But like the Church, Christian social action cannot be done in isolation. Social change simply does not happen by the isolated actions of any one activist, saint, or social revolutionary…We need to form communities locally. Our local communities need to link up in movements nationally and globally. This is the only real way social change can happen. And this should come quite naturally for Christians.
What Can I do?
In the face of the Syrian and Iraqi Crisis (among so many other devastating global news stories these days), it is easy to feel helpless and alone. What can I do to address the threats of the Islamic State—which as President Obama rightly pointed out is neither a state nor is it Islamic? What can I do to help Christians far away? What can I do… to help those impacted by Ebola? …to prevent the suffering of refugee children at the US border?… to stop the seemingly inevitable impact of climate change? The list can go on…
Slactivism and Apathy
For those of us who live in comfortable social contexts, the easiest thing to do is to throw up our hands and get back to our books, classes, shopping, or sports and pretend like a four-year-old “I don’t see you.” This is what Pope Francis has described many times as the “globalization of indifference,” in which we become “accustomed to the suffering of others, it doesn’t concern us, it’s none of our business.” This is a real danger in relation to Syria, as the Pope expressed recently: “With the Syrian conflict continuing for more than three years, “there is a risk of becoming used to it” and forgetting that people are dying there each day”
For others, it’s easy to be comforted by small activities that seem to show support for these causes. We post a news story on Twitter, comment on a friend’s Facebook post, and maybe even a few of us will donate a few dollars. But in the end, “slactivism” is ineffective and counterproductive.
Confronted with a global context scarred by suffering, it is really understandable why we would want to look away. Apathy is so much more appealing than indignation at preventable suffering or guilt in our own participation and compliancy in structural injustice and sin.
Furthermore, we also know that those in positions of political, economic, and (maybe even sometimes) ecclesial positions of power benefit from apathetic aptitudes. It is much easier to tell customers what they want and tell people how to vote, if they remain isolated and apathetic. The Uruguayan poet, Eduardo Galeano, sums it up this way:
‘Our system is one of detachment: to keep silenced people from asking questions, to keep the judged from judging, to keep solitary people from joining together, and the soul from putting together its pieces.’ (Galeano- Divorces)
Prayer and Contemplation
What happens if we bring the suffering of the world to God and Christ through prayer and contemplation?
Prayer reminds us that we are not alone. It frees us from both the slavery of apathy and the powerlessness of isolation. Genuine prayer unites us not only with God and ourselves, but also with our neighbors. Real prayer does not remain trapped under a basket. Prayer opens us up to a reality beyond ourselves. A prayerful recognition of God’s infinite love, her incredible gift of creation, and our vocation to work toward the Reign of God initiated by Christ all propel us toward social action.
St. James speaks of this famously in his epistle (faith without action is dead). St. Ignatius of Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises clearly explains this. For Ignatius, as we become more aware of God’s gracious actions in our lives, we are compelled to response in loving service in the world.
But like the Church, Christian social action cannot be done in isolation. Social change simply does not happen by the isolated actions of any one activist, saint, or social revolutionary. What would Dorothy Day be without the Catholic Worker Movement? What would Ignatius be without the Jesuits? Or King without the Civil Rights movement? We need to form communities locally. Our local communities need to link up in movements nationally and globally. This is the only real way social change can happen. And this should come quite naturally for Christians.
In this journey or prayerfully responding to social injustice, Christian prayer can be the glue in forming the networks and structures of grace capable of overcoming the structures of sin, violence and oppression. It reminds us that we do not have to accept the status quo. Things do not have to remain as they are. God’s Kingdom invites us to a different way of being.
Through the lens of Christian faith and prayer, we discover that the “What can I do” questions are fundamentally flawed. Prayer, communion and the reception of the Holy Spirit opens up the way for new questions:
- Where is God calling us?
- How can we address the immediate suffering of people?
- What are the deeper causes (systems) of this suffering?
- Who benefits from this system in place?
- How do we participate by omission or commission in these systems of domination?
- What movements and communities are already acting to transform the situation?
In his recent prayer for peace with the leaders of Palestine and Israel, Pope Francis offers a radical prayer. May we all join with him in this prayer:
We have tried so many times and over so many years to resolve our conflicts by our own powers and by the force of our arms. How many moments of hostility and darkness have we experienced; how much blood has been shed; how many lives have been shattered; how many hopes have been buried… But our efforts have been in vain.
Now, Lord, come to our aid! Grant us peace, teach us peace; guide our steps in the way of peace. Open our eyes and our hearts, and give us the courage to say: “Never again war!”; “With war everything is lost”. Instil in our hearts the courage to take concrete steps to achieve peace.
Lord, God of Abraham, God of the Prophets, God of Love, you created us and you call us to live as brothers and sisters. Give us the strength daily to be instruments of peace; enable us to see everyone who crosses our path as our brother or sister. Make us sensitive to the plea of our citizens who entreat us to turn our weapons of war into implements of peace, our trepidation into confident trust, and our quarreling into forgiveness.
Keep alive within us the flame of hope, so that with patience and perseverance we may opt for dialogue and reconciliation. In this way may peace triumph at last, and may the words “division”, “hatred” and “war” be banished from the heart of every man and woman. Lord, defuse the violence of our tongues and our hands. Renew our hearts and minds, so that the word which always brings us together will be “brother”, and our way of life will always be that of: Shalom, Peace, Salaam! Amen.