Friday 4 October 2013

From Neo-Nazi to Catholic: Joseph Pearce

Joseph Pearce is reasonably well known in Catholic circles: certainly he regularly crops up on EWTN and has written a good number of books over the years.

Although he'd mentioned a little of his background before in the National Front, it wasn't until reading his autobiography that I realized quite how  deep his involvement had been: two prison terms for inciting racial hatred; best friends with Nick Griffin; founder of the Front's youth paper, Bulldog etc, etc.

Anyway, the biography Race With the Devil: My Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love is a terrific book: well written and managing to get the tone exactly right when talking about some of the vile things he got up to in his youth -neither glorifying in them nor trying to completely distance himself from them. He's undoubtedly very different from the neo-Nazi he was, but he doesn't pretend that he was an entirely different man.

There much that's fascinating about the detailed life of right wing activism in the 1970s and 1980s. (The obsession of the Front's 'Intellectuals' with Dawkins' The Selfish Gene makes for an odd interlude, as does Pearce's foray into the music business with Rock Against Communism.) But what really makes it is, of course, the story of how Pearce converted to Catholicism.

I can hear the sniggers from the liberal back at the suggestion that a conversion from Neo-Nazism to Catholicism amounts to a conversion rather than a mere switching of armbands. Well, read it and see what you think afterwards. What Pearce identifies as the key element in his conversion is being on the receiving end of other people's kindnesses: the policeman who lends him money for a football ticket; the Jewish lawyer who takes up, simply on principle, the case of Front members' violated civil rights. It is those contacts with loving individuals which brings him out of his ideology of hatred far more than anything else.

I can't recommend the book too highly on its own merits. But reading it did make me think of Pope Francis' emphasis on conversion through personal, non-judgmental encounter:

The Son of God became incarnate in the souls of men to instill the feeling of brotherhood. All are brothers and all children of God. Abba, as he called the Father. I will show you the way, he said. Follow me and you will find the Father and you will all be his children and he will take delight in you. Agape, the love of each one of us for the other, from the closest to the furthest, is in fact the only way that Jesus has given us to find the way of salvation and of the Beatitudes.

It's easy to dismiss this sort of thing as hippy-dippy tripe -and of course it's not enough on its own: Pearce backed up these encounters with agape by reading deeply, particularly in Chesterton. But nonetheless, it was these encounters which broke through the carapace of hatred that he had found himself wrapped in. I think Chalcedon 451 is broadly right:

This is why, for all the doubts some have about him, I think Pope Francis is on the right lines. Anyone who thinks that the Catholic Church has been sending out the right message about its priorities to the world has been spending too much time away from the Gospels. Francis knows this. He knows, too, that unless we create a willingness to listen to what we have to say, the Church will continue to be ignored. He is willing to take the risk that liberals within the Church will interpret his words as being in line with their wishes, and that traditionalists will be dismayed. So be it, they are in the Church and can get on with it, his message is to the lost sheep, to the Prodigal Sons and Daughters, and the elder brothers and daughters ought, as Christians, to know this and get on with helping spread the world – not gossiping and back-biting.

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