On Race and Plague: A Reading List
Roberta Ahmanson • 16 June 2020
The past several weeks have made an already life-changing situation even more treacherous. The murder of George Floyd fanned the simmering flames of an issue that has plagued our country since its founding. I am one of those who believes this country began with a profound contradiction at its core, and hence our history has been marked and marred both by trying to resolve that contradiction and by seeing our failure to resolve all its implications entirely. Other voices now argue that it was not a contradiction – the words of being equally endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights and at the same time accepting the enslavement of Africans as the legal property of their “owners” – but rather the essence of our nation. And, now, their view is that the nation and all its structures must be destroyed in order to begin again on a just footing.
This view is both myopically American and at the same time rooted in ideas that began in Europe. Let me explain. In some ways the critical race theory approach, which is one name for this way of thinking, is another form of American exceptionalism. In this case, America is THE Great Satan, THE worst country on the planet. It must be destroyed for a just society to be built in its place. (Here it is necessary to add that critical race theory has indeed, revealed areas where injustice toward African Americans heinously persists. But, its roots and its goals, I argue, are pernicious.) Meanwhile, other atrocities occurring in our world are ignored. For example, while riots and looting and then peaceful protests filled American streets, Nigerian Christian men, women, and children were continuing to be targeted by militant Muslims. In the past ten years tens of thousands of Christian Nigerians have died. In China the Uighurs have been the target of forced re-education and murder. In the past 20 years the Christians living in Syria, people who have been there since the time of Jesus Christ, have been murdered or driven from their homes. Once numbering in the millions, their numbers are now decimated, down to at most a few hundred thousand, many who have managed to survive live in refugee camps in Lebanon or Turkey. None of these global atrocities have been mentioned during the current American upheavals. We have focused our righteous indignation only on American evils.
However, the roots of critical race theory are not American. They go back to the 1920s and the thinking of people, such as Antonio Gramsci, Wilhelm Reich, and others. Those thinkers saw that the Soviet experiment was not going to be repeated elsewhere in the West – in Europe or America. And, so another way to destroy the West, which they saw as evil, had to be found. If the proletariat was not going to rise up, other victims had to be found or created. So began the politics of race and class and gender. (Again, this is not to say that real cases of injustice do not exist in any of those areas. It is to say that the roots of those injustices are to be found, not in critical race theory or its cousins, but in historic biblical and common law principles.) It was clear to these thinkers that in order to destroy the West, it was necessary to destroy the Church and the family. Looking around, it could be argued they have done a pretty good job so far.
I would also argue that the genuine and just complaints of African Americans and many others in the United States have been to some degree hijacked by the ideas of Gramsci et al and those who hold them. How did I come to this conclusion? Well, it comes from reading and listening.
So, I have put together a reading list that I think sheds light on our present moment, fraught and dangerous as it is. Here’s my list:
1. The Crisis of Modernity, Augusto del Noce, translated by Carlo Lancellotti, 2015. I read this book several years ago and was stunned by how, in the 1960s, del Noce was able to see what is happening now. For one, he said same sex marriage was inevitable in 1969. He also saw that Christianity would be marginalized. He saw that technology would shape our thinking. I could go on. Del Noce was a philosopher and a Roman Catholic born in 1920, died in 1989. He lived in Italy, having been born and educated in the north, in the area of Turin. He was anti-Fascist when the Fascists were in power. Later, he was anti-communist. He eventually taught at the University of Rome. He believed that for philosophy to be effectual it had to be grounded and engaged in history.
2. Politics and the English Language, George Orwell, 1946. Orwell was another person who could see the implications of what was happening around him. In this essay-length book, he explains just how language is misused to achieve political ends. His novel 1984, published in 1949, the year he died, gives a fictional version of what a world looks like when its language is debased. That volume gave us terms we still use, such as “doublespeak,” “thought police,” and more.
3. How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity, Thomas C. Oden, 2010. This book is special to me because I had the privilege of knowing the author well and working with him for 20 years. Tom Oden’s dream had been to see the creation of a commentary on the entire Bible drawn only from the works of the Early Fathers and Mothers of the Christian Church up to the year 800. Their work had transformed Tom’s own thinking from an unabashed Christian liberal to an equally unabashed conservative evangelical. He understood that the Fathers gave us a window into the early development of Christian thinking, what the church believed from the beginning. Tom’s dream was realized in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, 29 volumes, selling more than 800,000 copies. As Tom studied the development of Christian thought, he realized that most of the earliest thinkers and writers were African – from Egypt to Morocco and down the Nile to the Sudan. And, so he wrote this book to encourage scholarship on that fact and how those African origins shaped the Church. David Bailey, founder of Arrabon, has said that Tom Oden gave African Americans back their identity.
4. Ethnic America, Thomas Sowell, 1984. I first read this book many years ago. I put it on this list because it is the best book I have ever read about the variety of cultures and peoples who make up the population of the United States. Yes, African Americans have the most tragic history. But, their story is intertwined with many others. To understand our country, we must understand this variety. This book is a good place to begin.
5. Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920, Jackson Lears, 2009. I haven’t finished this book, but so far I have learned so very much about the forces that shaped this country following the Civil War. James Hunter recommended the book, and, since James has never steered me wrong, I started reading it. And, then it was very clear why he suggested I read it. It tells the tragedy of the lost opportunities to end racism after the Civil War that cost the lives of 500,000 Americans, most of them of European descent. It also tells the story of the prejudice against the Chinese, the Irish, the Southern Europeans – Italians and Greeks, and more. Much was done in the name of the American Empire, and not much of it was good. The church was divided in response. This is a book worth reading now.
6. De Civitate Dei (The City of God), Augustine, between 410 and 432. I forgot this one the first time. How could I?? It is THE text for this time. Why? Because it was written in response to a time very much like this one, the fall of the Roman Empire, the end of a world. Augustine lived in North Africa, in what is now Algeria. He had lived in Milan and had a brilliant career ahead of him. He became a Christian and that changed his entire life. He took orders and became the bishop of Hippo. He lived in community, he preached, he wrote prodigiously, and he gave the Church a way to understand its role on earth that affected how the Church operated for the next 1000 years. I read it first some years ago. I am now reading it again – for myself and for the time we find ourselves in.
Those are the books that seem to me to give needed perspective to this moment. However, there is another aspect of this moment that could use some perspective as well – and that is the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are two books that I’ve read that are particularly good in the giving perspective department.
1. The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire, Kyle Harper, 2017. I got to know Kyle Harper through his second book – From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity, 2013. That book told how Christians transformed morality regarding sexuality and marriage from the Greco-Roman model to a Christian one over a period of three hundred years. From then on, I was willing to read anything he wrote. This book tells the role of climate change and plague in bringing down the Roman Empire. It also tells about the Christian response to plague in those early years. And, it gives a history of pestilence up to that period. Harper’s soon-to-be-published book is a history of the plague.
2. A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe, 1722. Kyle Harper suggested I read this book. He said it was wonderful, and he is right. I wouldn’t have suspected it. Scholars think it was based on a journal of Defoe’s uncle Henry Foe who lived through the plague of 1665. The detail is exquisite. And, the similarity to things that have happened in 2020 is surprising. A good read.