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Getting under the skin of racism in Ireland

Even though his political career is relatively brief, the current American president is sadly remarkable in the modern era for the number of racist comments he has made. We are shocked when he speaks this way, even though it is now becoming such a habit that one wonders if it is in fact part of his policy. We rightly lament when he describes entire nations as “sh*tholes”, claims that Mexico “sends rapists” to America, that immigrants from Haiti “all have AIDS” and that there should be “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” But we can all too easily imagine that the American president represents an American problem.

After all, we’re not racist like that in Ireland, are we?

Where I live, in Inchicore, our most famous and beloved son is the legendary St. Patrick’s Athletic defender, Paul McGrath. In recent times, a beautiful graffiti portrait of McGrath has appeared outside Richmond Park. We can think of notable figures in Irish life who don’t fit the stereotypical template of pale white skin and ginger hair and imagine that because of the high esteem in which they are held, we as a society are collectively free from the smears of racial prejudice.

That would be a dangerous mistake, because racism is a topic that is too-rarely addressed in Irish society. Since my return to Dublin last year, I have been astonished to see fascist stickers appear on lampposts around my office in Dublin 1. I have had conversations on buses or in taxis or out on the street with neighbours – small-talk conversation among acquaintances – that have suddenly veered off course and become xenophobic. Early in 2018, I have seen white supremacist posters in Ballyfermot.

You might dismiss my experience as anecdotal. I might be particularly unlucky in the people I sit beside on the LUAS! But the statistics indicate that racism is a growing issue in our culture. Last year, the European Network Against Racism in Ireland reported an “alarming growth in racist hate crimes.” Worryingly, the most likely group to perpetrate such crimes are those under the age of 18. These are often crimes against recent immigrants, some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society. But the problem is so great that it also affects those who are well-supported and well-established. The Irish international footballer Cyrus Christie felt the racist abuse he had suffered was so serious that he had to lodge a formal complaint with Gardaí in November of last year. There is a growing problem with racial violence directed against our “new Irish” populations. Christians must be clear that this is a grave sin that must be opposed in each and every instance. God does not care about our passport, where we were born, or the colour of our skin.

As you can see, Irish people cannot arrogantly decide that racism is a problem other nations have!

The place where Irish racism is most clearly evident is in how the Travelling community is treated. I know from preaching that congregations are often eager to hear me speak about social justice issues, but when I talk about how we care for our neighbours in halting sites, suddenly I encounter opposition. My colleague, Peter McVerry, told me about one incident he had a number of years ago when a whole row worth of a congregation got up and left the church where he was preaching when he addressed this long-standing and deep-seated prejudice in Irish society.

We tut-tut when Trump calls places “sh*tholes”, but many of us have heard such language about halting sites and did not protest.

Let’s be honest: many of us have used such language ourselves.

Sometimes the bias against Travellers is phrased with more subtlety than the American president typically displays. But even when couched in “polite” language, the intolerance is clear. Travellers are depicted as a problem, as “not-normal”, as criminal, as bad for the neighbourhood. Such language is reinforced in a host of different ways so that when people use it they are convinced they are describing things realistically. We can imagine their defence: “You might not like it, but I’m just telling you like it is.”

People who are not Christians may satisfy themselves with such moral reasoning. But it will not do for those who call Jesus Lord. As many commentators pointed out after one of Trump’s outbursts, “Nazareth was a sh*thole.” That is a fine contemporary translation of John 1:46 where Nathanael marvels: “How can any good thing come out of Nazareth!” It is no stretch of the imagination to say that if Jesus were born today in Ireland, Mary and Joseph would find their stable located in a temporary halting site at the edge of a village.

The sin of racism is not that it contravenes some modern idea of “political correctness”. The sin is so grave because it replaces the reality of an individual who bears the image of God with a generalisation. The group entirely replaces the person, and none of us can see the entire group right, so our assessment is approximate at best, fantasy at worst, and always flawed.

The Irish churches will, this year, offer the warmest of welcomes to a foreigner named Francis. May we extend the same hospitality to everyone who is different who crosses our path. That is the Jesus way.

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