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In late October, a gunman opened fire on a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing eleven people, making it the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history. Earlier the same week, a white supremacist killed two black customers at a grocery store in Louisville. All of this on the heels of an attempted mass bombing operation in which pipe bombs were en route to high-ranking progressive politicians, including two former presidents.
Are Christians even paying attention to these levels of hate, to the antisemitism, to the racism, to the white supremacy? Despite feeling like 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 just not as concerned as Jesus would be in the wake of these events. At the risk of sounding too rudimentary, I believe Christians need to be reminded to pay attention. Perhaps even this basic reminder is relevant.
I first felt true urgency to pay attention to politics when I was in college. I had taken a Fall semester to study abroad in Germany, and for a weekend that September, I made a trip to visit an older German friend who lived in a rural village toward the Black Forest. While we sat in his kitchen one evening, we talked about life. At some point in the discussion, my friend simply asked if I pay attention to politics. The naive teenager I was, I admitted that I hardly paid attention to the news or to the politics of the day. My friend proceeded to brazenly grill me, giving me what I now consider to be nothing short of wisdom. He contended that I must pay attention even to the unrefined vulgarities of everyday politics. This, he remarked, was part of being a responsible person.
Years removed from receiving this lesson, I am still realizing how the privileges of my whiteness and maleness render it optional for me to pay attention to the news of the day. And in this moment, what I have continued to notice — especially on the part of white Christians — is an apathy which refuses to engage not only everyday politics, but also refuses to acknowledge the politics that is propped up by racist, dehumanizing mythologies.
Consider, for example, the President’s attacks on refugees, and the rhetoric he has recently used about a caravan of migrants headed toward the U.S. from Honduras. What is striking — as Adam Serwer, of The Atlantic, has pointed out — is the possibility that the atrocity committed by the gunman at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh was inspired by the dehumanizing ideas which Trump and right-wing news outlets have peddled about the caravan of migrants.
To ignore this dehumanizing rhetoric, I’m afraid, only perpetuates the worst in humankind — namely, a complacency which cultivates racism, sexism, xenophobia, and bigotry, things which, last time I checked, could not be more antithetical to the gospel.
But the charge to pay attention itself 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 by uttering a benediction which is certainly 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 (NRSV)
The thrust of this benediction lies in the imagery of the Lord’s attention being inclined toward the recipient of the blessing. This prayer does not simply wish blessing, grace, or peace upon the recipient; the wish is for attention. Blessing, grace, and peace come because the Lord attends. And the very possibility of humans paying attention to one another in any sort of compassionate way is rooted in this primitive attention which God pays toward humanity.
This kind of careful attention is exhibited in Thomas Merton, the exemplary Catholic monk and contemplative mystic. Known for his unwavering condemnations of nuclear weapons, Merton maintained a kind of spirituality which avoided any bifurcation of social or 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.” 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 the 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… (Thomas Merton, “The Rain and the Rhinoceros,” 9-10).
Merton goes on to write that despite being transfixed by this rain, he can still hear the so-called “rhinoceroses” at Fort Knox. That is, despite his solitary hermitage, his meditation is interrupted by the clamor of activity at the nearby army base. Aside from being a critique of materialism and militarism, Merton’s essay serves as a lament over humanity’s increasing inability to simply be, and to pay attention to the “gift of the present moment.”
Of course, many will contend that paying attention to politics or to the news of the day is itself the greatest culprit of distraction and non-being, and this is surely a possibility. But notice that although Merton was a contemplative mystic and lived his later years in hermitage, this did not render his attention toward the social and the political obsolete. In fact, quite the contrary. It is as if Merton’s attention toward the rhythms of the natural world, toward the “voice of the present moment,” inspired his social and political attention.
The greatest religious activists all seem to share this trait: a two-fold ability to pay attention to the natural world in its unvarnished authenticity, and at the same time to pay attention to the cries of the oppressed and the politics which perpetuate systems of oppression.
This can be said of Buddhist Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, who writes, “Meditation means being aware of what is going on — in our bodies, in our feelings, in our minds, and in the world.” (Thich Nhat Hanh, “Life is Dreadful and Wonderful,” in How to Relax, 63.) The Catholic social activist Dorothy Day also exhibits this wholistic attention to the interpersonal, natural, and social worlds in her autobiography, The Long Loneliness.
Furthermore, this notion of paying close attention is an idea central to the writing and ministry of Frederick Buechner, who, at the end of his sermon, “Faith and Fiction,” suggests it is the principle axiom upon which his writing and faith both rest. Buechner states:
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 (Frederick Buechner, “Faith and Fiction,” in Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons,” 183).
Each of these esteemed spiritual thinkers all appear, in one way or another, to be inviting 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, so much is competing for our attention. But it would be unfortunate if large swaths of Christians continued to turn a blind eye to the rampant hate which is inflicting much pain. Of course, many Christian leaders are acknowledging unjust realities like police brutality or 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 groups — and this only further emboldens the dehumanizing rhetoric that seems to have become commonplace in our political discourse.
Throughout the biblical narrative, God attends to the cries of the oppressed. A compassionate attention is of course 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? The answer to this question 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.