White Apathy and the Crucifixion | Know Justice, Know Peace: A Jesuit Antiracism Retreat

Podcast episode:

Hello, I’m Brian Engelhart, with The Jesuit Post. Welcome to the last talk in the Third Week of our “Know Justice, Know Peace”: a Jesuit Antiracism Retreat. As we continue to reflect on the sufferings endured by Jesus in his Passion and Black and Indigenous People of Color or BIPOC in America today, let us begin with a prayer, based on one of Fr. Pedro Arrupe’s personal prayers:

Teach me how to be compassionate to the suffering,
To the poor, the blind, the lame, the lepers, and all victims of oppression.
Show me how you revealed your deepest emotions,
As when you shed tears,
Or when you felt anguish
To the point of sweating blood
And needed an angel to console you.
Above all, I want to learn
How you supported the extreme pain of the cross.
Including the abandonment of your friends, your neighbors, and your Father.

Today, I’d like to talk about white apathy and how it can prevent us from being committed antiracists. White apathy is exactly what it sounds like: our tendency as white people to withdraw, either deliberately or subconsciously, from the struggles of BIPOC, to close our ears and hearts to their cries, and go on as though the suffering of others has nothing to do with us. 

We may be afraid that getting involved will cost us our peace of mind, our time and energy, and our privileges. This fear causes us to say “That’s not my problem,” or “I would do something if only I weren’t so busy,” or “This is all so complicated and I don’t think there’s anything I could do to help,” or even, “I think I’m doing enough already.” When we are apathetic to the plight of our BIPOC brothers and sisters, we buy into the system that tells us that we are superior, that it is better to keep what we have than to risk losing it for the benefit of another, or that minorities wouldn’t be suffering so much if they were more like white people. As antiracists, this attitude is unacceptable but easy to fall into for those socialized in a racist culture, so we must remain on our guard.

The response to apathy can be found in the aim of the Third Week of the Spiritual Exercises: “to feel the pain and confusion of the Crucifixion.” The challenge of the Third Week is to not back away from the pain Jesus feels at every moment of his Passion, but to sit with it and be moved by it, as River mentioned in his talk on Monday. Empathizing with the pain and suffering of another may seem unattractive, pointless, or even harmful, as it certainly threatens our own comfort. However, it can also produce in us a much deeper love for the person suffering and confirm us in our dedication to resist that which caused their suffering. This dedication is further deepened when we can recognize the role we play in causing that suffering. After all, Jesus didn’t put himself on the cross, we put him there. And so, by attempting to understand even the smallest part of his suffering, we can be moved more strongly towards the work of reconciliation.

To bring this aim of the Third Week into a modern context, I’d like to look at one example of how we can learn to empathize with a persecuted group in our society and recognize our role in their suffering: immigrant children who have been locked in cages at our borders. 

Different forces will try to tell us that as white people, this isn’t our concern, that it’s really not so bad, or perhaps even that this cruel treatment is somehow deserved. All of these point us to apathy. In response, place yourself with these children just as you place yourself with Jesus in his Passion. What do you notice? Physical pain from a long journey, wounds left without proper treatment, and being confined in inhuman spaces. Hunger that weighs on your body and mind. And perhaps most painful of all, separation and isolation from the people you trust and love most in the world. I encourage you to simply sit with these feelings for a while, to see yourself with these children, and to ask that you may grow in love for them so that you may not ignore or dismiss their suffering. After all, as Matt explained on Wednesday, the victims of oppression cannot choose when or whether to care, and this intense, multilayered suffering is caused by white supremacist attitudes and further enabled by white apathy. As white antiracists, let us strive to eradicate our apathy so that we may never forget what is at stake in the fight for justice.

For your personal prayer and reflection, read through Matthew’s Passion narrative (Matthew 26:17-27:56). It might help to choose just 1 or 2 scenes from the narrative to pray with, such as the Agony in the Garden or the Way of the Cross. As you pray with them, simply place yourself alongside Jesus in his suffering: the goal here isn’t to fix things or be the savior, but to empathize and understand the pain Jesus experiences. Ask yourself:

What is the pain Jesus feels at this stage of the Passion?
Am I staying with Jesus in his suffering, or am I looking for ways to escape and reduce my own pain?
What do I feel as I realize that Jesus is suffering on account of my sins?
How does my reaction to Jesus’ Passion compare with my reaction to the sufferings of BIPOC today? Can I recognize that pain, sit with it, and acknowledge my role in it?

This prayer will be uncomfortable, but will also prove invaluable to your growth as an antiracist. We can only begin the work of reconciliation in earnest if we have taken the time to fully acknowledge the painful realities of racism and are prepared to stand with our BIPOC brothers and sisters every step of the way, no matter how difficult it may be. 


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