Here is what Pope Francis said to the world in his Lenten message: “Indifference to our neighbor and to God also represents a real temptation for us Christians. Each year during Lent we need to hear once more the voice of the prophets who cry out and trouble our conscience.”
Instead of giving up chocolate or alcohol for Lent, the pope seems to want us to give up our indifference to others. He continued: “We end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.”
Francis’s focus on the “indifference to our neighbor” hit me hard as I am on the road for my new book America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America. We have been to six cities so far — Chicago, the Twin Cities, St. Louis/Ferguson, Atlanta, New York, and Washington, D.C.; next we head to the West Coast. The “town meetings” we are doing have evoked some extremely honest conversation from very multiracial audiences.
It has been quite revealing how many of the white participants have been horrified by the outright and explicit demonstrations of racism in America. The murder of nine African Americans during their weekly prayer meeting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina often comes up as something that “appalled” them. But what many of the black participants in the forums speak of is their experience with the indifference of white people to their circumstances, stories, and suffering.
Just last night, a black woman told the still painful story of her 12-year-old brother dying of a burst kidney because he wasn’t allowed to be treated in the nearest hospital and the family having to make a long drive to another. “My father never recovered from that,” she said. As the father of two boys, I can easily relate. Later she told me that her son was recently pulled over by a white police officer who admitted that he had “done nothing,” and after searching him and his car told the young man, “I will have to let you go this time.” Black church members spoke of many sad experiences of conversations with white Christians who “just won’t listen to our stories.”
What I keep hearing is that more than outright hostility, a huge piece of the white church's complicity in America's original sin comes down to indifference to others. Indifference to the experience and sufferings of their black neighbors and even black brothers and sisters in churches — including indifference to those “prophets who cry out.” With white Christians in the room, at every venue so far, black participants in the discussions sadly wonder if their white neighbors would ever really care about them — whether they can really have any hope for the future.
According to Francis, even Lenten fasting must never become superficial. An article by Christopher Hale in TIME points to a Lenten message the pope gave when he was still the Cardinal of Buenos Aries in Argentina. He quoted one of his favorite early Christian leaders, John Chrysostom, who said, “No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great.” Or as Francis put it in his 2014 Lenten message, “I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt.”
The pope is saying that our spiritual activities must genuinely enhance other’s lives.
Francis describes a phenomenon he calls “the globalization of indifference.” Here is how he describes it: “whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.” He goes on: “We end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.”
White privilege allows this indifference. And it has been striking to me as I travel how oblivious many white people are to their own privilege. When you are used to white privilege, racial equality feels like a threat. Or as one young person at a forum said, “If you can’t see white privilege, you have it.”
But the hopeful thing I have found is the hunger at these meetings for a deeper conversation — and then concrete action as a result. I have seen white people listening to the stories of black people and being changed by the conversation. That kind of listening might be the best Lenten discipline for us white Christians.