Father Louis J. Cameli

What the devil can teach us about racism

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

The nation is engaged in a struggle for its very soul. In the context of a crippling pandemic, we face the even more pervasive and entrenched challenge of racism.

Our responses need to match the complexity of the crisis. We must be honest with one another. We must grieve, reconcile and construct a more just future together. Among the many things that call for our attention, racism locates us in a spiritual struggle of great dimensions.

From my experience as a teacher of spirituality, as a spiritual director, and as a struggling Christian, I wrote a book about the devil (“The Devil You Don’t Know: Recognizing and Resisting Evil in Everyday Life,” Ave Maria Press, 2011). I drew on the Scriptures and Christian spiritual experience across the centuries to identify his principal strategies and tactics.

The devil, I concluded, uses deception, division, diversion and discouragement in order to push us away from God and away from our true selves as God’s beloved children in one human family.

As I reflect on today’s painful national experience, I see the devil’s hand in this. Not in the awareness of the shameful reality of racism, but in the fact of it.

Let me be very clear: To see the devil in the evil of racism is not to shift responsibility from ourselves in the style of Flip Wilson’s great comedic character Geraldine Jones, who said, “The devil made me do it.” No, we can never walk away from our responsibility.

In fact, quite the opposite is true. The devil tempts and manipulates people, but without their collaboration he can’t accomplish his goals. Let me offer some examples.

Deception. Outright lies are easy to spot. The devil is not so artless. The deceptions come in many subtle forms. They are sometimes explicitly articulated. More often, they are implicit, internal and yet powerful in shaping belief and action.

Consider some of the ways that racist deception functions in thought and speech. “The poor are naturally more violent.” “Some people have earned their advantage, and others have not.” “Some people just have more potential than others. And it’s a waste of time, money and energy to try and change things.” “Some violence for the sake of good order will always be necessary.” “Some people matter more than others.”

These falsehoods are not just words. They shape a vision for life and action.

Division. In the Garden of Eden, the serpent tempts Adam and Eve. It is a cunning strategy that tries to divide the couple who were created to be “one flesh.” It also tries to divide them from the God who created them.

The point is to wreck the great design of creation to bring into a unity all human persons with each other in one family with their God. Today, the devil still tries to exploit our differences. He uses race, as well as gender, age, religion, ethnicity, history, education and economic status.

When we allow the devil to push us away from each other, we subvert the journey that leads to our truest selves. We become who we are meant to be only in our connection and unity with the whole human family in God.

Diversion. We are here in this world for a purpose. Our lives and our work are meant to transform the world and so collaborate with God’s great act of creation. Our core relationships, especially family, are meant to build a larger harmony of the whole human family and thereby achieve the goal of creation, love.

These are tasks entrusted to us. They require hard work, self-sacrifice and perseverance in the face of challenge. In this moment — and, indeed, across all of history — we feel ourselves pulled away from that grand purpose. We sense attempts to divert us.

For example, rather than steadfastly working to change our world for the betterment of all, we feel impelled to protect and silo what we have. Patterns of racism are instruments to divert us from our true and holy purpose, a sacred mission to open a path for the coming of God’s kingdom in this world.

Discouragement. The deadliest of the deadly sins and temptations, the strongest instrument in the devil’s arsenal, is classically known as “acedia,” a paralyzing discouragement that derails everything. When we face the seemingly intractable problems of racism and division, when we feel that there is nothing we can do to change things or make a difference, when we are drawn to despair, then we know the devil is doing his worst to do us in.

That instrument of discouragement, of course, can only derail our journey together if we allow it to. But if we fail to resist it, everything is imperiled.

The events of these past weeks ought to sear our national conscience. America stands at a moment that summons us to responsibility.

Precisely because this moment is so decisive, the devil’s assaults are stronger than ever. The stakes are high for the devil and for us. How will we face the deception, division, diversion and discouragement that suffuses and promotes racism?

For people of faith, some things are clear. First of all, we will not break free of racism by dint of human effort alone. Only God’s grace and power in Jesus Christ can save us from the sin and wounds of racism.

In the face of deception, he is truth. In the face of division, he is our peace and reconciliation. In the face of diversion, he is determined service and self-sacrifice. In the face of discouragement, he is enduring hope.

Because Jesus is truth, we Christians need to teach the dignity and value of all people in our families and schools, and across all sectors of society. Because he is our unity, we need to pursue reconciling conversations in our parishes and neighborhoods.

Because he is the face of service, we need to support legislation that fosters the flourishing of all children of God. Because he is hope, followers of Jesus must stand against all forms of racism wherever it rears its vile head: in our families, workplaces and communities. We need to stand for a vision of all people belonging together in God’s family.

By God’s grace and with our determined efforts, we will defeat the adversary who seeks to subvert God’s plan for our human family.


  • racism
  • devil