We need to pay attention to suffering, not ignore it

by Mary Ann McGivern

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I've had a serious rift with an old friend of mine over whether the looting in Ferguson last year was a deal breaker. My friend thinks the Peace Economy Project should not have joined the Don't Shoot Coalition because not all member groups espouse nonviolence and some have called for amnesty for the looters. I am really sorry about the business losses in Ferguson but I'm not sure people would have paid attention if nothing burned. After all, Ferguson didn't have a football team or a million dollars on the Saturday game.

The morning after the Paris attacks, my youngest niece, a college freshman, posted a letter from Beirut about the world's failure to notice the attack on a funeral there the day before Paris. It's an eloquent letter about Arabs on the front lines and refugees fleeing from years of nights like the one in Paris.

Somewhere in the middle of the essay, the author mentions that while people may feel oneness with Parisians, they are probably ignoring the plight of those who live fifteen minutes away. And yes, I would like to ignore Ferguson. I would like to ignore the suffering of the people who live there. Paying attention to suffering is really painful and the mayhem frightens me, as intended. St. Louis has become the murder capital of the United States this year. The shooters are terrorists. They are criminals. They are not soldiers. But it is also true that they are acting out of despair.

The closing of The New York Times feature on Gary Pinkel, the Missouri U football coach, gives me heart. In explaining why the coach stands by his players, Lorenzo Williams, a former team captain is quoted. "A lot of people missed the point this week," Mr. Williams said. "President, faculty, none of them go to a parent's house and sit on their couch and say, 'I will take care of your son.' "

The Missouri football team is 79% black; the school is 7% black. Ferguson is 67% black; St. Louis City about 50% black; the St. Louis MSA is 18% black; the state of Missouri is 12% black. The meaning of these statistics is what we make of them and we need to meditate on them and listen to the persons who experience them, the way Coach Pinkel listened to his team. Who are we if we don't care for one another?

What are the statistics that foreign refugees experience? Instead of listening to them, we are tempted to shut them out of our safe havens. These are real issues, local, national and international. As I write, I'm listening to President Obama trying to thread the international needle, military, humanitarian and diplomatic. And I'm thinking about my argument with my friend -- does a resort to violence forfeit justice?

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