Today, the Church celebrates the feast day of St. Edith Stein, OCD, a Discalced Carmelite nun, theologian and brilliant philosopher, convert from Judaism, and victim of the Holocaust. I’ve written a blog entry on St. Edith a few years ago, after visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. In it, I included the letter she wrote to Pope Pius XI, in which she entreated him “about that which oppresses millions of Germans. For weeks we have seen deeds perpetrated in Germany that mock any sense of justice and humanity, not to mention love of neighbor. For years the leaders of National Socialism have been preaching hatred of the Jews. Now that they have seized the power of government and armed their followers, among them proven criminal elements, this seed of hatred has germinated.”
St. Edith Stein was arrested along with her sister, Rosa, at the Carmelite convent on August 2, 1942. A week later, 75 years ago today, on August 9, 1942, they were murdered via gas chamber, the same day they arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Their ashes were dumped in a common grave or thrown away in a nearby pond.
Like millions of her Jewish brothers and sisters, Edith’s identity as a person of Jewish descent, her embodied minority, led to her persecution. Her baptism, her membership in the Roman Catholic Church, and her identity as a Discalced Carmelite nun could not save her from the atrocities of the Holocaust. However, it was also this identity – as one among the oppressed – that gave her a particular vision and an understanding of what was happening before her. As the events of 1930s Germany were unfolding, Edith’s embodied minority allowed her to view with great clarity and acute awareness the dangerous future looming above the horizon in a way that many others, including the institutional Church, simply could not see. We can see that she wrote about it in her letter to Pope Pius XI. Unfortunately, she was ignored.
Today, there are people among us who, because of their own embodied minority and their status as victims of oppression, discrimination, and injustice, have the capacity to act as weather vanes. Like Edith, these people are always among the oppressed and thus able to discern the signs of the times in a way that those who are most privileged are unable to do.
Many of them, immigrants and refugees in this country, people of color, low-income, and persons of minority sexual orientation and gender identity, have been sounding the alarm about that which oppresses millions of Americans. For months, we have seen deeds perpetuated in the United States that mock any sense of justice and humanity, not to mention love of neighbor. For years, American politicians and the Far Right have been preaching hatred of Black people, of Latinos, of women, of immigrants, migrants, and refugees, of Muslims and other non-Christians, of gay, lesbian, and transgender men and women, of low-economic status, and anyone else they deem as un-American. Now that they have seized the power of government and armed their followers through their legitimization of White supremacy and bigotry, as well as their love of arms, this seed of hatred has germinated.
Since early 2016, I have been speaking and working with several friars and lay men and women who have felt an increasing anxiety and discomfort with the direction that the present administration has taken our country. They have shared their own stories of marginalization, in particular their encounters with racism and bigotry, all of which have been intensified by the 2016 election and Trump’s rise to power. In the same way that Edith’s letter to Pius XI went unanswered, these minority brothers and sisters also shared their experiences of alienation – their stories being doubted, diminished, or downright dismissed by their privileged brothers and sisters.
We are currently in a critical moment in our shared histories. In a time of mounting injustice against so many people – against migrants and refugees, against women, against people of color, against non-Christians, especially our Muslim brothers and sisters, against LGBTQ+ men and women, against those who are low-income – I pray that our country and our Church learn from its mistakes in the past.
I pray that we learn to see our own privileges that blind us to the needs of others and that we have the courage to shed our reliance on White supremacy and other systems of oppression. Only in doing so can we wean ourselves off of our complicity with injustice.
I pray that we have the grace and humility to embrace and embody our minority so that, realizing our humanity, we can better serve and advocate for our brothers and sisters.
I pray that we are able to open our eyes to what is unfolding before us today, that we pray and live out our Christian discipleship with a knowledge and understanding of the oppression and injustice that are levied on those who are marginalized and made vulnerable.
I pray that we listen to their stories. I pray that the Church listens to people like St. Edith Stein, those who because of their embodied minority, are targets of persecution and discrimination and, as such, are able to preach to the rest of the privileged about the realities of the world and the true call of Christian discipleship.
I pray that we not only listen to them, but that we do something about it.
St. Edith Stein, pray for us.