In late October, a gunman opened fire on a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 people in the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in United States history. Earlier the same week, a white supremacist killed two black customers at a grocery store in Louisville. All of this came on the heels of an attempted mass bombing in which pipe bombs were sent to high-ranking progressive politicians, including two former presidents.
Are Christians even paying attention to these levels of hate, to the anti-Semitism, to the racism, to the white supremacy? Even though I feel the news is too burdensome (which it is) or that politics is a bunch of hogwash, I worry that too many Christians are simply not paying enough attention and therefore are not as concerned as Jesus would be in the wake of these events. At the risk of oversimplifying, I believe Christians need to be reminded to pay attention.
I first felt true urgency to pay attention to politics when I was in college during semester studying abroad in Germany. While there, I visited an older German friend in his rural village near the Black Forest. Sitting in his kitchen one evening, we talked about life. My friend asked if I paid attention to politics. Naive teenager that I was, I admitted I hardly paid attention to the news or to the politics of the day. Boldly, then, imparted what I now see as nothing short of wisdom. He said I must pay attention even to the vulgarities of everyday politics. Doing so, he said, was part of being a responsible person.
An option of the privileged
Years later, I am still realizing how the privileges of my whiteness and maleness have made it optional for me to pay attention to the news of the day. What I have continued to notice – especially in white Christians – is an apathy that not only refuses to engage everyday politics but also to acknowledge a politics that is propped up by racist, dehumanizing mythologies.
Consider, for example, U.S. President Donald Trump’s attacks on refugees and his recent rhetoric about a group of migrants who have traveled to the U.S. border from Honduras. What is striking – as Adam Serwer has pointed out in The Atlantic – is the possibility that the atrocity committed by the gunman at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh was inspired by the dehumanizing ideas that Trump and right-wing news outlets have peddled about this caravan of migrants.
To ignore this dehumanizing rhetoric only perpetuates the worst in humankind – a complacency that cultivates racism, sexism, xenophobia and bigotry – all of which, last time I checked, are antithetical to the gospel.
A biblical imperative
The charge to pay attention goes much deeper than politics. It is central to God’s grace and love. In Numbers 6:24–26, the Lord tells Moses to instruct Aaron to bless the Israelites in a benediction that is familiar to Reformed church-goers today:
The Lord bless you and keep you,
The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you,
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you,
And give you peace.
This benediction shows the Lord’s attention inclined toward the ones being blessed. It does not simply wish blessing, grace or peace upon the recipients; it wishes attention. Blessing, grace and peace come because the Lord attends. The very possibility of humans paying attention to one another in compassion is rooted in this foundational attention that God pays humanity.
Similar careful attention is exhibited by Thomas Merton, the exemplary Catholic monk and contemplative mystic. Known for his unwavering condemnations of nuclear weapons, Merton maintained a spirituality that avoided separating social and political activism from religious meditation. For Merton, activism and religious experience were one in the same.
Merton conveys this in his poignant essay “The Rain and the Rhinoceros.” Writing while tucked away in a cabin in the woods adjacent to the Abbey of Our Lord of Gethsemani, Merton displays a profound attention toward the natural world as he experiences falling rain: “The rain I am in is not like the rain of cities. It fills the woods with an immense and confused sound. It covers the flat roof of the cabin and its porch with insistent and controlled rhythms. And I listen, because it reminds me again and again that the whole world runs by rhythms I have not yet learned to recognize, rhythms that are not those of the engineer.”
Though he’s transfixed by this rain, Merton writes, he can still hear what he calls the “rhinoceroses” at nearby Fort Knox. His meditation is interrupted by the army base’s clamor. But Merton’s essay is not merely a critique of materialism and militarism; it also is a lament over humanity’s increasing inability to simply be and to pay attention to the what he calls “gift of the present moment.”
Many will contend that paying attention to politics or to the news of the day is itself the greatest cause of distraction and nonbeing. But notice that although Merton was a contemplative mystic and lived his later years in hermitage, he did not give up his attention to the social and political. Rather, his attention toward the rhythms of the natural world, toward the “voice of the present moment,” seems to have inspired social and political attention.
A spiritual gift
The greatest religious activists all seem to share this trait: an ability to pay simultaneous attention to the natural world in its authenticity and to the cries of the oppressed and the politics that perpetuate systems of oppression.
Buddhist Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh writes in his book How to Relax, “Meditation means being aware of what is going on – in our bodies, in our feelings, in our minds, and in the world.” The Catholic social activist Dorothy Day exhibits a similarly holistic attention to the interpersonal, natural and social worlds in her autobiography, The Long Loneliness.
The notion of paying close attention is an idea central to the writing and ministry of Frederick Buechner. At the end of his sermon “Faith and Fiction,” Buechner suggests attentiveness is the principle axiom upon which his writing and faith rest: “Pay attention. As a summation of all that I have had to say as a writer, I would settle for that. And as a talisman or motto for that journey in search of a homeland, which is what faith is, I would settle for that too” (Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons.”)
Each of these esteemed spiritual thinkers invite us to a similar posture. They invite us to wake up to the world and pay attention, whether it’s to the beauty of creation, to the ordinary, to our own feelings and thoughts, to the plight of the oppressed or to the political and social arenas in which we live.
In these politically and socially fraught times, much is competing for our attention. But it would be unfortunate if large numbers of Christians continued to turn blind eyes to a rampant hate that is inflicting much pain. Many Christian leaders are indeed acknowledging unjust realities such as police brutality and sexual abuse, which have precipitated groups like Black Lives Matter and the #metoo movement. But, unfortunately, there continue to be many who are unwilling to hear and validate the cries of oppressed people – and this only further emboldens the dehumanizing rhetoric that’s become commonplace in our political discourse.
Throughout the Bible, God attends to the cries of the oppressed. Compassionate attention is foremost in the ministry of Jesus. What are we to do with the blessed attention God pays us? Could we act out of that attention and compassion to show the same to others? Our answer hinges on our willingness to pay attention to those in our midst, to pay attention to the world around us and, yes, even to pay attention to the news and politics of this very moment.