By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
One summer in college, I worked at a ministry in Chicago. I served as a mentor for kids in hard social and economic situations. Beyond this ministry, I remember two days there: the morning I ran the Chicago Distance Classic, and the evening I saw someone murdered in plain sight outside Bryant Park.
The moment was surreal – loud shots, then people running from the epicenter of suffering like ripples from a rock tossed into water.
My time in Chicago showed me our society suffers terrible illnesses. Recent events remind me. The awful deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd must be accounted for. Their families cannot be left thinking that the lives of their loved ones do not matter to the rest of us. That much is for sure.
But more needs to be done. Tragically, I think our pop culture is largely stifling our energies for authentic transformation. After the killings, many media, companies, celebrities and religious figures described the problem in ways that seem only to deepen the divisions. Undiscerning and self-justifying indignation, let alone more violence, will not call forth the deep love we need in order to heal.
On one side of our ideological spectrum, it seems to me that many are more concerned to shore up their innocence by scapegoating than to sacrifice for real solutions. The thought that the malady might reside in my own heart seems not to occur to this side, at least not consciously; thus, we so easily push the guilt onto others – onto whites, police, politicians, etc. Ignoring the statistics and facts we might learn if only we diversified our sources of information, we listen constantly to the comfortable logic reminding us that we are ‘woke’ angels and that the problem lies in a demon somewhere else.
On the other side of our ideological spectrum, it seems to me that many try to focus almost entirely on the counter-violence, and to imply despite all evidence to the contrary that the American Dream is already equally available to everyone, regardless of differences in family, neighborhood, poverty, education, etc. I suppose there is some truth to the economic adage that a rising tide lifts all boats, and so we should rejoice in the records set for minority employment during the current administration; nevertheless, this does not absolve us from attending to the leaks preventing many boats from rising despite the tide. Our neighbors need personal attention, which we can’t give them by trickle-down economics alone.
Dear reader, we are all shaped by our own experiences and sources of information, and so you might think differently, but I am not yet convinced that our country is overwhelmed by racists – those who think one race is naturally superior to another. I certainly think racial prejudice exists and must be combatted, but it is only one ugly spawn of a deeper and more widely operative evil. That evil is our failure to see and love those who are different – and this is a temptation that afflicts us all. We all can let differences in zip code, politics, culture, and so many other things, bring us to overlook truths that we should not, and to cast each other out of our hearts.
We don’t need scapegoating. We need sacrifice. Millions of our neighbors are surrounded by obstacles to their life, liberty and happiness – and these poor are of many kinds. To overcome the obstacles, it isn’t enough to call someone a racist (and perhaps donate a little something from our surplus wealth). We must be ready, as Pope Francis says, to let our lives become “wonderfully complicated” by true solidarity. The ideology that would unravel this solidarity takes many forms and can be found on both sides of our divide: for it is the same blindness that both ignores from a luxurious sideline the plight of a policeman risking his life, and that disowns all responsibility for helping a community escape the spiritual and material poverty leaving it vulnerable to recidivism; and it is the same hardheartedness that both insists to a clearly destitute white man that he should feel privileged, and that tells all minorities they have today as equal an opportunity for success as anyone else.
I think we say such things, and so many others, when we want to simplify reality in service of our anxious need for self-justification. But rather than protect ourselves at all cost by displacing guilt, we ought to find our justification by trying to rise together. Again, as Pope Francis says, we must “stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune and instead enter into the reality of other people’s lives…. Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated and we experience intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people.”
What would it take to run toward the epicenter of suffering? It would require more sacrifice than many on either side of our ideological spectrum seem able to admit right now. I am still trying to imagine it in my own life. Nevertheless, I know that the world is thirsting to see this solidarity, which is a love given away to the end, just as Jesus loved us. Let us pray to God to send his Spirit into our hearts, so that we can love with Jesus’ very own strength. Thus will rise countless creative men and women in every corner of our society, all ready to give their lives away in love, to the great consolation of the world.
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas.