Homo Sacer and Civilized Racism?

homosacer

In Slavoj Zizek’s book on September 11, “Welcome to the Desert of The Real,” he discusses the idea behind Homo sacer, in order to describe the kind of racism we often find within our society today. The Homo sacer:

is an obscure figure of Roman law: a person who is banned, may be killed by anybody, but may not be sacrificed in a religious ritual. The person is excluded from all civil rights, while his/her life is deemed “holy” in a negative sense (wikipedia).

Another way of looking at it, which is the way Agamben uses the designation. Here the Homo sacer is a person who is a legal exile, one who may live among the people but has no legal rights. An easy example of this from Scripture would be Cain, who in Genesis 4 is made to be a wanderer and fugitive on the Earth. He is marked so that he cannot be killed – whether it is for religious vengeance or otherwise, but he is left with no community or law to protect him. And we don’t (typically) feel sorry for him, he is after all guilty! Right?!

To get at this a little better, Zizek offers the Freudian “reading” of those naked dreams so many of us have. Isn’t it odd that whenever we dream of being completely naked in a crowd no one else seems to notice? People continue on their way as though nothing is different (2002:112). Zizek then tells a story about a racist event he witnessed in Berlin in ’92 that pulls this all together.

At first, it seemed to me that on the opposite side of the street, a German and a Vietnamese were simply playing some friendly game of performing an intricate dance around each other – it took me some time to grasp that I was witnessing an actual case of racial harassment: whichever way the perplexed and frightened Vietnamese turned, the German blocked his way, thus showing that there was no place, no way to go, for him here, in Berlin.

He names two reasons for initially misunderstanding the scene:

  1. The German’s harassment was done in a codified way that did not involve any physical touch and in fact, respected the man’s personal space. There was no overtly confrontational act.
  2. The people on the streets seemed to not notice what was going on, they continue on their way as if everything was normal. Or more to the point, Zizek suspects they “pretended” to ignore it by looking away, and hurrying along so as to not get caught up in the event.

This situation underlies the key difference between civilized and barbaric racism. Barbaric racism is the kind of racism that Martin Luther King Jr. and others faced during the Civil Rights Movement, it is physical brutality at its worst, and it still exists today. But this “civilized” racism we see above is in its own way even worse than the overt kind of racism. It allows the passer-byes to pretend nothing has happened. It is a way of making racism acceptable in everyday life. This same kind of ignorance, as Zizek calls it, is “mobilized when we are led to treat others as Homo sacer.”

One reason I think this is important is insomuch as we spend MLK day remembering the kind of barbaric acts we are all capable of, we must also come to terms with our own covert racisms, our own implicit role in “civilized” acts. These acts surround us all, all the time. They happen at the store, on TV, they come through emails, websites, magazines and literature and they also happen in our churches. We as Christians are guilty of having our own Homo sacers, whether they are other church leaders, political leaders, our neighbors, or cultures and other religions that we have deemed not fully human, we have to realize the impact this has not only on our witness as the church but also how it impacts us as human beings. As people like Leonardo Boff have taught us, God is always found with those who are rejected and outcast.

Jesus’ own acts toward the Samaritan woman (John 4) points toward how the Kingdom of God sees and treats the Homo sacer. Her role as a woman and Samaritan in the first century easily places her within such a denigrated category. Yet Jesus sought to break the vicious cycle of hatred between the Jews and Samaritans by turning the tables on the woman and offering her the gift of everlasting life. We as the church, remembering Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesus before him, must continue to refuse to participate in civilized or barbaric racism and break the vicious cycles of hatred that underly our own culture and race. Who are the Homo sacer’s among us today? And what do we do to help them?

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

3 thoughts on “Homo Sacer and Civilized Racism?”

  1. I think this is a really smart well thought out blog. It made me think of situations in my life that I did horrible things so it would justify what horrible things have been done to me. MLK provided a reality that would go beyond the self and move into a kingdom reality. I hope that we can recognize other facets of racism and prejudice that limits the beauty, grace, and expanse of the gospel.

  2. Thanks Amy! I think we’ve done things like this, on a smaller or larger level. It’s really hard to break out of these kinds of cycles that seem so embedded in our history as a people.

  3. Timely thoughts and I agree with the way you are using Zizek here.

    Isn’t part of the problem the possibility that, in our age, a kind of communitarianism is triumphing over the universal liberal project, such that societies are calling into question the idea of human rights in favour of an argument that rights are earned by proving one’s ability to belong?

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