In the fight against racism, white Christians must break the cycle of distraction

In this June 24, 2020, file photo, Tyshawn, 9, left, and his brother Tyler, 11, right, of Baltimore, hold signs saying "Black Lives Matter" and "I Can't Breathe" as they sit on a concrete barrier near a police line as demonstrators protest along a section of 16th Street that has been renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

A recent article in The New York Times asked, “Will the commitment of white protesters endure?” In a summer of marches and rallies, there have been surprisingly large numbers of white protesters against racism, offering hope of a new multiracial solidarity, indeed an epiphany that black lives matter.

Anyone familiar with our political and social patterns, however, has to admit that U.S. society struggles to think about any problem for more than five seconds. Our attention span is cyclical and ephemeral: event, outrage, brief action and disillusionment. Rinse and repeat with the next event.

How do we break this cycle?

A simple word characterizes much of our politics: distraction.

In a summer of marches and rallies, there have been surprisingly large numbers of white protesters against racism, offering hope of a new multiracial solidarity.

A collection of notes from Adolfo Nicolás, S.J., then superior general of the Society of Jesus, concerns that very subject. Written in 2011, they were circulated after his death in May. As James Grummer, S.J., told me over email, Father Nicolás “had phenomenal patience for waiting so that an idea had time to mature. An idea had to be ripe and the time had to be appropriate before he acted on it. The notes have certainly been a wonderful gift for us at the time of his death, when we were ready to receive them.”

The notes address the spiritual state of the Society of Jesus. Father Nicolás paints a picture of the Society and indeed the world as suffused with distractions: ideologies, perfectionism, egoism, gadgets and, of course, social media. When Father Nicolás then considers why he is not more faithful to prayer, he has an epiphany: “It took me many years of struggle and failure to realize that my real distraction was in my life, not in my prayer.”

Father Nicolás contrasts these distractions with the absolute focus on Christ by classic spiritual masters. When he returns to Ignatius Loyola, Francis Xavier, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, he is moved by “their total centering” in Christ: “They had been caught by the Spirit...and they had stayed there, totally centered, probing its depths, rebuilding their whole lives around this new center.” Speaking of Matteo Ricci, Claude La Colombière, Pedro Arrupe and others, Father Nicolás concludes, “The great Jesuits appear to me as men in one piece: whole, dedicated, consistent, focused, and not in the least distracted.”

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Today all white Christians need to fix our gaze on the suffering Christ in the wounds of our Black brothers and sisters.

Distraction comes to light in its fundamental meaning: replacing Christ with something else as the center of our focus, the object of our thoughts and the reason for our actions. Father Nicolás urges Jesuits to return to that center in Christ.

This description of distraction is helpful for our present time. What is painfully obvious is that most white people cannot gaze on the suffering of our brethren for more than a few seconds before looking away in pain, confusion and guilt. We then turn to whatever helps to distract us from what we know should be holding our attention.

Just as Father Nicolás urges Jesuits to fix their gaze on Christ, today all white Christians need to fix our gaze on the suffering Christ in the wounds of our Black brothers and sisters. Seeing Christ in our brothers and sisters is not enough, but it is a crucial first step. Changing hearts and minds does not automatically lead to systemic change, but it does lead to the desire to reform unjust systems and structures. And it is the only sustainable way to do so.

But how do we break the cycle of outrage and apathy? There is no shortcut. We need to be willing to do hard, slow work over time, despite opposition and our own limitations.

White Christians are not blazing a new trail to fight for Black Christians. We are following in their footsteps.

That process depends on three things. First, we must name that politics depends on attention, on vision. Name it every day. We must cultivate an awareness of our tendency to look away, to seek distraction.

Second, we must attend to attention. Attention is not a fleeting glance at an object. It is a loving gaze upon something—someone—of value and meaning. It is silence and receptivity: shutting out the noise and distractions of everyday life to come to know and love what is precious. In the work of philosopher Josef Pieper, it is a contemplative, receptive gaze that seeks to understand rather than analyze in order to control. A spirituality of politics has to sustain our attention on what we know and love.

That is why, third, we must not just attend to problems. We must attend to people, especially and above all to our brothers and sisters who have suffered while we looked away. One of the most important fruits of that attention is the recognition that Black Catholics have been fighting this fight for a long time, as historian Shannen Dee Williams has often explained. She notes, “While the road ahead might seem difficult, black Catholic history is filled with examples of faithful who fought for racial justice in the face of resistance and unholy discrimination.” In other words, white Christians are not blazing a new trail to fight for Black Christians. We are following in their footsteps.

St. Ignatius asks us to pray for the grace to know, love and serve God more closely. Service is only nurtured by knowing and loving.

We need their witness for hope if such attention will lead to activity. Focused attention on those we love taps into our deepest motivations for action. That is why attention, as I have been naming it, is not escapism or a flight from action: It is a call to properly ground our action so as to render that action truly fruitful. St. Ignatius asks us to pray for the grace to know, love and serve God more closely. Service is only nurtured by knowing and loving.

Father Nicolás suggests that what we need is a spiritual renewal, one that does not stop with our thoughts and feelings. A true spiritual renewal means re-centering on Christ, including the Christ we see in others. Seeing Christ in others involves a conversion: seeing the goodness in others with a loving and intense awareness that moves us from fearful self-love to fearless and constant love for the other.

If politics depends on vision—what we choose to see and attend to as valuable—then cultivating that sight will change our menu of options for action and change. Real sight will help us see whom we are not listening to and to recognize our mutual needs and goals. It will help us see what we should be grateful for and also see where we are distracting ourselves with complacency or quick fixes. Indeed, one of the greatest temptations in times of upheaval is to satisfy our desire to do something, to act spontaneously and emotionally in ways that lead to no substantial change, the effects of which are as ephemeral as the emotions accompanying them. Then we are back in the boom-and-bust cycle of white attention to racism.

How would the United States be different if Christians saw with resolute clarity the image of God in others? How would the United States be different if Christians were to reverence that image of God in everything they thought, said and did?

With that hope in mind, it is appropriate to end with Father Nicolás’s own conclusion: “This is the prayer that accompanies this letter: that we all respond anew to the unceasing call of our Lord Jesus for the good of the Church, of humanity and of the universe.”

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