sadly, that is not how sin works; old sins do not keep tidily in the pages of history books. The politics of new movements can be questioned, the violent actions of groups can be called to account; and the arrogant virtue signaling of celebrities rightly can be ridiculed; but there is no doubt about the human condition. Sins are perennial in human flesh, like a cancer that viciously returns after successful chemotherapy; they spring up as weeds in a garden left untended. We can’t rely lazily on the victories of our forebears, even if we once believed those victories to have been complete. The enemy of humanity is too seasoned a campaigner to allow us to rest on those laurels; he will take the tiny seed of sin left over and nurse its foul growth until it is strong enough to invade again, under our radar. There is no final victory on this side of the end of the world.

Interestingly, for an American conservative seriously to think any social advance against sin is permanent requires significant cognitive dissonance. It is disingenuous to argue that racism is a thing of the past but that the evils of communism, for instance, must be regarded as warily now as in the days of our fathers. Why would the errors of racism be a settled issue but the errors of communism an ever-present concern, long after the Berlin Wall fell? Both evils of the past century are completely capable of making a comeback in this one. We can both be on our guard against, say, the socialism of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and be vigilant against the new shoots of latent racial discrimination.

G. K. Chesterton addressed this perennial fight for good against resurgent evil in his classic Orthodoxy. In the chapter titled “The Eternal Revolution,” he pointed out that you can’t just paint a fence post once and call the job done. “If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post.”

“One reason offered for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow better,” Chesterton explains, “But the only reason for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow worse.” Christianity, GKC argued, is the only answer to the progressive desire to improve the world continually, because the Christian knows that “men were naturally backsliders; that human virtue tended of its own to rust or to rot… Human beings as such go wrong.”

This need to forever renew human institutions against the creeping effects of sin is the whole point of Chesterton’s epic poem The Ballad of the White Horse, the story of King Alfred’s fight to drive the invading pagan Danes out of England. Chesterton draws an analogy from a prehistoric sketch of a horse, cut long ago into a chalky hillside in southern England. If the Horse is to remain on the hillside, it must be weeded regularly, menial as that task is:

Away in the waste of the White Horse Down
An idle child alone
Played some small game through hours that pass
And patiently would pluck the grass,
Patiently push the stone.

Not only are the best things worth fighting for, but it is our fate to take up that same battle over and over with each generation. In driving out the pagan invaders, King Alfred takes up this constant fight against evil symbolized by weeds threatening to erase the beautiful picture of the Horse. He is victorious against the Danes but, in his old age, the heathens attack England once again. His courtiers are dismayed that the king cannot rest confident in his old victory, saying “surely this is hard, / That we be never quit of them.” Alfred is not so shaken by this news. He points to the picture of the Horse on the hillside and says,

Will ye part with the weeds forever?
Or show daisies to the door?
Or will you bid the bold grass
Go, and return no more?

….

And though skies alter and empires melt,
This word shall still be true:
If you would have the horse of old,
Scour ye the horse anew.

He warns them to remain armed and ready for defense against all evil, for it will always come again—and in subtler ways. Surveying his land, Alfred remarks:

I know that weeds shall grow in it
Faster than men can burn;
And though they scatter now and go,
In some far century, sad and slow,
I have a vision, and I know
The heathen shall return.

You can’t weed the shoots of sins like racism from the garden of human society just once. You must weed it many times over, year after year; because as long as there is soil for good things to grow, bad things will grow with it. Free American soil is particularly fertile; all manner of things take root here. And the enemy is sowing weeds while we sleep. As Chesterton said, to defend and renew the good things, you must always be having a revolution.

Erasing racism—and any human sin—is a slow revolution of continual renewal, and not simply a swift one of hashtags and violence. It requires charity and forbearance with one another as we uncover problems and work out improvements. Patiently let us pluck the grass, and patiently push the stone.


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.


About Lauren Enk Mann 17 Articles
Lauren Enk Mann obtained her B.A. in English Language and Literature from Christendom College. An avid fan of G.K. Chesterton, she writes about film, pop culture, literature, and the New Evangelization.

18 Comments

    • Of course we don’t, sir. However, it doesn’t look as though the author is implying that in the article at all.

      • I didn’t mean to imply that he was, but in times like this it’s a good idea to mention it every now and then.

        P.S. – “Sir” was not necessary, but it was appreciated.

  1. ‘Prejudices can be found in all our hearts—in many cases the seed was placed there unwillingly or unknowingly by our upbringing and culture’. Our personal life experiences when contemplated upon honestly confronts our own ignorance. Only humility can cleanse any prejudicial root from within our hearts.

    Eckhart Tolle, a spiritual writer, wrote of how prejudice can degrade another human person “Prejudice of any kind implies that you are identified only with the thinking mind. It means you don’t see the other human being anymore, but only your own concept of that human being. To reduce the aliveness of another human being to a concept is already a form of violence.” Do we take prejudices into our place of worship? Are we prejudiced against individuals or any community? If so, we turn to Jesus for healing we need”

    Mahatma Gandhi wrote that during his student days he began to read the Gospels seriously and even considered embracing Christianity. He believed that in the teachings of Jesus he could find the solution to the caste system that was dividing the people of India. So, one Sunday he decided to attend services at a nearby church and talk to the minister about becoming a Christian. When he entered the sanctuary, however, the usher refused to give him a seat and suggested that he go worship with his own people. Gandhi left the church and never returned. “If Christians have caste differences also,” he said, “I might as well remain a Hindu.” That usher’s prejudice not only betrayed Jesus but also turned a person away from knowing Jesus more closely.

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  2. Amen, Terrence. Alot more police are shot by black men than unarmed black men get shot by police. Alot more whites get killed and violently attacked by racist blacks than blacks get killed and violently attacked by racist whites.

    “All lives matter to me.” – God

  3. As we try to pull up weeds of sin, don’t we need to be mindful that we avoid pulling up huge gobs of healthy and health-giving plant life, food plants and providers of beauty? Racism is an evil. Evil will never be eradicated. It is humanity’s “original sin”. But evil is mostly personal. There are evil people in the USA, but no more (and likely less) than anywhere else in the world. The USA is not evil, or “systemically racist” or “white privileged” There are evil policemen, but “the police” are not evil. Let’s not destroy Western Civilization because there are evil people wandering about.

  4. I object to Lauren Enk Mann’s comments about white privilege.

    White privilege exists, but to mention it politically is to infer that it needs to be actively rectified. But attempts to rectify it will undoubtedly cause much greater evil and injustice than is the original problem. This is because it falls into a category of things that are an intrinsic part of the human condition.

    Some of us are born with or have obtained wealth, intellectual aptitude, physical aptitude, good parents, good genes, etc. Our job, as human beings, is to make the best of what we have and to treat people fairly, equally, and with charity and dignity. It’s not our job to take from others or to make them feel guilty for what they have through moral means.

    In short, you can’t take a person’s money, good intellect, strong will, physical skill, good genes, or their good parents without doing violence to them in some manner.

    • Good point. It’s also our duty to lobby for conditions that will improve the lot of all poor people. School choice, vouchers, etc. are the option. Quite forcing the poor to accept what the government will give them and nothing more. We need to look for ways to improve opportunities for the younger poor people. More public school, welfare, etc. is not doing the job.

      Equality of outcomes is not a guarantee–nor did Christ ever say it was–but equality of opportunity is a moral imperative. We need to policies to support families and make school choice realistic.

  5. Ms. Mann’s case for racism being a societal constant would be stronger if, in addition to rhapsodizing about the inevitability of evil, she included an example or two of publicly accepted racism in America.

    But she can’t, of course. Because in our supposedly racist culture, actually being known to be a racist is to be a pariah.

    Actual racists, as celebrity chef Paula Deen virtually admitted to being back in 2013 when she was revealed to have used the “n” word, are hounded out of decent society. They are divested of their careers, despised as reprobates and mini-hitlers, and singled out as objects of hatred and disgust.

    No, I’m not saying that racism doesn’t exist in America. But IMO it doesn’t exist on a societal or “systemic” scale, unless you include the monolithically inferior schools, the genocidal abortion rates, the rampant drug use and the burned-out families that are the legacy of leftist policies as Democrats maintain their uniformly ironclad control over America’s inner cities.

    The black population of America does suffer one seriously debilitating disadvantage in our society. They are shamelessly and regularly exploited by the Democratic Party and its coterie of race-baiting “black leaders.”

    Anyone who’s interested in promoting the cause of justice in minority communities should work to free the inner cities from the yoke of Democratic Party policies that have been destroying black lives for more than a half century.

  6. I don’t like being cruel but this is the least edifying article I have ever read on this site. I think she was going to write on racism and GKC before she had anything insightful to say about either.

  7. The Chesterton quotations were definitely the highlights of this article. Of course, white racism still exists and can always make a comeback, but there is little to suggest that it is even close to being a major problem in American society right now. What influence or power do white racists have anywhere in the world today? Communism and its close cousin, Cultural Marxism, on the other hand, are not only not dead, they are anything but dormant today. The most populous nation in the world with the second largest economy is unmistakably Communist. The true believers among the people rampaging in our streets today are inspired by Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao, not Hitler. Yes, it far more reasonable to worry about Marxism than a takeover by the KKK.

  8. My diocese’s newspaper is plush with articles decrying the sin of racism and privilege. I find this all a bit odd and wonder if it’s just a projection or if we’re being purposely gaslighted. Because the high school in my city that is 99% white, wealthy and privileged is not the public high school!
    Elites scolding poorer white families on their having white privilege. Money is privilege.

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. On Chesterton, sin, and why racism is never a thing of the past | Catholic Canada
  2. On Chesterton, sin, and why racism is never a thing of the past - Catholic Mass Search

Leave a Reply to Steve Seitz Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.


*