Charlottesville and Trump: A spiritual exercise for the overwhelmed and exhausted

Two people comfort Joseph Culver of Charlottesville, Va., Aug. 12 as he kneels at a late night vigil to pay his respects for a friend injured in a car attack on counter-protesters rallying against white nationalists. (CNS photo/Jim Bourg, Reuters) Two people comfort Joseph Culver of Charlottesville, Va., Aug. 12 as he kneels at a late night vigil to pay his respects for a friend injured in a car attack on counter-protesters rallying against white nationalists. (CNS photo/Jim Bourg, Reuters)

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.

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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?

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J Cosgrove
2 months 1 week ago

You might want to rewrite your article and re-think your narrative based on your misunderstanding of Charlottesville and Trump's statements.

First, Trump did not say there were no Neo Nazis protesting in Charlottesville. He said that some of the protesters were not Neo-Nazis or white supremacists. They were there to protest the taking down of the monument to Lee. Apparently this is true. So Trump was correct. I have no idea of the percentages.

This leads to the question. What was the name of the group protesting and what was their stated purpose? It seems that they might have misstated their intentions in their permit.

Second, He also said that there were some very bad people in the group protesting but not all were bad. He also said that he condemned Neo Nazis. Again I have no idea of the percentages. However, anyone in the protest group and marched with those who carried Nazi flags are guilty even if they are not Neo Nazis or white supremacists.

The counter protesters also contain some equally bad people who self identified with organizations that could be considered hate organizations. Again the people who were counter protesting and marched with the people from the Anti fa and Black Lives Matter are then also guilty of supporting the objectives of these two organizaitons.

The police stood down and let the two sides come together. Something that is a no-no in just about every other rally in the country. There was a similar incident in Seattle on Sunday and the police kept the two sides apart. The rally was a free speech event organized by Trump supporters. The counter protesters were the same groups, not same people, as in Charlottesville and were prepared to do violence.

If one wants to make a point, it's best not to distort the facts. It undermines what you are saying.

There will be a civil rights investigation into this and maybe we will find out who is organizing both sides and who is funding all these anti-American organizations. Right now we are working off biased reports.

By the way, where are all the America articles on the Google fiasco? There seems to be a lot of things that go round the country that are not on America, the magazine's, radar scope.

Deacon Chris Schneider
2 months 1 week ago

you have stated it well...

Jonathan Lunine
2 months ago

The article was right on. POTUS revealed his true moral stripes. I need only quote the great Elie Wiesel: "We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."

Janice Farnham
2 months 1 week ago

Thanks, Jim, for this reflection and invitation to a new approach to Examen. I must admit the Trump atmosphere grows more toxic for me every day, and I keep trying to remind myself that God is laboring and loving through the "mel of a Hess" the country is in. Always look forward to your insights and remember simpler times in Cambridge!

Michael Barberi
2 months ago

This article follows what we hear and read in the press and local media. Trump waited two days to issue his condemnation of Charlottesville, white supremacists, neo Nazi groups and the like. Yet the media went ballistic because he did not do this the same or next day the incident happened.

Fast forward to his recent tweets and press conference and all one hears is how Trump is the most insane President in history, racist, full of hate and contributing to the violence and signs of the times. Granted, some of Trump's rhetoric should be condemned. However, the media chooses to exaggerate "every word" he tweets or says into a negative evil narrative with the objective of denying him any space to be President and do the people's business.

One quickly forgets that when humans were being beheaded by ISIS, President Obama was on the golf course. He took his sweet time in condemning it. Yet the media gave him a pass. When Obama jumped to conclusions that Ferguson was nothing more than a biased white police officer killing an innocent black man (again), and when his own Justice Department investigation uncovered that the police officer was in his rights to shoot and kill this black person, all the media did was continue to show "hands up don't shoot" protests.

We live in a culture today that is not caused by Trump, nor does Trump fuel it. it is an extreme hatred and harsh condemnation for anyone who does not believe in your point of view. We see it in violent student protests against a person who is invited to speak on a subject where the objective is to silence the speaker and deny respectful 'freedom of speech'. This happens on the far right and far left in the country. To a much lesser extent, we see many hard line positions in theological disputes where anyone calling for a change in doctrine or a teaching is somehow going against Scripture and God's Will. We see Cardinals condemning Pope Francis for his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia and in his vision for our Church.

A good argument can be made that it is the media and press that is responsible for stirring violence, hatred and fueling a far left one-sided ideology in this country. While many people will never vote for Trump, he was elected President. What we don't need is a media and Democratic 'War' to discredit him at any cost regardless if the facts are exaggerated, simply false or skewed to fit a political agenda. Please don't misread what I am saying. I did not vote for Trump or Clinton because I believed that both were terrible candidates for President. I don't support everything that Trump does. However, I am not convinced he is incompetent, a racist and a person who lacks of moral integrity. I think he can do good things, like tax reform, a comprehensive immigration system, and the like assuming Congress acts responsibly and compromises to do the people's business. Yet instead of focusing on the issues people want to hear about, all we hear in the media is either Russia collusion or now a racist President. As you can tell, I dislike the main street media because you cannot completely trust them for a fair, balanced narrative about the truth. I also don't like articles like this that are not well balanced but another 'pile on' against any thing Trump.

Charles Erlinger
2 months ago

I believe that the author is correct to recommend personal self examination and reflection at this time. We all probably remember thinking or reading about historical examples of countries and even whole civilizations that experienced catastrophic failure, the process of failing exhibiting horrific acts of inhumanity along the way. The failure stories were often described as lengthy processes, the logical consequences of which could have been foreseen if only the citizens affected had been willing to admit what the signs pointed to. We might have thought that we, surely, would have acted more wisely if we had been in those situations. Every generation, we can be sure, is tested. Our generation surely is being tested now. But as the author rightly proposes, these tests are individual tests requiring individual responses. Of course, a collection of individual responses aggregates to a collective response, but only if our generation of individuals is up to the test.

Kevin Murphy
2 months ago

If you don't take both fascistic sides to task, then you are comfortable with one of them. What of the leftist riots, the shouting down of Republican politicians at town halls, the intolerance of those with differing opinions? Of course, the shooting of Congressman Scalise is conveniently forgotten. I am sick of the 24/7 Trump-hatred emanating from all facets of the media. I say that not as a Trump supporter, but as an American tired of the double standard and the noxious, self righteous atmosphere. As this piece exemplifies, left-wing hatred and violence is not to be condemned, but silently accepted as a necessary evil. Evil is such no matter the source, It is disturbing that America fails to recognize this.

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 months ago

Father Jim
While you are "reflecting" I suggest you consider that what we are engaged in Nationally is a cross between the Jerry Springer Show and Mao's Great Cultural Revolution .
Unbalanced Media reportage is specifically designed to both incite the chair throwing, screaming and punching endemic to the Springer Show and provide the emotional energy to propel mass action to demand adherence to the new Little Red Book of Political Correctness. Unfortunately we have a thin skinned , intemperate President who unfailingly "falls for the bait".
So the new Red Guard troops are now energized to literally tear down all representations/ideas/ people that contradict what this new Little Red Book defines as acceptable and worthy and politically correct!

Despite your call for reflection, your own article is of a piece with the rest of these PC driven items. Consider your breezy, off the cuff unsupported cause and effect statements:
" ......the rise in hate crimes following his [Trump's] election....."
".........Faced...with leaders who enable violence and oppression..."

Fine PC prose, but hardly exemplative of the " reflection" you propose. My 11 years of Jesuit education always emphasized examination of fact vs opinion; analysis vs preconceived; and conclusions supportable by evidence. These seem to be the essential predicates of any " reflection" worthy of undertaking.

[UPDATE Five and 1/2 days AFTER : the New Red Guards , the new political iconoclasts, have expanded to attacking statues of Junipero Serra and Christopher Columbus. The new PC goal is apparently to prove that all the foundations of America are fundamentally flawed. ]

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