Bear Witness to Suffering | Know Justice, Know Peace: A Jesuit Antiracism Retreat

Podcast episode:

Welcome to Know Justice, Know Peace: A Jesuit Antiracism Retreat as we begin our third week together. My name is River Simpson, and I’m with the Jesuit Post. Our theme for day seven is bearing witness to the brutal reality of sin while holding onto hope. Let’s begin by remembering that we are in the holy presence of God as we reflect on an excerpt from the book of Deuteronomy:

“And Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho. And the Lord showed him all the land… And the Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not go over there.” So, Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord, and he buried him in the valley in the land of Moab opposite Beth-pe’or… And the sons of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the days of weeping and mourning for Moses were ended” (34:1, 4-6, 8).

After successfully leading his people out of the bondage from Egypt and through the perils of the desert, Moses died with only a glimpse of the long hoped for promised land. It seems a cruel twist of irony on God’s part. Moses came so close; he did so well; he worked so hard; and yet, he died a stone’s throw away from his goal. While one could dive into the theological underpinnings of why Moses couldn’t enter the Promised Land, I find more spiritual profit in contemplating the Israelites’ response. Before doing anything else, they took the time to humbly bear witness to Moses’ life. They earnestly wept and truly mourned their loss.

Today and throughout our history, we stand and bear witness to similar injustices of promising lives cut short, of great expectations crumpled, and of beautiful hopes dashed: whether it be the unfettered youth of Trayvon Martin, the gallant artistry of George Floyd, the medical expertise of Breonna Taylor, or the prophetic voice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. All of them brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, husbands, wives, ultimately all persons beloved by their communities and God simply for being themselves whose losses deserve our weeping and our mourning.

Strikingly, the day before Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, he gave a portentous address to striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. Dubbed “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, Dr. King forcefully called for the United States to live up to its democratic ideals and ended by discussing the possibility of his death:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

In this third week, we are called to stand in witness to Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, the redemptive but brutal state-sanctioned murder that epitomizes how systemic sin in our fallen world leads to unjust suffering. In his pre-resurrected life, Jesus Christ, like Moses, like Dr. King, saw the promised land that awaited him, the redeemed future for the whole world that was in reach, but he also knew he would not live to see it. Christ’s and others’ anguish during these moments deserve our witness, our full attention, in order that we may truly begin to understand them and their struggles and respond to them.

Specifically, Saint Ignatius calls upon us to “pray for the gift of being able to feel sorrow with Jesus in sorrow, to be anguished with Jesus’ anguish, and even to experience tears and deep grief because of all the afflictions which Jesus endures” for us (SSEE, 153 [203]). As such, I ask you to be present to Christ and all those who suffer at the hands of sin while remembering fully who they were. Share with them in that experience. Witness what nobody else dares to do; look upon evil and be moved by how Christ entered such suffering willingly to liberate us.

While it may be tempting to want to skip this sort of meditation because we feel like we know the evil of racism, its effects, and what we want to do about it, that would be a great disservice to Christ’s pain, to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s pain, to Breonna Taylor’s pain. Trust me, there will be time enough for action in the coming week. For right now, though, like the children of Israel, just weep and mourn with Christ and all his fellow victims of oppression. Feel and honor who and what was lost. Sit in the silence of their sacred, ugly moments. Discover, if you can, the redeeming love of God laboring beyond measure to bring peace and light into our world in the midst of such great discord and darkness.

For, we as Christians, know that this suffering to which we bear witness is not the end. We have hope, not that everything will be perfect tomorrow, but that God laboring in us and through us, his imperfect tools, will continually strive for the good, even in and through the worst of our experiences. Or, in the words of poet and former Czechoslovakian president, Václav Havel:

“[Hope] is a dimension of the soul, and it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart…

Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.

Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out… It is this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now” (from interview with journalist Karel Hvížďala in Disturbing the Peace, 1986).

With these words in mind, over the coming days, I invite you to pray with and imagine being present with Christ in his agony in the garden as recounted in Mark 14:32-42. (The video states Mark 13, but the correct verse is found in Mark 14. Sorry for any confusion.) Prepare yourself to weep and mourn with him for his coming sacrifice: feel the loss of his family, his friends, his community, his earthly dreams, and his very life for our lives. Ponder how these same evils play out in the lives of everyone trapped and killed by the sins of racism.

Now, while you pray with Christ, reflect on these following prompts with him:

  1. How do I handle disappointment, feelings of hopelessness amidst great suffering and specifically as it relates to racism? Where or to whom do I turn for consolation during these moments?
  2. What does it mean to stand in witness to another’s pain, another’s suffering, particularly within the context of racial injustice? Moreover, what does it mean to grieve?
  3. How can I credibly and appropriately lament another’s suffering, perhaps, even my own? What feelings do these reflections rouse in me?

Let’s conclude with a prayer by Jesuit Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini to witness and better understand the coming cross.

In the name of the father, the son, and the holy spirit: 

Grant, O Lord, that in our contemplation of the mystery of your Passion we do not run away from the essential things. Help us to contemplate you, your Eucharistic love, your crucified love as the sum reality necessary to understand all the rest, as the one reality from which all the others receive light and clarity.

We ask this through the intercession of the one who had the eye to see all essential things: Mary, your mother. Amen.


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