Review of Race with the Devil: My Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love, by Joseph Pearce. Saint Benedict Press, 2013
Captivated by Joseph Pearce’s spiritual biography of the great Russian writer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and knowing that he has recently become writer-in-residence at New Hampshire’s Thomas More College, I was eager to read the biographer’s own story of conversion from militant racism and atheism to the Catholic Faith – a radical turnabout if there ever was one.
Pearce is now in his early 50’s – about the same age as my own first-born. His first years were spent in Haverhill, Suffolk, a small town some miles north of London. He remembers those early years as idyllic; he and his younger brother and their friends roamed the town and nearby woods and felt safe, completely unaware of the turbulence of the sixties in the outside world. Although his family practiced no religion, the culture was permeated with what he calls an “implicit anti-Catholicism,” which manifested itself in such creepy things as a fear of monks (imagined mad ones, naturally) and the annual celebration of Guy Fawkes Day. Pearce explains that Guy Fawkes Day is a perverse kind of holy day instigated by the Anglican Church and Parliament to commemorate the unsuccessful so-called Gunpowder Plot to blow up the House of Lords by Catholics in 1605. An effigy of the Catholic, Guy Fawkes, and some other hated person like the pope or a political figure (Ronald Reagan was one) was burned after fireworks and bonfires. The Pearces were sort of nominal Christian Protestants, but not church-goers, who loved Christmas and the traditions of the tree, the gifts and the carols.
Pearce likens himself to his father – made “in his image,” as he states. The elder Pearce had a great influence on his sons, passing on to them his disappointment in the disappearance of the greatness of the British Empire and the inherent dislike and distrust of the Irish and of Catholics (“bead-rattlers” as he called them). During this time great waves of Third World immigrants were entering England, those of darker skin, foreign cultures and strange religions. His hostile attitude toward these newcomers fostered racist emotions and led to deep feelings of resentment against foreigners coming into England. His father was not ignorant and uneducated; in fact, he could recite Shakespeare and the great English poets, and wax eloquent about English military victories of history. He despised Communism, but harbored an unhealthy respect for Hitler’s Germany, although he would never have agreed with the “Final Solution.” He was a hard drinker, though, and the son would follow the father in this respect as well.
It was this deep-seated hatred of Communism and his developing racism that influenced the son and that, at length, got him into trouble with the law. Joseph became a leading figure in the National Front, a white supremacist organization which advocated the removal of all non-whites from British soil. He was the editor of Bulldog, the newspaper of the Young National Front, no doubt honing his wonderful writing skills on racist rantings. In 1985, at the age of twenty-four, he was convicted for the second time of hate crimes – inciting hatred by way of his editorials in this newspaper. The first sentence at age twenty was like a badge of honor for the cause he was touting; the second sentence was like “descending into a tunnel from which the light at the end was not yet visible.” He now likens this year as his own “dark night of the soul” of which Saint John of the Cross speaks. Of course, at that time, he was very far from Catholicism.
Someone at his trial had slipped a rosary into his hands. In his despair at facing the next year in prison, this member of the racist National Front and the anti-Catholic secret society, Orange Order, began to finger the beads with a desire to pray, remembering his own Catholic grandmother’s Rosary of long ago. Although he didn’t know the prayers or the method of saying those prayers, it was thus that “the eyes of faith had been opened.” He began to attend Mass at the prison and, three years later, was received into the Church. It is those four years between prison terms that Joseph Pearce calls his “purgatorial ascent from racial hatred to rational love.”
We learn Pearce’s encapsulated history in the first four chapters. The remainder of the book takes a leisurely pace through his life beginning with his earliest memories in Haverhill. After his idyllic childhood, of which he has sweet memories, the family moved closer to London when Joseph was twelve, not a good atmosphere for one of his temperament. In the small town of his childhood, the schools were intimate and peaceful, even retaining a Christian veneer with the recital of the Lord’s Prayer each morning. The London school was large, impersonal, and intimidating to the newcomer. The atmosphere was one of anarchy, and the hated Communist and socialist principles were the academic fare.
A few years later, at the age of seventeen, he began to write for the magazine of the National Front; his first article was entitled “Red Indoctrination in the Classroom.” Here we see the beginning of his literary career as a spokesman for the nationalist, white and right-wing movement in England. Joseph was on his way!
Joseph then takes us through his teen and early twenties and explains how he was influenced by the rock music of the time, the writings of atheist Richard Dawkins, Nazi and other anti-Semitic writings, his beer-drinking companions in the pubs of London, and his associations with the anti-Catholic Orange Order and the racist National Front. Violent activity was a part of the activities of the NF: “Violence seemed to be woven into the very fabric of life for active members of the NF.” They often clashed with members of the Socialist Workers Party who sold their newspapers on the same street corners as NF members. It was common for the two groups to clash violently in street fights. On one occasion, Joseph broke the flag pole he was holding across the torso of a rival gang member.
Always a voracious reader, Solzhenitsyn’s works began to have a “transforming influence” on his life. Later, it was the work of Chesterton, Belloc, E. F. Schumacher, Tolkien, and other Catholic writers that began to soften his heart and enlighten his mind. His journey from the darkness of racism and hatred took a long time, but eventually, he began to see the beauty, wisdom, and truth of the Catholic Faith. He became a Catholic in 1989, long after he had begun attending Mass and delighting in the Catholic liturgy and hymns, especially those of Our Lady.
Of course, the story does not end here. In fact, it has not yet ended, for Joseph Pearce is now living and working in our own state of New Hampshire as writer-in-residence at Thomas More College. For me, the most touching part of Joseph’s story is his marriage to a young American Catholic woman whom he met in a class that he led at Oxford. He tenderly relates the birth of their first child and the long wait for the birth of their daughter.
Joseph Pearce is a wonderful writer with an exciting style that grips the reader. He writes with humor and tenderness. This reader is certainly grateful that this man left the violent ways of his youth and embraced the Faith. I look forward to reading other books of his.