Given the run of violence and destruction at places of worship in recent weeks, I’ve been thinking again about how we react to tragedy. Not the kind we experience personally – the kind that happens to someone else, somewhere we’ve never been, perhaps somewhere we’ve never even heard of.
How closely do we follow those tragedies? How empathetic are we towards their victims? Which do we mourn, which do we honor, and which do we overlook?
Since March we’ve had the Christchurch mosque shootings, the burning of three Baptist churches in Louisiana, the fire at Notre Dame, the Sri Lanka church bombings, and the shooting at a synagogue in California. And those were just the ones I heard of.
I don’t know about you, but I didn’t take all that news the same.
Christchurch and Notre Dame both touched me deeply. I cried over Christchurch, imagining the victims’ last moments and their loved ones’ angst. Oh, how much they will miss! Weddings, jobs, joys, children’s first words – each loss is a universe of possibility, gone. How could someone do such a thing? How is it possible for a person to hunt down his fellow human beings? How could you kill someone engaged in prayer? Christchurch was and continues to be a weight on my chest, pushing me down.
I worried and paced over Notre Dame, made anxious by the importance of what could be lost in that fire. History and culture, yes, but the Blessed Sacrament too. The very body of Christ dwelled there within its tabernacle, safe for who knew how long. The relics, the sacred art, the windows about which Bishop Barron has talked so much. A place that brought God to people, and people to God. That church, one of the best known and most visited in all of Christendom, seemed in that moment an integral part of what it meant to be human. It was a place I’d hoped one day to visit, and suddenly my chance was going up in smoke.
I mourned the loss of the churches in Louisiana too, but I’ll admit that I didn’t feel, or follow, that tragedy as closely. I prayed. I imagined the pain of the people who lost the places where they prayed and wed and mourned. I hated that racism looked to be the cause of their suffering. But I was busy and distracted and news comes at you fast, you know. I moved on too quickly.
On Easter Monday, when I heard about the bombings in Sri Lanka, my heart fell. I mourned, but I was not shocked, and I was not stopped. I monitored, I prayed, I moved on with my day. I revisit the tragedy; I continue to pray, but my heart does not seem to have the capacity to adequately honor any more tragedies right now.
And then the synagogue in Poway, California. Poor Poway, to follow that run, to taste that horror. I am sorry for them. I pray, again. But my heart won’t open wide.
In the midst of such tragedies, we sometimes stop to examine ourselves and our fellows, to assess our responses and critique how unevenly we seem to value human life.
Why do we turn on the 24-hour news coverage for one tragedy but not the other? What does it take for us to flood our social media channels with links and lamentations? Why are some of our thoughts and prayers offered vocally and others in silence?
As you might guess from my characterization of my own reactions, I think one factor in how we respond to such tragedies is how distinct they seem from the news that preceded them. I don’t think it’s unnatural to tire of tragedy. Sometimes there’s only so much you can absorb.
But is it just the timing of the news cycle? The rhythm of our own personal lives?
Or does our reaction also tack to the victims involved – their race, their creed, their age, their corner of the world?
If those are indeed factors, then what drives us in our reactions? Is it some primal preference for those who feel like members of our own tribe? Is it a failure of imagination? Is it racism, either overt or underlying?
In the tragedies I listed above, we saw Muslim victims of mostly Asian origin in a mostly white, mostly Christian country. We saw African American and Jewish victims in the United States. We saw Christian, mostly Catholic victims in religiously-mixed, mostly Buddhist Sri Lanka.
There is great religious and national diversity in that list, but there is also one commonality: Nearly all of the victims were brown.
Would our reactions have been different if the Catholics attacked on Easter Sunday looked like my children? If they hailed from an affluent white suburb somewhere in the West?
I’m afraid they would. I know my reaction would have been.
Would my Facebook feed have lit up back in March if a Muslim man had attacked two churches in Christchurch, rather than a white supremacist attacking two mosques? Probably.
What of that? Even if it were 100 percent understandable for people to better honor the tragedies of those who look like them, would the difference be morally acceptable?
I don’t think so.
Now, I don’t think it’s realistic to expect people to stop living their lives every time news of a tragedy breaks. We take in more news today than people have ever, in all of human history, had to handle.
But in this historic experience, we have also had the historic opportunity to get to know people and communities across the globe. And maybe that opportunity brings with it the obligation to open our hearts a little.
We don’t live in an age where our experience of humanity is limited to the people we run into on a daily basis. Today, if we take the time to look, we will see it in places, and people, completely foreign to us.
So maybe, when news of tragedy comes to us, we should engage in a little on-the-spot self-reflection: “Do these people feel familiar to me? If not, what can I think of to connect myself to them?” (Family relationships are a great equalizer: Everyone is a son or daughter; most are mothers, fathers, sisters or brothers.) Also, “If the same misfortune had struck a community more like mine, how might I feel?”
As a Catholic, I believe we are obliged to value all human life and we are called to share in others’ suffering. We can do both by responding to the tragedies we learn of – from around the corner, or around the world – with real sadness and sympathy, with sincerely-meant prayers, and with love.