This week marked the 2nd anniversary of the Haiti earthquake and the 51st anniversary of the CIA-backed assassination of Patrice Lumumba–the Congo’s first democratically-elected leader following its independence from Belgium.  Also this week, the school district of Tuscon, Arizona decided to terminate their Mexican-American Studies program in order to comply with a state law banning most ethnic studies programs.

The coincidence of these three events so close to Martin Luther King Day, a day which often devolves into an occasion for national self-congratulation, provides ample reminder that white supremacy plays a bigger role in the history and current-day reality of the U.S. than we often like to admit.

These events often raise disturbing theological questions for all Christians living in the United States, but especially for Catholics.  Each of these acts involve injustice committed by the U.S. against predominantly Catholic groups and/or nations.  The memory and contemplation of these events compel white Catholics living in the U.S to consider the possibility that their identity as citizens of the U.S. makes them unwittingly loyal to a white supremacist status quo which in turn conflicts with or inhibits their membership in the Body of Christ.

In other words, I suggest that these events raise not simply ethical, but also theological questions.

The Assassination of Patrice Lumumba

Patrice Lumumba was the first democratically-elected leader of Congo following its independence from Belgium.  51 years ago, the CIA helped to assassinate him.

Both Belgium and the United States wanted him dead because, as Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, writes, Lumumba intended that “African countries would begin to control their own destinies and that they would be the ones who would reap the profits from the mines and the plantations and so on.”  Countries like Belgium, Britain and the United States, on the other hand, were ok with “giving independence to an African colony…as long as it didn’t disturb existing business arrangements.”

These existing business arrangements extended back to the beginning of Belgian colonial presence in the Congo.  According to the UK newspaper The Guardian: “it was during the colonial period that the US acquired a strategic stake in the enormous natural wealth of the Congo, following use of the uranium from Congolese mines to manufacture the first atomic weapons, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.”

As Hochschild further explains, Lumumba’s assassination, often called “the most important assassination of the 20th century,” had terrible consequences for the Congo:

 “the really disastrous thing that followed [Lumumba’s assassination] was this enthusiastic United States backing the dictatorial regime of Mobutu, who seized total power a couple years later and ran a 32-year dictatorship, enriched himself by about $4 billion, and really ran his country into the ground, was greeted by every American president, with the sole exception of Jimmy Carter, who was in office during those 32 years.  And he left the country a wreck, from which it has still not recovered.”

While it is of course impossible to know exactly what would have happened in the Congo had Lumumba not been assassinated and had the people of Congo been truly allowed to shape their own future, one can’t help thinking that its history would have been very different had this awful event not happened…

While Lumumba was not of course even close to being the only foreign leader assassinated with the help of the United States, the assassination of Lumumba should be especially disturbing for Catholics living in the United States for at least two reasons:  one, his assassination was ordered by John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president of the United States,* and two, the Congo has had a significant Catholic population since the 16th Century.

While Lumumba does not appear to have been a practicing Catholic at the time of his murder, both of his parents were devout Catholics and he was therefore almost certainly baptized as an infant or small child.  JFK of course was also baptized into the Body of Christ (in fact, the baptismal font used to baptize him currently occupies a place of honor in the back of a church I sometimes attend here in the Boston area).  It is certainly chilling to think that these men shared the same baptism…

I do not at all mean to suggest that the assassination of a non-Christian leader is less tragic than the assassination of a Christian one; however, the fact that the assassination of the leader of a largely Catholic country such as the Congo was met with indifference or even approval by the majority of white Catholics living in the U.S. surely demonstrates the way in which loyalty to race and nation has often trumped loyalty to the body of Christ.

The Haiti Earthquake

While the United States obviously did not cause the earthquake, it is largely responsible for the poverty that made Haiti so vulnerable to such a relatively mild earthquake.  (For example, Chile experienced a much stronger earthquake but suffered much less damage and loss of life).

We at WIT have chronicled the history of the United States’ white supremacist oppression of Haiti in greater detail elsewhere, but it can be summarized thusly:  the United States has opposed Haiti from the moment of its independence from France.  This opposition was motivated almost entirely by racism.  Not wanting to give its own black slaves any ideas, the United States saw Haiti, a nation ruled by and for blacks, as an existential threat that must be destroyed.  The United States has empowered Haiti’s enemies, exploited Haiti economically, invaded and occupied it, helped ensure that it was run by dictators friendly to US economic interests, and removed a democratically elected leader, Jean Bertrand Aristide, from office twice.

Haiti, like the Congo, is a heavily Catholic country and Aristide is a former Catholic priest (he stopped being a priest only so he could enter politics) who ran on a platform in which the preferential option for the poor was central.  Again, the relationship of the U.S. to Haiti should cause U.S. Catholics to reflect upon the way in which their pledging allegiance to the flag of the United States of America can conflict with their having been baptized into the Body of Christ.

Arizona Ban on Ethnic Studies

As reported by Public Radio International, “the Tuscon Unified School District voted last week to end its Mexican-American Studies program in order to comply with an Arizona state law banning ethnic studies.”

While it appears to be racially neutral, it is clear that this law’s intent and function is  to maintain a white supremacist status quo.  Because white culture is the dominant one in this country, it is considered standard or neutral.  “Regular” history courses teach about Europeans and their imagined ancestors, the Greeks and the Romans, for example.  So-called “regular” history is not only about white people but also told largely from their perspective. If our nation’s textbooks were novels, white people would be the main characters and people of color merely minor characters who appear for a page or two and then disappear.

Most white people don’t see this as being unfair, particular, or oppressive because they think themselves to be the universal standard of humanity.  While things like African-American Studies or Chicano Studies are “racial,” white people tend to think of Western history as just being human history—it is neutral, standard, unbiased, the most real, the most important, etc.  It is people of color who have a race; who are different, etc.  White people are just people.

The other problem with this law is that it conceives of Mexican culture as being usurpative and foreign when of course Mexican culture is more original to Arizona than Anglo culture.  Arizona belonged to Mexico first (and of course to the indigenous people of what is now Arizona even before that).  The US acquired Arizona from Mexico through war and then denied Arizona’s original Mexican inhabitants the rights of U.S. citizenship, subjected them to the terroristic violence of the lynch mob, and sought to deprive them of their culture, language, and history.

In other words, in Arizona, Anglo supremacy was a historical achievement not a given and is therefore quite fragile.  Achieved by force, it must be maintained by force even today.  To let people of color pursue their dreams for themselves would be disaster for white supremacy in Arizona.  White Arizonans, more than most white US-Americans, must live with the constant fear that Arizona will one day no longer be a place in which white supremacy is the law of the land.  Laws like this one are passed as a way to quell those fears.

A final problem with this law is that it identifies those who seek to address racial injustice as the agents of racial division.  In reality, of course, it is white supremacy that creates racial division.  Quite simply, there can be no racial reconciliation without racial justice.  If the supporters of this law really wanted to achieve racial unity in the state of Arizona, they would devote the bulk of their energy to eliminating racial injustice.

*Thanks to commenter, Brad, for pointing out that Lumumba’s assassination occurred in the final days of Eisenhower’s presidency.  Please read my correction here:

8 thoughts

  1. Katie, thank you for this important piece. I learned some things here, and I appreciate your work with it. One correction: the US doesn’t seem to have ordered the assassination, although it certainly wanted it to happen – apparently the CIA failed to accomplish a hit. And it looks like Lumumba was killed during the last days of the Eisenhower administration, not Kennedy’s. Kennedy would be inaugurated three days after Lumamba’s death. Nevertheless, the larger point about US intent, involvement, and the horrid aftermath is spot on. Thanks again.

    1. Hey Brad,
      You are mostly right (I think). I left out the details for the sake of simplicity. Yes, Kennedy ordered a hit on Lumumba which failed. Kennedy was not in office when Lumumba was actually murdered but my understanding was that the CIA was still involved, albeit indirectly.

      Check out the section that says “American and Belgian involvement.”

      But thank you!

  2. Katie, I did check that very article. How exactly was Kennedy involved given that he wasn’t president until three days after Lumumba’s death? Kennedy’s not even mentioned there. Eisenhower may have ordered an assassination attempt (which failed), but not Kennedy. That was my main point.

    1. yes. sorry, i was a bit absent-minded earlier. for some reason, i was thinking eisenhower was president after kennedy when obviously it was the other way around. that is why i misunderstood you. i don’t have time to research this thoroughly right now, but how about if I just say that, regardless of JFK’s intentions towards Lumumba, there is still something quite chilling about the relative apathy, indifference, or even approval shown by most white US catholics to Lumumba’s murder that suggests a failure of baptismal imagination? Could I also further posit that, at a minimum, although it is quite understandable why JFK’s presidency and assassination meant more to Catholics in the US than did Lumumba’s, we might still be troubled that white Catholics in the US generally did not recognize Lumumba, and by extension the Catholic people of the Congo as their own?

      Even if I mis-stated the connection, the historical proximity of their assassinations is eerie?

      But thanks for bringing this to my attention. Sadly, I cannot find the source I originally read this in (bad scholarship, I know) but will look into this when I am able.

  3. Certainly. I agree, as I said, with your main point here. I do wonder to what degree Kennedy took his Catholic identity seriously, given how easily it seemed to be set aside for presidential power.

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