Over the years I have heard bits and pieces of author and literary critic Joseph Pearce’s conversion story. I always wanted to hear more since the basic details seemed so wild. I usually find conversion stories as a genre fascinating since while there are similarities in each one, there is also a uniqueness to the individual. Some conversion stories seem much more dramatic such as St. Paul who went from persecutor to Apostle. Joseph Pearce’s conversion story certainly has those striking elements especially how radical his previous convictions were.
So I was quite delighted when I saw that Saint Benedict Press was coming out with Race With the Devil: My Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love. For those who do not know anything about his conversion story the subtitle gives some idea.
What surprised me in this book was just how involved Joseph Pearce had been involved in racist and anti-Catholic movements. He was not just on the periphery of these movements, but was an organizer of them. An editor of the newspaper for the National Front and his involvement from the age of fourteen on is hard to fathom. As a reader you want to come to understand how a young man could turn down this road of racist hate and to devote his life to it.
His father’s racism certainly played a part in this and was an influence. One of the things I loved most about this book was the way people in Joseph Pearce’s life were described. This was especially true in regards to his father’s who he wrote about lovingly, flaws and all. His father was full of contradictions being vocally racist and anti-Catholic he could as the author describes “genuinely love his fellow man.” I can totally understand this. While in the Navy I only met a couple of vocal racists. One I worked with tried to convince me that the music of Jimi Hendrix was actually written and performed by Robin Trower. He had many such crazy racist and misogynist opinions, but when it came to working with others he treated them quite decently.
His portrayal of the complexities of his father really carries on throughout the book regarding the intricacies of the people he worked with in such evil movements. You see the friendships he developed through his eyes and come to understand something more about them than just the corrupting worldview they inhabited. This is a story of redemption and the hope for the redemption of others.
The various chapters first deal with his dissent into racism and the various influences and philosophies that he thought confirmed his choices. His writing put him at the center of the National Front which he worked for full time. Soccer hooliganism also became an outlet for his racial hatred. This carried on to later becoming involved in the Troubles in Northern Ireland supporting the Protestant loyalists against the hated Catholics. His attempt to stir up even more trouble resulted in what he called “flirting with terrorism.” As a reaction to “Rock against racism” he started “Rock against Communism” which was largely a skinhead phenomenon as he describes. He was very involved in promoting this effort along with writing about this music in every issue of the Bulldog. He was jailed twice under the Race Relations Act because of his writings. The first time he was jailed he left just as firm in his convictions as when he entered and he and others saw him as a martyr to the cause. By the time he went back to jail his ideas were experiencing a transformation. Retaining his racism while trying to hold in tension other things he was learning.
It was these other literary influences that were opening him up. G.K. Chesterton was one of these great influences and many others followed including Belloc and C.S. Lewis. Yet at first he was only opening himself up to what he found compatible with his viewpoint especially as regard their social vision and alternative to big government.
“Even AS Chesterton, Belloc and Lewis were working their unseen and grace-filled magic, enlightening my mind and healing my heart imperceptibly, I continued to pursue the paths of radical politics as if nothing was changing.”
I think many converts can identify with this in some respect. Being opened to something higher while holding to our previous opinions. Looking back it becomes hard to see how we could hold such things in tension not seeing the contradictions.
Yet the seeds were planted and by the time he finished his second prison sentence he was not the same man who had served the first on. His path out of racism and into the Catholic Church was now on a slow course as his changing attitude was putting him at odds with his personal relationships.
This is such a deeply satisfying biography and conversion story. If I would have seen him as a young man I would have written him off as unredeemable scum. Like the racists it is easy to group people and just write them off. Our hatred for such a philosophy translates to hatred of the person with no willing of the good towards them. In this book he describes a couple of encounters that deeply affected him in regards to people that treated him in a manor that transcended the way he acted and appeared. This is such an unlikely story of racist to biographer and literary critic and such an insightful writer. Yet the movement of grace is wonderful to behold.