This year has brought an explosion of race-related issues and tensions to the surface in the United States. Yet what may be most “shocking” or “new” or “newsworthy” about these issues and tensions is precisely their not new-ness. The systematic failure of our criminal justice system, for example, to secure the principle that black lives matter, is hardly new for peoples of color. What is most disturbing is our complacent acceptance of “the way things are,” our habitual accommodation to injustices that should not be. What seems like a new normal is not new after all.
Pope Francis has a name for this broken condition which 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 sometimes worry that the culture of a university 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.” What would it look like if we were to take such an image seriously as a model for the role and mission of this Jesuit Catholic university?
Last semester I taught a First Year Seminar called “Black Literature and Faith.” To be honest I was hesitant to teach the course, unsure whether I wanted to risk a semester-long seminar centered on the racial history of the United States. I knew the course material would surface painful realities for students of every racial background, if for very different reasons. Yet I also wondered about the reaction of students, particularly students of color, to me, a white professor teaching the course.
Very quickly we were all thrown outside our comfort zones, our soap bubbles shattered. For many students, the history of white supremacy and black resistance, rendered in breathtaking literary form by black artists, was brand new. For all of us, the challenge of sitting around a table face to face, heart to heart, and confronting uncomfortable truths about our nation’s history—indeed about ourselves—was at times harrowing.
But grace is like that, it seems. “I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.” Grace breaks down our defenses so that we can more truly feel the life-world of others, empathize with their experience, and perhaps even, to the degree we are willing to risk it, grow to love them. I cannot say it happened every day but over time I saw a great many soap bubbles burst in the classroom, and felt something like empathy, deep friendship, and even love, come to birth between us.
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 happiness through the encounter with Christ in others. It is to find God, and be found by God, in all things.
In this Lent, let us risk together the birthing of something new. How we see and 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,” Pope Francis writes, “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.” 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.”
Dr. Christopher Pramuk teaches courses at the intersection of theology and spirituality, the arts and social justice. He is the author of an award–winning book on race, Hope Sings, So Beautiful: Graced Encounters Across the Color Line (Liturgical, 2013), and two books on Catholic monk and spiritual writer Thomas Merton.