Having worked in the field of interreligious dialogue for over 40 years, I have been blessed with experiencing new and differing ways of looking at God, humanity and the interaction of the two. In many instances, it leads to some new and interesting observations. One appreciates and respects how the Other believes but does not appropriate anything.
Sometimes, however, an encounter with the Other can teach great truths which one may have overlooked or even been unaware of.
In my encounter with Buddhism and Buddhists, I have learned the importance of attentiveness/mindfulness (sati / smṛti). Among other things, attentiveness is the ability in meditation to focus intensively and exclusively on one thing. Attentiveness, however, can be a way of living — living in deep attentiveness and mindfulness of the world in which I live, the beauty of that world, its fragility, and all the beings in that world from the most insignificant butterfly to the most powerful person. Attentiveness can foster gratitude and compassion — gratitude for the marvels of the world in which we live, and compassion for all who suffer in that world.
The opposite of attentiveness is indifference. Pope Francis speaks often of indifference or even the “pandemic of indifference.” At its worst, it is the uncaring soul’s “Whatever!” to Creation. Such indifference can be spiritually fatal. The sinner can at least become aware of sin, repent and be forgiven, but the indifferent soul sees nothing to be aware of, much less to repent.
Attentiveness and indifference figure prominently in a horrific event that the world commemorates next week.
Eighty-two years ago, on the night of 9-10 November 1938, there were massive attacks on Jews in German-speaking countries in Europe. The name Reichskristallnacht or simply Kristallnacht (“The Reich’s Night of Glistening Crystal”) came from the broken glass that was left strewn on the streets. In all, 91 people were killed and 267 synagogues were destroyed, along with 7,000 Jewish-run businesses. It was the unmistakable beginning of what would lead to Vernichtunglager, extermination camps, such as Auschwitz-Birkenau and others.
To the few who were attentive, the trajectory was clear and abominable. To the indifferent, it was the populace “expressing itself, letting off steam.” Clearly, it was indifference that won the day. Tragically it took the death of six million Jews and millions of people in World War II to reawaken attentiveness.
As we approach the anniversary of this event in 2020, it might be a good time to evaluate our own attentiveness. In its report of 12 May 2020 the Anti-Defamation League reported “the highest level of antisemitic incidents last year since tracking began in 1979….” Attacks against Jews increased 12 percent over the previous year, with a 56 percent increase in assaults. The number of fatalities was five.
The details of the report are horrifying but it would be a mistake to get caught up in the details and be indifferent to the larger issue. For example, as bad as the assaults on 91 Jews was in 2019, one assault should be enough for alarm.
Hatred of the other — on any basis — is more contagious than the worst virus and, like a virus, it is extremely hard to contain. It spreads widely and quickly. We are reminded of it again and again in our own time, particularly in attacks on religion and on places of prayer — whether it is an assault on believers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, worshippers at a church in Baghdad, or arson attacks on Baptist churches in Louisiana.
The German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller (1892-1984) expressed it best:
“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Pastor Niemöller was prophetic. Hatred and extermination of Jews was soon followed by hatred and extermination of Slavic people, homosexuals, the mentally and physically challenged and ultimately all who opposed the Reich.
Attentiveness is not easy. After all it requires being … attentive. Though it may be Buddhist in origin, it can be a Christian virtue. It is the watchfulness — the ongoing examination of conscience, if you will — that we as followers of Christ have to exert over the baser, destructive drives of ourselves, our fellow humans and the society in which we live. The report of the ADL is a warning; Kristallnacht 2020 is a reminder. The entire planet is holding its collective breath, waiting and praying for an effective vaccine against COVID-19. Most of us are all very attentive to COVID-19.
However, that should not allow us to become indifferent/mindless to other equally toxic pandemics in our midst.