Attending to Those Who Can't Breathe: Simone Weil and the Afflicted Neighbor
The approximate distance between Minneapolis and Bangkok is 8,283 miles. When George Floyd’s body lay lifeless, the distance of the news turned him into a thin fog. It was another black life taken away by injustice, but the trope seemed so familiar to me. To say that I was initially troubled by the incident would be dishonest.
But the outrage that this act of injustice sparked began catching wind. The event led to a national outcry. People joined in with black brothers and sisters to say that enough is enough. People began to unite, to question America’s justice system. They began to care. It was then that I pondered whether I should say something, too. Remaining silent was equated with a sort of violence, a nod at the status quo, an acknowledgement of privilege.
“God is not present,” Simone Weil says, “where the afflicted are simply an occasion for doing good.” Speaking out would be a lie, I knew, because my heart has not been with the afflicted. It would simply be an attempt for me to “do good,” to stand out as someone who was just as dissatisfied as blacks were with systemic racism. I would not be acting out in love; they would become a means to an end.
How can I fix my gaze on the suffering of black lives in America? My unwillingness to even look at the homeless men and women I walk past every day speaks volumes of the type of person I am. And for me to use them as objects of self-gratification would be just as selfish, if not more. But there are too many who are afflicted. I do not have the strength to attend. Indeed, it is all but impossible, as Weil herself admits: “The capacity to pay attention to an afflicted person is something very rare, very difficult; it is nearly a miracle. It is a miracle.”
If there is a time for me to be silent, it is now. Before I can speak against injustice, I must treat the black lives I speak of as hurting individuals and not as a mass of protesters. I must recognize their personhood. I must, as Weil says, “know that the afflicted exist, not as a unit in a collection, nor as an example of a social category labeled ‘the afflicted’ but in all their humanity, exactly like us, who have been stamped and marked by an inimitable mark, by their affliction.”
I cannot produce this compassion for the afflicted. I can only ask for God’s grace to create in me a charitable heart, to ask him for a miracle. My carnal nature cannot stand the sight of the afflicted, hence the “looking away” when I pass children begging on the streets: “Except for those in whom Christ occupies their whole soul, the whole world, more or less, despises the afflicted even though almost no one is conscious of it.”
But to fix my gaze on my afflicted neighbor is to look Christ himself in the eye—if he was afflicted for my sake, if he became a curse, then I do not have the luxury of ignoring him. Yes, “Treating the afflicted neighbor with love is something like baptizing them,” but only those baptized can perform the sacrament of baptism. Only those who have repented can call for the repentance of a nation.
So I can only ask for patience from the afflicted who I initially ignored. I am sorry that I have been ignorant, that I have not listened well enough. I apologize that I choose to give my attention elsewhere. Until I can truly love, I will do nothing but damage. I will do the afflicted an injustice. “Christ does not call his benefactors ‘loving’ or ‘charitable,’ Weil argues, “He calls them ‘just.’ The Gospel never distinguishes between love of neighbor and justice.”
But I have hope that my prayers will not be in vain. I was promised that one day, the fog which separates George Floyd and me will disappear, that I will see clearly. When God teaches me to love the afflicted wholly, to know that they exist, justice will radiate. Indeed, the day that we recognize the afflicted around us is the day when justice will arrive.
Quotes taken from Weil, Simone. Awaiting God, trans. by Brad Jersak.