The year 2020 has been like none other. Not only has the world been impacted by a devastating global pandemic, we have finally begun to honestly reckon with the negative impact of colonialism.
Boston College moral theology Prof. Mary Jo Iozzio recently stated, “The present state of dis-ease in the United States stems from centuries in the making of America’s original sin … of anti-Black racism.”
While Iozzio is completely accurate regarding the perpetual racism demonstrated toward people of African descent in the United States, her argument also has profound global implications. Yes, the U.S. has never truly dealt with the human impact of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but the dark pages of subjugation of peoples likely goes back to the dawn of the agricultural age and its impact has been compounding since then.
It was as if the eight minutes and 46 seconds of a white police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck brought the world, finally, to a turning point. We realized that #BlackLivesMatter is a rallying cry for all survivors of Eurocentric colonialism.
The world said, “Enough is enough! We’re tired of the lies that are told to justify the crimes against humanity that have endured for centuries and continue to perpetuate violence.”
The death of Floyd is the death of millions of Congolese during the years of the Congo Free State. It’s the death of innocent citizens of Yemen and Afghanistan in drone attacks. It’s the murdered and missing Indigenous women along the Highway of Tears in northern British Columbia.
Iozzio is also correct in calling these crimes a sin. While powerful groups have been trying to wipe out their enemies for millennia, from the Germanic tribes expulsing the Celts in England to the Roman destruction of Carthage, European conquest since the time of Columbus was done in the name of Christ.
Jesus told us to love God and to love our neighbours as ourselves. He also taught us who our neighbour is: the stranger, the outcast and the vulnerable. Following this line of thinking, it’s difficult to call colonization and the theories that perpetuate and justify it to this day anything but the sinful antithesis of love.
This isn’t to say that every outcome of colonialism was evil, though it can certainly be argued that more equitable trade agreements between Europeans and the residents of other continents would have resulted in a better world than we find ourselves in today.
But this is the world we find ourselves in. We can’t change the past, but we can change the present and we can build a better future for the generations who follow us.
We are all in this mess together because exploitation victimizes everyone. Leopold II of Belgium didn’t kill any Congolese himself; he coerced others to do this work for him. Poor white people in the United States, like many black and brown people, are victims of unjust structures in their education and healthcare systems.
Despite all the challenges we faced in 2020, it was a year when the brutal truth became a focal point. It was very interesting to teach social justice classes this past fall. It was as if my students were saying to me, “We get it. Things aren’t right. Tell us how this happened and what we can do about it.”
The danger now, especially with the election defeat of U.S. President Donald Trump, is a return to complacency. We need to remember that Trump was never the problem, he was simply the result of the problem.
It’s up to us to determine if 2020 really was the beginning of an age of honest transformation.
May the words of the late U.S. congressman John Lewis, who died of natural causes weeks after George Floyd’s murder, ring forever in our hearts and minds: “Each generation must do its part to help build … a nation and a world at peace with itself.”
We have work to do. Let’s get to it.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.