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What is an Augustinian Response to Systemic Racism?

by Jeremy Hiers, O.S.A.

While it was written over 1600 years ago, the Rule of Augustine governs the Augustinian way of life today. It also provides a lot of insights on how to foster dialogue and create unity across the plethora of viewpoints and perspectives we see and hear in our national dialogue on racism today. In this blog post, I propose seven key principles from the Rule that invite us to reflect on how we, as individuals and as a nation, can approach dialogue on the issue of systemic racism.

Principle #1: Seek Unity of Purpose

“Live together in harmony, being of one mind and one heart on the way to God” (The Rule of Augustine II, 3).

Perhaps one thing everyone can agree on from the beginning is that our nation could use a little more harmony. With the escalating violence that has emerged out of the discussion on racism, it seems we are moving farther and father away from unity and harmony.

One of the primary paths to achieving harmony in any community is unity around a particular purpose or goal. Whether that community is a family, a parish, a team at work, a group of friends, or a nation; diversity in characteristics such as personal strengths and weaknesses, socioeconomic class, life experiences, personality types, political viewpoints, and skin color is a fact of life for any community. Augustine recognized this reality and urges unity in the face of diversity through a common vision set on God. To seek God together as the ultimate purpose of coming together.

However, what does that look like for a community such as the United States which is composed of people with numerous faith backgrounds? Alcoholics Anonymous addresses this same question with the concept of unifying a diverse group of alcoholics around a “higher power.” For the Christian, that higher power is of course the Trinitarian God (Father, Son, Holy Spirit). For the Muslim, it is Allah. For the Atheist, it can be idea or goal of living a sober life or it could simply be the felt power that comes through journeying with other alchoholics, rather than in isolation, towards sobriety.

Regardless of belief, the members of Alcoholics Anonymous are united around the desire for sobriety and the recognition that there is a higher power that transcends the strength of any one member (though there may be some variance among the members about how that higher power operates in their life or even the specific actions needed to achieve sober living).

Perhaps for the citizens of the United States, the goal that everyone can unify around is the idea that all people are created equal and should be given an equal opportunity to life a good life.

Given that our journey to God is dependent on love of neighbor and our ability to love our neighbor is drawn from our love of God (see Matthew 22:35-40, Mark 12:28-34, and Luke 10:27a), the Rule urges us to seek opportunities to demonstrate love and unity in the face of division and disagreement. This same principle could be applied to other recognized forms of the “higher power.”

This could be done through intentional works of charity towards people who are disadvantaged (e.g., the poor, the incarcerated) which lead us to encounter people who different than us, or creating a space for respectful dialogue across a diverse group of people.

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In spite of differences, is there common ground that we can unite around (e.g., the desire for peace in the United States)? What concrete steps can we take to work towards that common ground inspite of that which still separates us?

Principle #2: Love of God and Neighbor

“Before all else dear brothers, love God and then your neighbor, because these are the chief commandments” (The Rule of Augustine I, 1).

Referring to the Chief Commandment given by Jesus in Matthew 22:35-40, Mark 12:28-34, and Luke 10:27a, Augustine begins his Rule for the Augustinian way of life by reminding us that the chief principle for all community life is to love God and to love neighbor. One cannot be achieved without the other. It is through love of neighbor that we love God; and it is through our love for God that we are motivated and empowered to love our neighbor, especially those who are different than us.

The Rule urges us to seek opportunities to demonstrate love and unity in the face of division and disagreement. This could be through intentional works of charity in which we actively work to cross geographical, psychological, cultural, and spiritual boundaries to alleviate the pain and suffering caused by injustice (e.g., leaving our home in the suburb once a week to go into the inner city to feed a homeless person). It could be refusing to give up on respectful dialogue even when we seem to be at an impasse on reaching agreement.

For those who may not share the Christian beliefs, it can be said that history demonstrates time and time again that any community in which some go without basic needs being met while others enjoy a surplus will inevitably lead to conflict. Therefore, an orientation towards a higher power that transcends any one individual necessarily involves helping others; an action that is ultimately motivated and finds purpose in seeking that higher power.

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In what ways are we actively reaching out to and embracing those who hold opinions that are different from ours? Or are we inhibiting unity by avoiding discussion on the topic and encounters with those whom we disagreee?

Principle #3: Recognizing the Divinity in the Other

“Let all of you then live together in oneness of mind and heart, mutually honoring God in yourselves, whose temples you have become” (The Rule of Augustine I, 9).

Even in the most harmonious of communities, conflict will inevitably arise out of the diversity that exists. Augustine devotes the majority of the rest of his Rule to addressing various situations in which conflict or disagreement occurs. However, before doing so Augustine urges us to first remember that when we encounter a fellow human being, we encounter God. Scripture teaches that all humans are made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27) and therefore Jesus gave us the criteria upon which we will all be judged: whatever you do to another, you do to Him (Matthew 25:40).

The first thing to recall when we encounter someone who is different than us, or disagrees with us, or who we perceive as a threat of some kind is that when we encounter that person, we are encountering God. Even though that person may through their unique strengths, perspectives, etc. manifest God’s presence differently than we do, even when their own human weakness and limitations causes them to misrepresent God, we are still invited to honor the presence of God that is present in that person (Matthew 25:40).

To honor that presence implies treating every person with dignity and respect. This involves a willingness to listen with an open mind and an open heart to the many voices emerging on the topic of racism; a willingness to avoid the temptation to label, criticize, or dismiss a person’s viewpoint simply because it is different from our own; a willingness to consider how another’s voice may challenge our own beliefs and biases; a willingness to consider what we may be able to learn from those who disagree with us; a willingness to look past where we disagree in order to find common ground in spite of our differences.

For those who do not share the Christian beliefs, this principle still implies in the belief that everyone has something to contribute to the solution. As we learn from Alcoholics Anonymous, every alcoholic has a different story and a different belief about the higher power. Yet, there is an understanding that every alcoholic has something to share towards the common vision of sober living.

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Can we transcend our own biases to adopt the perspective that every Christian, every Muslim, every Atheist, every rich person, every poor person, every black person, every white person (irrespective of their unique story) has something to contribute to the discussion on racism?

Principle #4: Primacy of the Common Good

“For charity, as it is written, is not self seeking (1 Cor. 13:5) meaning that it places the common good before its own, not its own before the common good” (The Rule of Augustine V, 31).

It can be difficult to transcend our own biases as well as our own human inclination toward pride, greed, possessiveness, and thirst for power. For Augustine, pride is the root of all sin. At the beginning of his Rule, Augustine warns that pride can lurk in even good works (The Rule of Augustine I, 8). For example, we can be willing to help people, but only willing to do so in a way that we want to, or in a way that benefits us in some fashion (e.g., good deeds that allow us to collect accolades or praise from others). This can cause us to close our eyes to the needs of particular groups of people or to refuse to offer our gifts where there is great need for them. Often times this happens without us even knowing it.

Augustine therefore urges us to fix our gaze on the “common good” of the community as a whole in our attitudes towards one another and our actions. What is good for the entire family, the entire neighborhood, the entire workforce, the entire nation, rather than what is good for only myself or a particular group that I identify with? What is good for both my neighborhood and the poorer neighborhood down the road? What is good for both my culture and the other cultures in the United States?

When we dialogue and search for truth in the context of what is the good for all of us, we are less apt to close our eyes to the needs of others we may otherwise be less likely to consider.

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Are we prepared to enter into a dialogue about racism with a true heart for what is good for all people, or is our perspective limited by our own motivations and fears?

Principle #5: Transcending Our Perceptions

“Finally, if the cause of a brother’s bodily pain is not apparent, you must take the word of God’s servant when he indicates what is giving him pain. But if it remains uncertain whether the remedy he likes is good for him, a doctor should be consulted” (The Rule of Augustine V, 35).

Diversity of life experience (especially our upbringing) often causes us to perceive experiences differently than others. The maxim “your perception is your reality” teaches us that people often perceive us differently than we perceive ourselves; yet how others perceive us is the reality they know and face and live by.

For example, I may frequently attempt to help others out of a genuine desire to help people in need, while others may perceive my generosity as motivated by the desire for accolades rather than genuine good-heartedness. Or I may offer constructive feedback to someone who is beginning to learn a new skill out of an honest motivation to help them grow or improve while the person receiving the feedback perceives me as being “holier than though” or overly critical.

We have all at some point encountered someone who claimed to be sick or not feeling well only to perceive that they did not appear to be sick leading us to accuse them (at least in our minds) that they were trying to get out of something. I used to encounter this situation all the time when I, as a supervisor, frequently found myself receiving phone calls every Monday and Friday morning from employees claiming to be sick. Alternatively, we have all at some point sought to help someone based on what we felt they needed rather than on what they really did need.

Augustine recognized this dynamic in community and urged those who followed his way of life to give those who claimed to have a certain illness the benefit of the doubt when it came to determining the correct remedy. When doubt persists, he urged those who followed his way of life to seek the expertise of a doctor. The organization I worked for mitigated the risk of people who habitually called in sick by requiring a doctors note after they called in three consecutive days.

This principle encourages us to listen to the voice of others and give them the benefit of the doubt when they raise a need or a complaint, especially those who claim to be impacted by systemic racism. We should be especially mindful of this principle when one raises a claim that appears to be disconnected from our own perception of racism and inequality in the United States. Where doubt persists (as it certainly has on a number of issues in the United States ranging from racism to the environment), Augustine urges us to consult the experts (e.g., the research, the statistics, etc) and incorporate that into both our personal reflection and the communal discussion.

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Are we willing to give those with whom we disagree the benefit of the doubt that what they share may have something to teach us (perhaps challenge us) to think differently about the issue of racism and how we are responding to it?

Principle #6: Resolving Quarrels ASAP

“You should either avoid quarrels altogether or else put an end to them as quickly as possible; otherwise, anger may grow into hatred, making a plank out of a splinter, and turn the soul into a murderer. For so you read: Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer (1 Jn. 3:15)” (The Rule of Augustine VI, 41).

Nevertheless, as the debate about racism in the United States continues, there will continue to be disagreements. Where disagreement occurs, there are likely to be quarrels. Augustine urges us to end quarrels as quickly as possible, for ongoing quarrels grow into hatred. Perhaps we have seen this most clearly demonstrated in the violence and looting that has recently emerged out of the dialogues on racism in the United States.

Sometimes “agreeing to disagree” can be a good placeholder in a discussion in which immediate agreement cannot be reached. Agreeing to disagree does not end the conversation, but rather allows the parties who disagree to move forward in implementing some of the other aforementioned principles as they continue to sort through their differences (e.g., achieving unity in purpose, unity in diversity of opinions, learning to identify and honor the divinity in the other person, working to identify one’s own biases in order to develop an eye toward the common good, etc).

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For those people whom we find ourselves in disagreement with, do we find ourselves stuck in quarrels or are we still working in the midst of the disagreements to find shared values/common ground from which we can still work together, opportunities for more encounters to learn from one another, etc?

Principle #7: Sorry

“Whoever has injured another by open insult, or by abusive or even incriminating language, must remember to repair the injury as quickly as possible by an apology, and he who suffered the injury must also forgive, without further wrangling” (The Rule of Augustine VI, 42).

Last, but certainly not least, Augustine recognized it is impossible to be in community with others and not offend from time to time. As stated earlier, one’s perception of our actions is the reality they live with, even if their perception is far different from our own perception. Our biases and our unique circumstances (e.g., our culture, family values that shaped our upbringing, our education, etc) that shape our viewpoints can often lead others to perceive our words and our actions differently than us.

It therefore never hurts to say sorry when we offend others, even if we did not intend to offend. Jesus says it does no good to bring a gift to the altar if our human sister or brother has something against us (Matthew 5:23-26). Likewise, when one does apologize, Augustine reminds us that we must be quick to forgive (or be willing to forgive if such forgiveness takes time in the case of great division or deeply rooted pain) as Christ commands (Matthew 6:14-15).

Perhaps the word “sorry” is the most underutilized word in the national dialogues on racism. Can the aforementioned six principles be achieved without it? I posit no.

Perhaps then this last principle I mention is really the first to consider. Perhaps the word sorry is really the first step. If we can say sorry to those who we have offended and can forgive those who apologize to us, then we can transcend our own hurt and pain and begin discussing our common purpose that we will work towards.

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In what ways might our own unwillingness to say “sorry” (or to forgive those who have apologized to us) impact the dialogue on racism?

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