At a meeting of monks in Scete, the old men wanted to test Abba Moses. So they poured scorn on him, saying: “Who is this blackamoor that has come among us?” Moses heard them, but said nothing. When the meeting had dispersed, the men who had given the insults, asked him: “Were you not troubled in your heart?” He answered: “I was troubled, and I said nothing.”
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers
Today is the feast day of St. Moses the Ethiopian, also known as St. Moses the Black. (I’ll give you three guesses why.)
As this saying shows racism is not new. No doubt it grows naturally (however viciously) from our tribal pasts, when one’s society was also one’s extended family. Not only were customs and culture shared, so was DNA and, thus, common physical characteristics.
By the time of the desert fathers, at least one transnational state existed: Rome. Yet within Rome, there were all sorts of racial, ethnic, and religious hostilities, not to mention the problem of conquest and the ancient equivalent of colonialism. (Think of the ways the Jews view the Romans, and vice versa, in the New Testament.)
This saying is one of the few from the desert fathers to directly address race. (There are many passages in the New Testament, however—e.g. “Jews and Gentiles,” “Scythians and Barbarians,” “Hellenists and Judeans,” “Jews and Samaritans,” and so on)
In Rome in the third fourth and fifth centuries, when St. Moses lived, I know that there was often deep animosity between the Egyptians and the East Romans of Constantinople, including among Christians.
And here we see that there must have been some degree of animosity toward Ethiopians. Though I do not know what the Greek word used here is, the term “blackamoor” is a derogatory way to refer to someone with dark skin of African descent.
Being an American of German, Scots, and Irish descent, I can’t say I know exactly what it’s like for the many people in Abba Moses’s position today. Nor do I have any intention of trying to speak for them. But I can listen. Thus, in honor of his feast day, I’d like to listen a bit to Abba Moses’s silence.
Abba Moses is one of my favorite saints. His sayings are often disarmingly humble. This story, on first blush, might seem to be somewhat tragic. He receives racist jeers from other Christians, monks even, and just says nothing? He doesn’t stand up to those brothers who, according to the story, were testing him. He doesn’t tell them that God created all people on purpose, that his image is found equally in every human being, no matter their skin color. He says nothing.
But that isn’t the whole story.
First of all, there is a cultural context that the reader of today might easily miss. It was not uncommon for monks to test one another with insults. They did it to see if a person lived for the praise of others, testing to see if their way of life gave only the appearance of virtue but did not contain it. Moses would have been aware of this practice.
Second, conversely, Moses does admit, “I was troubled.” The way these stories work, one is supposed to marvel at what a great example Abba Moses is. Abba Moses is an example of virtue, and he was troubled by the racism he encountered, even if he may have known that it was put on by the monks to test him.
Third, the monks themselves clearly know that what they said was terrible. That shouldn’t excuse someone saying terrible things like that in our world today, but it does indicate that they, too, knew that this sort of thing should not be done, at least not outside of the monastic culture in which they lived and even to some degree within it.
Fourth, Abba Moses is named, these monks are not. Abba Moses is held up as an example, these monks are not. Abba Moses is depicted in icons, these monks are not. Abba Moses is venerated today, these monks are not venerated on any day, so far as we know. We sing hymns praising Abba Moses, but these monks have been forgotten. We ask for his prayers, but these monks may yet need ours.
Fifth, it is important to remember that the sayings and stories of the desert fathers are practical wisdom: they are not meant to be taken as absolute commands. With that understanding, we can say that Abba Moses here shows us that sometimes silence is more powerful than speech. Indeed, there is great danger in righteous indignation. It may be for a good cause, but it may equally harm our souls.
Thus, St. Moses’s silence is not surrender. With ascetic eyes, we can see that he held his tongue not because he felt he needed to accept the racist jeers of these monks but in order to conquer the rage within himself.
According to his biography, Abba Moses grew up a slave, but he was so unruly that he was released. He then became an ancient gangster of sorts, robbing and murdering. He had suffered much oppression, and his reaction to that oppression was a life of oppressing others. He had it in him to lash out at those brothers, or even to rebuke them righteously. But he held his tongue.
As St. James put it, “the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity” (James 3:6). One source of Abba Moses’s humility was a deep repentance for the life he had lived in the past. We do not need to wonder whether he remembered—we know he kept the memory of that world of iniquity before himself every day to remind himself what he had abandoned. For someone in that situation, silence may be the best option. Indeed, he shows us that silence is more righteous than anger, even righteous anger, even at the most egregious injustice.
And having kept his silence and conquered his anger, he then speaks, and those brothers were humbled by his humility. So, too, should we.