Charlottesville and Trump: A spiritual exercise for the overwhelmed and exhausted
Five days after the horrific events in Charlottesville, Va., our country continues to grapple with their significance. As has been true from the start of the Trump administration, each new day finds us inundated with more data, the latest takes and the prospect of another crisis. Simply trying to keep up with it all can be difficult. Gaining a broader perspective seems at times near impossible.
For instance, we have condemned those who marched at Charlottesville in the strongest of terms; they have been outed on social media and excoriated in the press. But stepping back, that seems to be exactly what these groups wanted. Waving Nazi flags, shouting racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic slurs, they certainly were not looking for approbation. No, they wanted a public spectacle of conflict. They wanted to provoke opponents to show up and get in fights with them; they wanted the press and others to mock and abuse them. Those moves serve their argument that the “other side” is just that: another position of equal standing, its supporters just as aggressive and partisan as them.
Each new day finds us inundated with more data, the latest takes and the prospect of another crisis.
Yesterday the president of the United States himself expressed this point of view, saying of Charlottesville, “You had a group on one side and a group on the other, and they came at each other with clubs and it was vicious and horrible.” Mr. Trump refused to judge the morality of the protesters’ point of view, even asserting against all facts to the contrary that they “didn’t put themselves down as neo-Nazis.”
It is hard to criticize our society’s fixation on Donald Trump, given comments like this. There is no voice more important in times of crisis, no role more central to the alleviation of social pressures and the affirmation of our shared values than that of the president. But Mr. Trump seems constitutively incapable of performing this key duty; again and again, soothing his own easily wounded ego trumps everything else.
When it comes to anyone classified as “other” within our communities, the same crises keep erupting, and at some point, we are all implicated.
What is more, Donald Trump’s reaction to the violence in Charlottesville and the rise in hate crimes inspired by his election are all just the latest events on a timeline that includes the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and others; attacks on religious institutions like the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., and the Dar Al Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington, Minn.; ongoing state and federal attempts to disenfranchise minority voters; and many, many other incidents. When it comes to anyone classified as “other” within our communities, the same crises keep erupting, and at some point, we are all implicated.
“White America, don’t turn away,” I saw one person post on social media this weekend. It is the same sentiment that was offered by many women and people of color after the election.
How do you continue to “bear witness” when every three or four days there is another crisis?
But if we are not going to turn away, overwhelmed and exhausted, how are we to sort through this constant barrage of information and raw emotion? How do you continue to “bear witness” when every three or four days there is another crisis?
In the Jesuits, we try to end each day with a brief spiritual self-examination. It is a simple prayer; we find a quiet place, take a few moments to breathe and let the day fall away. And then we put a question to God: “Where were you today, Lord? What happened? What do you want me to notice?”
Some days what stands out are the good things, the moments of joy or laughter. Other days it is the things we got wrong, the people we ignored, a way we could do better. Sometimes it is just a couple minutes of rest in the gentle quiet.
Faced with upheaval in U.S. society, with leaders who enable violence and oppression while others stand by silent, an invitation to prayer might sound like the spiritual version of palliative care—an attempt to address the pain but not the disease. But though the news cycle and each new outrage demand constant attention, to see what is really going on and to offer a thoughtful response we need not only to be able to enter in but to step back.
O God, I ask as I sit before CNN, Fox or my newsfeed: Where are you today? What do you want me to notice? What do you want me to see?