I recently viewed an episode of Gangland on The History Channel. This particular show, which documents the rise of the younger members of the Imperial Klan of America (or KKK), really roused my anger. I thought, "How could people be so ignorant and foolish?" Can't they just accept that the United States has always been an ethnically, religiously, and ideologically diverse country? More specifically, how can these Klan members fail to understand and appreciate that, from its inception, the U.S. was an immigrant nation? These "nativists" themselves are sons and daughters of immigrant parents.
Diana Eck, scholar of religion at Harvard University, writes in her book A New Religious America, "Today, right here in the U.S., we have the opportunity to create a vibrant and hopeful pluralism, in a world of increasing fragmentation where there are few models for a truly pluralistic, multireligious society." With the millions of foreign-born individuals gracing our country and enriching our lives, the U.S. can indeed lead the way in this vital effort. The several recent immigrant rallies across our country demonstrate how beautiful it is when people from all walks of life unite around a single issue, immigration reform. Justice, they say, is long overdue for the children of migrants, exploited workers, and all those who face the hardships inherent in crossing borders.
But hate groups like the Klan, obsessed with the fantasy of eliminating non-white and non-Protestant peoples, represent the ugly side of our country. They seem especially to dislike Jews, Latinos/as, and blacks. Their Web site bluntly states, "The IKA hates: Muds, spics, kikes and niggers. This is our God given right! In no way do we advocate violence. We believe in educating our people to the monopolistic Jewish control of the world's banks, governments, and media." Through pamphlets, the internet, and physical recruitment, KKK members continue spreading their virulent stereotypes about the "Other."
Stereotypes then breed prejudices. Unfortunately, forming stereotypes of "unwanted" peoples has a long legacy in the U.S. Eck reminds us that "European settlers held negative racial stereotypes of the Native peoples and the Africans brought as slaves." She continues, "We have been practicing our prejudices sever since, for these habits of the heart are very hard to change."
With these prejudices internalized, xenophobic groups and individuals could resort to violence against their objects of hatred. The latest FBI hate crime statistics reveal that out of the reported 7,780 hate crimes against individuals in 2008, 51.3 were racially motivated, 19.5 percent were motivated by religious bias, 16.7 percent were a result of sexual orientation, 11.5 percent stemmed from ethnicity/national origin bias, and 1 percent was a result of mental and physical disability bias. As our society becomes ever more pluralistic, hate crimes also multiply.
Apart from race, religiously biased hate crimes seem especially heinous, especially when vandals target places of worship. Eck states, "When a building is defaced or when a fire is deliberately set, the real target is not property but the people who live there or worship there." In other words, the attack is physically, emotionally, and spiritually threatening. I remember not too long ago, in my own hometown of Miami, arsonists set a synagogue ablaze. Thankfully, the various religious leaders, as well as secularists, called upon their communities to show solidarity with their Jewish neighbors, who were visibly devastated by their recent loss. The rabbi, I distinctly remember, lamented, "The synagogue represented much more than simply a building. It was our safe space, our comfort zone, where our children were taught the ways of our ancestors." Clearly, this hate crime harms more than one generation of Miami Jews.
Perhaps most upsetting to me is the Klan's appropriation of Jesus as a white supremacist. Their Web site mentions that they "come in the name of THE LORD God JESUS CHRIST, Amen." Of their several irrational ideals, the hate of Jews seems particularly foolish. After all, Jesus was a Jew. He was also adamantly against the imperial powers that had occupied Galilee during his lifetime. This justice-oriented teacher would have harshly admonished the xenophobic Imperial Klan of America. But this compassionate Jewish peasant also would have prayed for their conversion, ultimately leading to his forgiving them for their wrongs. "Forgive them God, for they not what they do," he would say. Most Klan members, and indeed, as Eck argues, most xenophobic individuals, act out of an irrational fear of what they do not understand.
If I am to consider myself a follower of Jesus, then I too must challenge xenophobic individuals and groups while simultaneously praying that they see the light that radiates from the bright faces of our increasingly pluralistic populace. I too must work to turn my anger for exclusivist groups into love and compassion. Anger and hatred lead only to despair. Will I seek to be angry and fearful like the Klan, or compassionate and loving like Jesus? I hope the latter.
César J. Baldelomar is a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School. He is also the executive director of Pax Romana Center for International Study of Catholic Social Teaching. You can visit César at his Web site (www.cesarjb.org) and read his blogs at www.holisticthoughts.com.