Theology of the Colored Body

Early in my sophomore year at Thomas Aquinas College, I stumbled across a provocative idea in Augustine’s City of God.

“After the first union of the man, made from dust, and his wife, created from his own side, the human race needed the joining of males and females in order to have children and multiply, and, since there were no other human beings but the children of those two parents, men took their sisters as wives. This practice was as fully respectable at the time, when necessity compelled it, as it later became wholly reprehensible, when religion prohibited it. For the true scope of love was given its due, so that human beings, for whom social harmony is useful and honorable, might be joined by the bonds of kinship in a variety of relationships(Saint Augustine, City of God. 15. 16. 1.)

This, Augustine explains, is why God permits incest in the Old Testament, and condemns it later.

What strikes me is this: that in situations when necessity isn’t compelling it and convention isn’t allowing it, he argues marriage between those who are less joined by common background strengthens social harmony and unites the human family. When I read this I immediately thought of my Mexican sister who married a Lebanese man.  I thought of how I was welcomed and loved by the Lebanese community when I went to visit my sister. This was for the most part because of my newfound familial relationship. I also thought of how it’s still commonplace in Lebanese communities for cousins to be married, for people’s grandparents or even parents to be cousins. And how the community was very ethnocentric, despite the obvious love they shared for others. Often times at the end of mass, they would mention praying for the “Maronite Catholics” or the “Lebanese” but the Roman Catholics as well as the rest of the Catholic world was regularly forgotten.

To be fair, the Mexican culture can be very ethnocentric as well. I’m sure that when my Lebanese brother-in-law visits our Mexican community he’s thrown off by our patriotic Mariachi singing and our commitment to only speaking Spanish in the home. Furthermore, my mother has encouraged me to marry her friends’ daughters, who I called “prima” (cousin) growing up – although they weren’t related to me.

Incidents like those are easily explained. There is a temptation within every group, whether it be ethnic, economic, local, national, etc., to marry within the group. But Augustine seems to suggest that might not be the most Catholic way of discerning marriage. This isn’t to tell young Catholics discerning marriage to break up with their same-race boy/girlfriend right now and find a person of another race straight away. Ultimately, marriage is about being with the person who will bring you and your children closest to God.  It is very possible the person might be someone of your same background in most respects. And before discerning marriage one really should discern Holy Orders. There is no woman more beautiful than The Church, and no man more loving than Christ, after all. I am merely exploring Augustine’s idea; marriage is one of God’s tools for achieving social harmony by joining human beings through kinship and a variety of relationships.

Now to narrow the scope. I am writing specifically about interracial marriage within the Catholic Church. Applying Augustine's idea to the contemporary conception of race leads to the idea that interracial marriage should not just be viewed as something to be tolerated, rather, interracial marriage should be viewed as a good.

I understand that race is a sensitive topic, and that many people would rather not talk about it. It seems to me that a large part of that is because of how divisive discussions about race often are. This is a problem I do not share. I have always been very comforted by the differences in race. One of the warmest feelings I get comes from the image of my mother and father holding hands. There were always old pictures around the house, decorated with the semblance of my mother’s alabaster hand falling into my father’s earth toned one. Honey colored eyes looking into black ones. My siblings and I are all variations on “ojos negros, piel canela” (black eyes, cinnamon skin) like the song that my mother used to sing my sister.

“All infinity can lose its stars,
The vast oceans can lose their immensity,
But the darkness of your eyes must not die,
And the cinnamon of your skin ought to remain.
The only important thing to me is you.”

These memories have led me to have a certain comfort when discussing race that others don’t seem to share. I love the fact that humans come in a variety. It is a testament to our maker’s creativity. More specifically, I love the fact that some people are a different color than me. It reminds of Plato’s Symposium, when Socrates depicts love as being a wandering beggar who has nothing. Socrates explains that love must have nothing because it loves all, and if it has something it ceases to love (or in this sense, desire) it. The having of something, Socrates argues, fulfills the love/desire. This is how people, specially Catholics, ought to feel about differences regarding color/race/ethnicity. That is – the difference is not divisive; it is beautiful. Behold this gorgeous person, who has something you do not. It should be noted that I'm not taking Socrates' personification of love as a definition. It's simply to support the point that it's easier to desire what one is lacking.

We see, then, that race is a beautiful and nonessential difference amongst people. We are all rational animals called to loving, knowing, and serving God, independent of what our ethnic or racial background is. Although race is not an essential difference, it is still important. As sex is a nonessential difference which determines who is capable of priesthood vs who is capable of motherhood, race has its power of determination as well. Race (to a varying extent) determines what group or culture a person is born into or associates with.

Augustine’s claim seems to extend to this. Once again, “For the true scope of love was given its due, so that human beings, for whom social harmony is useful and honorable, might be joined by the bonds of kinship in a variety of relationships”. Interracial marriage is the joining by bonds of kinship that Augustin speaks of. This isn’t despite differences, but (in part) because of their differences. Those differences are an object of love.

This is often argued beginning with the commonplace fact that Catholic means universal. I dislike arguing from there myself, because it’s too often that this line of reasoning leads some to adopting a false dogmatic openness. “If this really is the universal faith,” they moan, “we should accept every belief.” Nevertheless, we are the Catholic Church, the Universal faith. And that does seem to be one of Augustin’s reasons for making the claim he made in The City of God.

“We have divided the human race into two groups, one consisting of those who live according to man and the other of those who live according to God. Speaking allegorically, we also call these two groups two cities, that is, two human societies, one predestined to reign with God for all eternity, the other to undergo punishment with the devil” (Saint Augustine, City of God. 15. 1. 2.)

Those predestined for The City of God, or at least those on pilgrimage to The City of God, are what Augustine had in mind when he said “Catholic.” What makes The Church universal is not that you can walk whichever direction and get to The City of God. What makes The Church universal is that Christ laid a path for everybody to reach The City of God.

Likewise, the culture and community of The City of God transcends any culture or community established by The City of Man. Whatever unity one feels with his fellow Anglo/Afro/Latino/Native/Asian/Americans will be nothing compared to the unity felt with those who are also united in the body of Christ. Although we are on earth, we strive for the heavenly City of God. Interracial marriage is one of Gods tools for bringing that heavenly unity to earth.

I have no words as to how this affects a particular instance of discernment of marriage. I am also aware that in different writings Augustine brings up the beauty of different Christian traditions, and how the difference should be respected. It is possible Augustine would argue that in striving for one Catholic culture (through intermarriage) the diversity of Christian traditions should not be compromised. My claim is not that Augustine wants every Catholic to look for spouses of different backgrounds. My claim is that God can use intermarriage to help his members see the beautiful colors of His Mystical Body as a unified whole.

Para Mamá y Papá

- Jose-Hector Guardiola


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