By: Christopher Pramuk, Xavier University
The widespread failure of our criminal justice system to secure the principle that black lives matter no less than white lives is hardly “news” for peoples of color. What may be most “shocking” or “new” or “newsworthy” about the scope of racial injustice in our cities, workplaces, and prisons is precisely its not new-ness. What seems like a new normal is not new after all.
Pope Francis has a name for this open but hidden wound that cripples human relationships at every level: he calls it “the globalization of indifference.” Francis paints a vivid picture for our hearts and imaginations when he laments a “culture of comfort which makes us live in soap bubbles, which, however lovely, are insubstantial; they offer a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others. We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business!”[i]
I sometimes worry that the culture of a university—even a Jesuit Catholic one—can look and feel like a room full of soap bubbles, each of us in our various disciplines drifting through purified air, far removed from the messiness and vulnerability of day to day life for so many people. In another provocative image, Pope Francis describes his vision of the church as a “field hospital after battle.”[ii] What would it mean to take such an image seriously as a model for the public role and mission of a Jesuit Catholic university in our cities, workplaces, and prisons?
In a speech last year at John Carroll University, Dr. Fred Pestello, the president of St. Louis University, recalls the discernment that led to his response to campus protests following the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson on August 9, 2014.[iii] Imagine the situation: Pestello had held the office for only a month before the shooting, when the head of campus security woke him in the middle of the night with news that a thousand protesters were heading toward campus. By the next day they had set up camp around a clock tower at the center of campus. Resisting enormous pressure from many sides to remove the protesters by force, President Pestello, working with the Director of African American Studies and many others, sat down with the group and worked through many difficult dialogue sessions. After six days, the protests ended with the “Clock Tower Accords,” a public commitment detailing 13 steps the university would take to improve racial inclusion on campus and help spur economic development in troubled neighborhoods in St. Louis.
This is what it looks like when a university dares to shatter its soap bubbles. “We asked ourselves,” Pestello recalls, “what would Ignatius do, what would Pope Francis do, what should we do? It’s not easy to get the space to have those conversations when the phone won’t stop ringing and people are afraid for their sons and daughters.” There are some graces, in other words, that come by human beings and human institutions very hard. And yet, he continues: “We are enormously stronger because this forced us to confront our values. These problems are not unique to St. Louis. They are endemic social problems. The occupation on campus forced us to have deep and meaningful conversations about our mission and values.”[iv]
Surely this is one of the most basic, liberating goals of Jesuit education. To open ourselves to one another across the color line; to move toward each other, and not run away or hold “them” categorically at a distance; to strive to build at every level of campus life what Francis calls a culture of encounter; this is not to bend to the winds of political correctness or the so-called liberal agenda. For people of faith, it is to seek no less than the world’s salvation, our greater joy and fulfillment in the encounter with Christ in others. It is to find God, and be found by God, in all things.
There is one other crucial insight Ignatius brings to the table. A model of education bound in with mutual vulnerability and listening, which activates our powers of imagining and reasoning together, implies the need for silence. “Be slow to speak,” counsels Ignatius, “and only after having first listened quietly, so that you may understand the meaning, leanings, and desires of those who do speak. Thus you will better know when to speak and when to be silent.”[v] Learning in an Ignatian key implies the alternation of speech and silence. This is especially true of race discourse, if we would truly desire, on all sides, to understand “the meaning, leanings, and desires of those who speak.” Race discourse that seeks to transform the whole person, and move whole communities toward authentic racial solidarity—not just superficial rhetoric—takes time, patience, and listening.[vi]
Understandably, we and our students often want answers to very large questions, ethical and spiritual questions, now, and yet we know that there are questions that could only be answered in the time it takes to live them through. At the same time not everyone has the time, luxury, or privilege (or protection of the state) to patiently “live these matters through.” Thus the imperative is not just to “talk about race” but to act bodily, to resist, to organize. And yet increasingly, it seems, we risk succumbing to a political culture that hates taking the time of learning, or more precisely, has no patience for taking the time to learn together. And so pundits from left to right, academics included, rely instead on a set of talking points or predetermined propositions to do the work for us, categorically, quickly, neatly, without all the fuss of taking the time to really talk with the person across the table, not just to them, or at them, and to practice ourselves the difficult grace of listening.
This sense of empathic dialogue that takes the time to meet the other where they are, which absorbs what the other is saying and feeds back for them to absorb, is not a luxury. It is the mark of love, and the way of the Christian. It is by no means easy. It is a paschal option. But if we cannot model such discourse on our campuses and in our classrooms, where else will our students find it?
How we see and bodily engage with others who are different is as much a spiritual matter as it is a visual or geographical one. “No one is saved alone, as an isolated individual,” as Pope Francis insists, “but God attracts us looking at the complex web of relationships that take place in the human community. God enters into this dynamic, this participation in the web of human relationships.”[vii] And wherever the web of relationships is straining to the breaking point, we must break free of our soap bubbles long enough to listen deeply and engage reality anew, from within “the heart of the people.” During this Lent, let us commit to dwell with one another in real time and space across the color line, and so risk the birthing together of something new.
Christopher Pramuk is Associate Professor of Theology at Xavier University. His award-winning essays have appeared in America Magazine, Theological Studies, Cross Currents, and the prayer journal Give Us This Day. He is the author of five books, including Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton (2009), which was awarded the International Thomas Merton Society’s 2011 “Thomas Merton Award,” its highest honor. Dr. Pramuk also blogs regularly and posts resources on race, faith, and culture at HopeSingsSoBeautiful.org.
[i] Pope Francis, Homily, visit to Lampedusa, July 8, 2013, at http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/homilies/2013/documents/papa-francesco_20130708_omelia-lampedusa.html.
[iv] Cited in John Gehring, “From MLK to Ferguson: Catholic Identity and the Struggle for Racial Justice,” National Catholic Reporter, Jan. 16, 2016, at http://ncronline.org/news/peace-justice/mlk-ferguson-catholic-identity-and-struggle-racial-justice. See also “The Lord Hears the Cry of the Poor – in Ferguson,” Fred Rottnek, M.D., St. Louis University Medical School, Associate Professor of Family and Community Medicine (Aug. 12, 2014), at http://www.slu.edu/mission-matters-812.
[v] Letter to fellow Jesuits at the Council of Trent, cited in Letters of St. Ignatius Loyola, ed. William J. Young (Chicago: Loyola University, 1959), 94. The need to cultivate a “taste for silence” in every Jesuit apostolate—“to live in great simplicity in the middle of people and yet be carriers of silence”—is a frequent theme of Superior General Adolfo Nicolas. See his interview with The Jesuit Post, published July 22, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0MAsji_kSdU
[vi] For this point and insights in the following paragraph I am much indebted to Rowan Williams, “Words, War, and Silence: Thomas Merton for the Twenty-first Century,” The Merton Annual 28 (2016).
[vii] Pope Francis, “A Big Heart Open to God,” 20-22.