Archive for the ‘Compassion / Social Justice’ Category

I’ve read several articles and posts recently featuring the same conceit: that COVID–19 and police violence are the “twin plagues” or “parallel plagues” of black America.  …

What we need here, if we’re going to continue to speak the language of plague, that is, the language of disease, is the distinction between acute and chronic affliction. I’m speaking metaphorically here, in terms of how whole populations are affected by some invasive, destructive force, whether it’s a literal biological disease or not. I’m thinking of the black population of America as a single body. And in relation to that body COVID–19 is an acute disorder. It has sprung up quickly, out of nowhere, and afflicted people intensely. It just might go away. (From my keyboard to God’s ears.)

Police violence, by contrast, is a chronic disorder. It goes on year after year after year, decade after decade after decade. …

If you think of the black population of this country as a body, then COVID–19 is indeed a terrible plague ravaging it. The fear, the expectation, of police violence isn’t like that: it’s instead a misery that the body (the whole body of black Americans) must suffer and suffer and suffer, with no end in sight. People who have chronic diseases know that what’s attacking them probably won’t kill them — but even if it doesn’t, it might make them wish they were dead. It frays their nerves. It disrupts their sleep. It damages their relationships and weakens their judgment. It makes them vulnerable to other afflictions that really could kill them.

If you’re a black person in America, walking down the streets of a city, the cops probably won’t stop you. But they might. If a cop stops you, he probably won’t kill you. But he might. It’s a non-trivial possibility. The constant awareness of that possibility is itself an affliction. …

We shouldn’t conflate the sudden onset of COVID–19 and the endless tension that arises from walking, or doing anything else, while black. But keeping them conceptually distinct, we can still see them as have this essential thing in common: they attack the bodies of black Americans, they attack the social body that is Black America.

Those of us who are white don’t know much, firsthand, about that chronic affliction. But you know, while the coronavirus itself might be acute, For all of us concern about it has become chronic. Buying groceries probably won’t make us ill. But it might. And if we get ill, we probably won’t die. But we might. It’s a non-trivial possibility. We’re learning how to live at tiptoe stance. Our nerves are fraying after just a few months. Imagine what it would be like to live this way all our lives long.

Alan Jacobs

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The appeal here is not to the greater good or the free choice of the will or constitutive nothingness of creation that corrodes the good. Augustine the pastor and preacher avoids such abstractions and instead appeals to the mystery at the heart of the Christian faith: a humble God who endured evil in order to overcome. The point isn’t that God has a plan; the point is that God wins. We shall overcome because of what the Son has undergone in our stead. This isn’t an answer to evil; it is a response. Hope is found not in intellectual mastery but in divine solidarity.

Sometimes his body, the church, will display the same compassionate solidarity in the face of evil, a cruciform being-with that is not an intellectual dodge but rather an embodied epiphany. I have seen this close up. Several years ago, our niece died suddenly and tragically of an unexplained illness. She was seventeen months old. This is surely not the way it’s supposed to be. Her parents had drifted from any connection to a faith community back in our hometown. But our own faith family back there wanted to reach out and minister to them. So we called our pastor, a dear friend and a model of Christ’s servant love.

When Pastor Charlie arrived at the house, the grieving mother was rightly inconsolable. In fact, she was sprawled on the floor of her daughter’s bedroom, tangled in her blankets and stuffed animals, variously sobbing and numb, not willing to emerge from the room. After waiting for a time, Pastor Charlie went into the room. She didn’t even acknowledge his presence. And so Charlie did the only thing he could think of: he laid down on the floor beside her. He cried out for her and with her and longed with Spirit-filled groanings. He was Christ to her simply by being present to her in her lament.

— James K.A. Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine

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Even a thousand miles inland you can smell the sea and hear the mewing of gulls if you give thought to it. You can see in your mind’s eye the living faces of people long dead or hear in the mind’s ear the United States Marine Band playing “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” If you work at it, you can smell the smell of autumn leaves burning or taste a chocolate malted. You don’t have to be asleep to dream dreams either. There are those who can come up with dramas laid twenty thousand leagues under the sea or take a little girl through a looking glass. Imagining is perhaps as close as humans get to creating something out of nothing the way God is said to. It is a power that to one degree or another everybody has or can develop, like whistling. Like muscles, it can be strengthened through practice and exercise. Keep at it until you can actually hear your grandfather’s voice, for instance, or feel the rush of hot air when you open the 450-degree oven.

If imagination plays a major role in the creation of literature, it plays a major one also in the appreciation of it. It is essential to read imaginatively as well as to write imaginatively if you want to know what’s really going on. A good novelist helps us do this by stimulating our imaginations–sensory detail is especially useful in this regard, such as the way characters look and dress, the sounds and smells of the places they live and so on-but then we have to do our part. It is especially important to do it in reading the Bible. Be the man who trips over a suitcase of hundred-dollar bills buried in the field he’s plowing if you want to know what the Kingdom of Heaven is all about (Matthew 13:44). Listen to Jesus saying, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28) until you canhearhim, if you want to know what faith is all about.

If you want to know what loving your neighbors is all about, look at them with more than just your eyes. The bag lady settling down for the night on the hot-air grating. The two children chirping like birds in the branches of a tree. The bride as she walks down the aisle on her father’s arm. The old man staring into space in the nursing-home TV room. Try to know them for who they are inside their skins. Hear not just the words they speak, but the words they do not speak. Feel what it’s like to be who they are–chirping like a bird because for the moment you are a bird, trying not to wobble as you move slowly into the future with all eyes upon you.

When Jesus said, “All ye that labor and are heavy laden,” he was seeing the rich as well as the poor, the lucky as well as the unlucky, the idle as well as the industrious. He was seeing the bride on her wedding day. He was seeing the old man in front of the TV. He was seeing all of us. The highest work of the imagination is to have eyes like that.

— Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words

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A prime example of how some professors (and some administrators) encourage mental habits similar to the cognitive distortions is their promotion of the concept of “microaggressions,” popularized in a 2007 article by Derald Wing Sue, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Sue and several colleagues defined microaggressions as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether “intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” (The term was first applied to people of color but is now applied much more broadly.)

Many people from historically marginalized groups continue to face frequent acts of bias and prejudice. Sometimes people make thinly veiled bigoted remarks, and in cases where the speaker is expressing hostility or contempt, it seems appropriate to call it aggression. If the aggressive act is minor or subtle, then the term “microaggression” seems well suited for the situation. But aggression is not unintentional or accidental. If you bump into someone by accident and never meant them any harm, it is not an act of aggression, although the other person may misperceive it as one.

Unfortunately, when Sue included “unintentional” slights, and when he defined the slights entirely in terms of the listener’s interpretation, he encouraged people to make such misperceptions. He encouraged them to engage in emotional reasoning-—to start with their feelings and then justify those feelings by drawing the conclusion that someone has committed an act of aggression against them. Those feelings do sometimes point to a correct inference, and it is important to find out whether an acquaintance feels hostility or contempt toward you. But it is not a good idea to start by assuming the worst about people and reading their actions as uncharitably as possible. This is the distortion known as mind reading; if done habitually and negatively, it is likely to lead to despair, anxiety, and a network of damaged relationships.

More to the point, should we teach students to interpret these kinds of things as acts of aggression? If a student feels a flash of offense as the recipient of such statements, is he better off embracing that feeling and labeling himself a victim of a microaggression, or is he better off asking himself if a more charitable interpretation might be warranted by the facts? A charitable interpretation does not mean that the recipient of the comment must do nothing; rather, it opens up a range of constructive responses. A charitable approach might be to say, “I’m guessing you didn’t mean any harm when you said that, but you should know that some people might interpret that to mean . . .” This approach would make it easier for students to respond when they feel hurt, it would transform a victimization story into a story about one’s own agency, and it would make it far more likely that the interpersonal exchange would have a positive outcome. We all can be more thoughtful about our own speech, but it is unjust to treat people as if they are bigots when they harbor no ill will. Doing so can discourage them from being receptive to valuable feedback.

— Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind

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A few months after I started volunteering at the food pantry, I read George Orwell’s book about class and working conditions in early-twentieth-century England, The Road to Wigan Pier. The book’s most famous passage considers smell:

Here you come to the real secret of class distinctions in the West—the real reason why a European of bourgeois upbringing, even when he calls himself a Communist, cannot without a hard effort think of a working man as his equal. It is summed up in four frightful words which people nowadays are chary of uttering, but which were bandied about quite freely in my childhood. The words were: The lower classes smell. That was what we were taught—the lower classes smell. And here, obviously, you are at an impassable barrier. . . . It may not greatly matter if the average middle-class person is brought up to believe that the working classes are ignorant, lazy, drunken, boorish, and dishonest; it is when he is brought up to believe that they are dirty that the harm is done. And in my childhood we were brought up to believe that they were dirty. Very early in life you acquired the idea that there was something subtly repulsive about a working-class body; you would not get nearer to it than you could help.

Orwell said bluntly what sociologists Gale Largey and Rod Watson would phrase more delicately decades later: “Odors, whether real or alleged, are often used as the basis for conferring a moral identity upon an individual or a group.”

There is a long history to the conflation of smell and character. At the outset of Isaiah, God is furious at Israel, who is keeping company with idols and ignoring God’s mandate to care for the poor and the friendless. Israel’s faithlessness has transformed the divine sensorium—because of the people’s terrible behavior, their incense no longer pleases God. Now it carries a stench. That is in the first chapter of Isaiah; by the penultimate chapter, it’s not the people’s incense that offends; it is the smell of the people themselves. They are, declares the Lord, “a stench in my nostrils, an acrid smell that never goes away.” Bad people smell bad to (and are spurned by) God.

There is a pointed shock in God’s finding Israel—partially because of Israel’s failure to care for the poor—malodorous: most of the time, it is the poor who are castigated (by the elite and deodorized) as both putrid and, concomitantly, morally deficient.

— Lauren Winner, Wearing God

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Robert Wilken highlights the relationship between patience and hope in his exploration of the early church father Tertullian.

The singular mark of patience is not endurance or fortitude but hope. To be impatient . . . is to live without hope. Patience is grounded in the Resurrection. It is life oriented toward a future that is God’s doing, and its sign is longing, not so much to be released from the ills of the present, but in anticipation of the good to come.

Even now as we wait, God is bringing the kingdom that will one day be fully known. We can be as patient as a fallow field because we know there are gifts promised by a Giver who can be trusted.

Yet our patience does not make us passive about the brokenness of the world. We are not blithely waiting to abandon this world for another. Christian faith is never an otherwordly, pie-in-the-sky sentimentality that ignores the injustice and darkness around us. We know that things are not as they should be.

Christians are marked not only by patience, but also by longing. We are oriented to our future hope, yet we do not try to escape from our present reality, from the real and pressing brokenness and suffering in the world. As Smith puts it, we “will always sit somewhat uneasy in the present, haunted by the brokenness of the ‘now.’ The future we hope for—a future when justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream—hangs over our present and gives us a vision of what to work for in the here and now as we continue to pray, ‘Your kingdom come.’”

— Tish Harrison Warren, Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life

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Who knows what treasure life may hold for even such children as those [who are born to people who don’t want them or can’t afford them or are one way or another incapable of taking care of them and will one way or another probably end up abusing or abandoning them], or what treasures even such children as those may grow up to become? To bear a child even under the best of circumstances, or to abort a child even under the worst–the risks are hair-raising either way and the results incalculable.

— Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words

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