The Darkness of Indifference

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference.  The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”
Elie Wiesel


Remember when the question, “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” was a point of conversation?  Remember when we used to ask, “Where were you on 9/11?” and then we let the conversation unfold from there as people described the details of where they were, and how they felt and what they did in the face of such tragedy?

My observation is that this is happening less and less because we are slowly and imperceptibly becoming indifferent.

The Tragedy of Indifference

The last time I remember “where I was when” is when the pastor of Emmanuel AME Church, also a state senator, and eight parishioners were killed by a young shooter whom they welcomed into a Bible study in the basement of their church. This was a racially motivated hate crime that forced us all to face the fact that racism is alive and well in our country.

Specifically, I remember being at O’Hare airport waiting for a flight and watching the public memorial service as it was being televised.   I remember being riveted, heartbroken, and stunned—wondering how anyone preaches or officiates or finds their way through such a tragic event.  I remember our president singing Amazing Grace on national television—something I never thought I would see.  Ever.  I remember seeing courage and grace in the midst of terrible adversity, spiritual strength and authority in the midst of profound vulnerability, faith and forgiveness in the face of murderous hatred.

I remember my stomach being tied up in knots and tears on my face as I saw pictures of lovely, good people whose lives had been snuffed out as they practiced openness and warm welcome in their church! I remember groans coming out of my mouth and I didn’t care who heard me.  I almost missed my flight.  When I got back we held a lament service. We wept and we wailed.  I was not indifferent.

The Sin of Indifference

Sadly, that is the last time I remember being impacted so deeply by a tragic event.  Since then, the proliferation of violent events—so many of them racially or ethnically motivated—has made it hard for my heart to step up and feel anything. I no longer read to the end of the newspaper articles about the latest attack nor do I rush home to see the coverage on television. I do not ask the question, “Where were you when…?”  My heart has gone numb.

Such indifference strikes me as tragic. It also strikes me as being a sin against the heart of God.

Is indifference really a sin, some might ask?  Well, only if you take seriously the weight of God’s instructions to be kind and tenderhearted towards one another, to love one another fervently, to listen and bear with another, to speak the truth in love, to confess our sins to one another so that we may be healed, to forgive as we have been forgiven, to welcome the stranger, to share our bread with the hungry. To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.  Only if you believe that in Christ there is no longer Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male nor female for all of us are one in Christ.

None of these attitudes, actions and behaviors emerge from indifference. They emerge from hearts enflamed with passion for God and for other human beings, guts that move—that literally turn over—with compassion for the plight of those whose basic life experiences have been different than our own, and minds attuned and committed to spiritual principles that make life more human for all.

All It Takes for Evil to Prevail

In light of the recent events in Charlottesville, VA and beyond, I find myself resonating again with the words of Henry David Thoreau in his essay On Civil Disobedience where he said “noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.”

The well-intentioned people who were mowed down as they were counter-protesting at a white nationalist rally, including the beautiful young woman who lost her life, were doing just that—refusing to cooperate with evil. They were not indifferent, and they paid a price. Our hearts go out to them as they seek healing in the aftermath of the trauma they have endured. Our hearts stand with theirs against the evils of white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and racism—ideologies that are so opposed to the life and Gospel of Jesus Christ that we must renounce them as sin at every turn if we are to be Jesus’ disciples at all.

As Christians, we cannot—we must not—be indifferent to the question of what it means to live the truth that we are all God’s children (even those who do not acknowledge him) and that Christ came in love for all. Even though we are tired and numb and despairing in the face of relentless bad news, we must not succumb to indifference as though such events do not affect us or tear at the web of mutuality in which we live. We must let ourselves feel the anger, the outrage, the confusion, the grief, the fear… we must go down to the depths and cry out to God from that place. We must weep, we must wail.

Anything but indifference.

Seeking Revelation

Those of us who have experienced a more privileged existence due to the race we were born into, must face our guilt and complicity in a culture where white privilege is still a reality—perhaps more subtle and under cover than it used to be but still real nonetheless.

We must enter into the awkward conversations even though we don’t know where they will lead, or if we will look stupid or if they will make any difference at all.

We must ask for the Spirit of revelation, beseeching God to help us see what we have not yet been able to see.

We must sit in God’s presence and ask, What is mine to do in the field you have given me to work—whether that field is large or small?  

O God, help us to discern it well. Give us the wisdom to know when to act and when to wait, when to speak and when to be silent, when and with whom to cooperate, when and whom to resist.  Give us the courage to do what is ours to do. And for all of us who lead, may we continue to be changed and transformed in the crucible that is leadership in these days.  We ask this for the sake of your love.  Amen.


© Ruth Haley Barton, 2017.  Not to be reproduced without permission.

Ruth Haley Barton

(Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is Founder and Chief Essence Officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence.

32 Comments

  1. clare loughrige on September 1, 2017 at 10:22 am

    Ruth,

    Thank you for calling The Church to engage their hearts and action for such a time as this. Our city and county have a deep history that includes both Sojourner Truth and the Ku Klux Klan. Even to date the racial hostility runs hot. As pastors of a church that resound with your words, “transformation is central to the Gospel” we continue to look for ways to be participants and instruments in the work of transformation “for the glory of God, the abundance of our own souls and for the sake of others.” On that grievous weekend in Charlottesville, Crossroads led our Sunday Services and the our County Fair on Sunday night in this prayer from Missio Alliance-

    “Leader: Lord Jesus, your Kingdom is good news for a world caught in racial hostility. We ask that you would give us grace for the deep challenges facing our country.

    Congregation: Oh Lord, only you can make all things new.

    Leader: Lord, we confess our anger, our deep sadness, and our collective sense of weakness to see this world healed through our own strength.

    Congregation: Oh Lord, only you can make all things new.

    Leader: Lord, we honestly confess that our country has a long history of racial oppression, that racism has been a strategy of evil powers and principalities.

    Congregation: Oh Lord, only you can make all things new.

    Leader: Lord, we confess that the gospel is good news for the oppressed and the oppressor. Both are raised up. Both are liberated, but in different ways. The oppressed are raised up from the harsh burden of inferiority. The oppressor from the destructive illusion of superiority.

    Congregation: Oh Lord, only you can make all things new.

    Leader: Lord, we confess that the gospel is your power to form a new people not identified by dominance and superiority, but by unity in the Spirit.

    Congregation: Oh Lord, only you can make all things new.

    Leader: Lord, we ask that you would help us name our part in this country’s story of racial oppression and hostility. Whether we have sinned against others by seeing them as inferior, or whether we have been silent in the face of evil. Forgive us of our sin.

    Congregation: Oh Lord, only you can make all things new.

    Leader: Lord we pray for our enemies. For those who have allowed Satanic powers to work through them. Grant them deliverance through your mighty power.

    Congregation: Oh Lord, only you can make all things new.

    Leader: Lord, we ask that you would form us to be us peacemakers. May we be people who speak the truth in love as we work for a reconciled world.

    Congregation: Oh Lord, only you can make all things new.

    Leader: Lord we commit our lives to you, believing that you are working in the world in spite of destructive powers and principalities. Bring healing to those who are hurt, peace to those who are anxious, and love to those who are fearful. We wait for you, O Lord. Make haste to help us.

    Congregation: Oh Lord, only you can make all things new.”

    Grateful for your leadership,

    Scott and Clare Loughrige

    • Ruth Barton on September 14, 2017 at 7:17 pm

      Beautiful!

  2. Rick McCall on August 31, 2017 at 10:50 pm

    I serve as a pastor in a multi-racial church. The reason it is multi-racial is because all leadership buys into the belief that it is God’s very specific calling to our congregation. And the only way that has happened is through His working hand.

    And the way He has directed us in it is by many individuals sitting down at the table over of a period of years and asking a black brother or sister what they experience as people of color. Because we otherwise have absolutely no way of knowing.

    The events in Charlottesville hurt our black members deeply, as did the events in South Carolina, as did the events in Minneapolis, San Diego and so many other places over the past few years. And I addressed each of those publicly from the pulpit the Sunday following their occurrence.

    But what hurts them most is the dismissal of their pain as inconsequential or worse, self-serving. I wouldn’t know or have any understanding of why those things hurt them without having invested many hours of open and honest exchange over years. And of course, as a white, middle-class man, I can never come close to fully understanding.

    But as a white, middle class man, I was a racist for many years. Not because I held black women and men in contempt, but because I didn’t care enough to ponder them at all. That is, until some racial incident came up in the news and I dismissed their position completely out of hand, never caring to wonder or understand why their opinions were so, so wrong.

    Trust is a hard thing to build. It is fragile and shaky at the outset, but when someone knows you truly love them, it begins to strengthen and grow. It is a process and it takes time, but in this case, it is the absolute right thing for a follower of Christ.

    One of the most profound teachings of John (to me) is that if you don’t love your brother (created in the Image of God), whom you have seen, you can’t love God, whom you have not seen. I believe that says there is no such thing as a Christian racist. A person is one or the other, but cannot be both.

    Loving your brother means much more than just not hating him. Love is a action word, as Jesus teaches in Matthew 25. In that story, Jesus clearly says you’re in or you’re out based on your active love for your brother.

    I have a friend who is gay. I’ve never had any such inclination, so I asked him over lunch one day what it was like to live with it. In the middle of that conversation, he told me how much pain he had experienced from the hatred of other human beings. Then he said that until a person could argue the issue equally well from both sides, there was really no reason to have a debate with anyone.

    That is a deeply, profoundly, wise statement, regardless of person’s stance on any issue. And it holds true for the issue of race. In God’s economy, loving your brother means you cannot just be indifferent. Because when we are, by default, we have chosen sides.

    • Ruth Barton on September 10, 2017 at 7:16 pm

      This is so well-said, Rick…you say such important things here that have been rung from the crucible of your own experience. So grateful you took the time to write. There is so much here to reflect on. God help us!

  3. Rick McGinniss on August 26, 2017 at 1:57 pm

    I appreciate the warning about indifference but I do wonder about your application of it to the current situation and I have an alternative hypothesis: It’s not that we’re indifferent; we’re just questioning the overly-hyped globalized application of guilt to our entire culture (or, in this case, to “white culture” of which I am a part).

    For example, you write of the AME shooting (which stunned and sickened me as well): “This was a racially motivated hate crime that forced us all to face the fact that racism is alive and well in our country.”

    I agree that it was a racially motivated hate crime. But I’m not sure that “racism is alive and well in our country” is the application I would make. One guy – one really messed up guy – did that. And in Charlottesville one group – one really messed up group – was responsible. I was not. My 80+ year-old parents and my 30-something kids were not.

    There really was a time when the white culture was guilty of systemic racism towards blacks. As a child of the 60s, I saw it. But I have also seen its systemic dismantling as well. That doesn’t mean racism doesn’t still exist in some places and in some people. It does. May the Lord hasten the day when it is finally gone.

    But (and this gets to my hypothesis) blaming people who were and are not directly connected – globalizing guilt – eventually gets tuned out as we examine what we are being told and recognize the fallacy of the logic. But I don’t think that is the sin of indifference. I think it’s discernment. (No one suggests that all black citizens living today bear the guilt of their ancestors in Africa where slavery was commonplace, which would follow this same logic).

    So, for me, when these terrible things happen, I am sad and sometimes angry. But more importantly (at least to me), I am reminded again that ALL of us are sinners and ALL of us need the Gospel to transform us. Under the right conditions, I could be Dylan Root or one of those Charlottesville idiots.

    Ironically, those who suffered at their hands could be, too. That’s just the human condition.

    Peace

    • Ann on August 26, 2017 at 9:41 pm

      Thank you for your comment! So well stated as I have struggled with this guilt I am being asked to carry about being white and then feeling guilty that I resent it! I am not racist. I never have been. I do not like being asked to carry something not mine.
      I am terribly sorry that racism still exists. I am sorry that persecution of Christians exists, and that many women still feel that their gender is unequal in some situations. I have not personally experienced any of those things, but I did not create them for others either.
      The only hope is in conversation (and of course, Jesus!!!). Not activism, not bumper stickers, nor news clips. Conversations in the context of relationships.
      I am in my 50’s and white, my 25 year old (also white) daughter’s two closest friends are African-American.
      This is what gives me hope: They are not friends because someone asked them to be, it is not a ministry by her or to her. It is blissfully irrelevant to them.
      These others (the shooters, the protestors), I truly believe are the outliers. Given far too much attention by the media. And people see what they are looking for or what is put in front of their face over and over again.

      • Ruth Barton on August 30, 2017 at 10:05 am

        This is exactly where the conversation needs to take place. The people of color that I am in the deepest conversations with would say that systemic racism is still very much a part of our collective reality. When the conversation is about race, I must accept the fact that those of us ho have not been discriminated against cannot possibly understand that experience in the same way as those who have. Being in the conversation means I am fully able to acknowledge the reality of the other without dismissing it or saying its not real while fully “owning” my own reality. Otherwise the conversation stalls right there. In the TC we have experimented with conversations that are structured to allow for this kind of mutual influence and these have been some of the most moving, enriching and transformative experiences I have ever had. Yes, there has been a systematic dismantling of racism since the 60’s AND I am still listening to my brothers and sisters of other races talk about what they are experiencing and asking what is mine to do in the face of it. This feels like a good and God-honoring place to be. Thanks to both of you for engaging the conversation here! I would love for a person of color to weigh in…. otherwise the conversation is not complete. 🙂



  4. […] The Sin of Indifference  – an article by Ruth Hayley Barton […]

  5. Janice Griswell on August 24, 2017 at 10:54 am

    I am reading and re-reading the chapters on cynicism and its antidotes in Paul E Miller’s A Praying Life (which has perhaps been the most helpful book on prayer that I’ve read). I think his analysis of cynicism, one of the pervasive and insidious aspects of our culture/age and something that creeps into my/our own prayer life as ‘defeated weariness’, is very related to the indifference in your article.

    Thank you for your honesty and reflection, and for the prayer with which you close. Thanks for the ongoing work of the Transforming Center, which often renews life and hope in us so we can again discern and act as Jesus would have us do. Lord, have mercy!

    • Ruth Barton on August 28, 2017 at 8:36 pm

      You’re welcome, Janice, and thank you for these additional words to describe this inner experience many of us are having these days.

  6. Philip Vercio on August 24, 2017 at 10:12 am

    Excellent comments and analysis! I have wondered for years at my own indifference to multiple daily events that I am only connected to by this age of instant global communication. Being bombarded each day certainly makes one jaded. Are we the ones with eyes and ears but are never seeing or hearing? I try to put myself into those distant traumatic situations and fail to perceive what I can do or say except pray for those affected. My well of emotional or other resources cannot possibly respond to each event. I am reminded of the feelings of worry I had as a child of what I might do if my parents were tragically lost; There were no answers. Recognizing our limitations and being supportive in our own small communities where God has placed us is the only approach I’ve found to minimize this conflict. The follow up to this approach is letting go of guilt when we ask ourselves if there is something more we could or should have done.

    • Ruth Barton on August 25, 2017 at 5:52 pm

      This is such a tender, human place isn’t it? Thank you for such and honest, personal response.

  7. Larry D. Andrews on August 24, 2017 at 9:26 am

    Thank you Ruth Haley Barton for this inspiring, honest, and heart searching message. I am joining in the prayer for discernment and a Spirit of revelation to see what I do not yet see.

    I am convinced that the sin of indifference is widespread across the family of Christ, and I know my own heart is at risk of growing cold. I see and experience more outrage towards acts of peaceful demonstration – that outrage over the incessant acts of injustice and racial / social brutality.

    “I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.” Amen

    Lord Jesus, have mercy on us, your children.

    • Ruth Barton on August 26, 2017 at 8:47 am

      So glad you recognized the passage I was alluding to! It is amazing to me that someone who was as intellectually gifted and brilliant as the apostle Paul wrote so compelling in the book of Ephesians about mystery–things he knew could not be grasped and understood by the human intellect alone but require divine revelation through the third person of the Trinity. We need that Spirit now! Thank you for drawing our attention to this rich, deep, and challenging Scripture.

  8. Sonia Banks on August 24, 2017 at 9:23 am

    I read this article and agree with your tone and content. My heart has been grieving over what seems like heartless comments to far too many groups by Christ followers. Where is the love of Christ from those of us who should be intimately acquainted with His love that redeemed us? Thank you for this message, reminder, and affirmation that it is not all darkness in this world. God bless you for your heart of flesh.

  9. APhilip on August 24, 2017 at 9:12 am

    Thank you, Ruth! Powerful thought, especially recognizing that that there is a false “indifference” just as there would be a “false consolation/desolation”, that we need to be aware of as we examine our interior, in God’s presence.

  10. Kathy Muir on August 24, 2017 at 8:04 am

    Thank you, Ruth. I take this as a personal challenge. I am sometimes so overwhelmed with the violence and hate in the world that because I feel helpless to change it, I just try to turn it off. I haven’t thought of this as indifference, but I guess it is. God, please help us to be your Kingdom come wherever we are today.

    • Ruth Barton on August 25, 2017 at 8:25 am

      Amen, sister!

  11. Tom Strack on August 24, 2017 at 7:45 am

    How many times are we reminded that God hates injustice and evil? In fact, there can be no doubt that God will in time punish them.

    My challenge is to find the balance of being called to be a peace maker (Matt 5:9) and being caught up in something which results in unrest (IE non peace). God has and does use unrest to accomplish his will, the bible is full of examples of this.

    Ruth is spot on, as Christians our hearts cannot be indifferent to pain, evil or injustice, but thru discernment we need to direct our energy and resistance to evil and injustice in ways that brings glory to his name and does not further the cause of the very thing we seek to resist.

    • Ruth Barton on August 25, 2017 at 8:25 am

      So well said! Could not agree more!

  12. Daisy Townsend on August 24, 2017 at 7:28 am

    I agree on every point except one… we are all God’s creation, but the New Testament makes clear that only those who have received Jesus and believed in His name can claim to be His children. John 1:12 says, “To all who received [Jesus], to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God…”

  13. Linda Richardson on August 24, 2017 at 7:25 am

    Ruth, your words touched me deeply this morning. I fear our nation, our Christian culture and I are all growing indifferent and you gave words to my fears. We are seeing racism and bigotry emerge from the shadows in disturbing and surprising (and not so surprising) ways. Let us not forget “where we were.” Thank you. Thank you.

    • Ruth Barton on August 25, 2017 at 7:38 am

      Great to hear from you, Linda, and to know our hearts are knit together in this concern.

  14. Jane Hollinger Clark on August 24, 2017 at 7:12 am

    Wonderful piece, Ruth!! I’m grateful that God is using your voice to speak into this situation in our country (world).

  15. Dea on August 24, 2017 at 6:48 am

    Thank you, Ruth…Here’s another poem/hymn to stir us:

    Once to Every Man and Nation
    James Russell Lowell (1845)

    1 Once to ev’ry man and nation
    Comes the moment to decide,
    In the strife of truth and falsehood,
    For the good or evil side;
    Some great cause, some great decision,
    Off’ring each the bloom or blight,
    And the choice goes by forever
    ‘Twixt that darkness and that light.

    2 Then to side with truth is noble,
    When we share her wretched crust,
    Ere her cause bring fame and profit,
    And ’tis prosperous to be just;
    Then it is the brave man chooses
    While the coward stands aside.
    Till the multitude make virtue
    Of the faith they had denied.

    3 By the light of burning martyrs,
    Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,
    Toiling up new Calv’ries ever
    With the cross that turns not back;
    New occasions teach new duties,
    Ancient values test our youth;
    They must upward still and onward,
    Who would keep abreast of truth.

    4 Tho’ the cause of evil prosper,
    Yet the truth alone is strong;
    Tho’ her portion be the scaffold,
    And upon the throne be wrong;
    Yet that scaffold sways the future,
    And, behind the dim unknown,
    Standeth God within the shadow,
    Keeping watch above His own.

    • Ruth Barton on August 25, 2017 at 7:33 am

      Thank you!

  16. Terrie Dagley on August 24, 2017 at 5:27 am

    Wow, this is not going to be a popular topic and I completely understand. I, too, am against racism, homophobia, etc. I believe it’s wrong and as a Christian, I KNOW it’s wrong. But, I do have a few questions. 1) Why are Christians not alarmed about the counter-protesters and what they represent? Most articles I read let them completely off the hook (except Franklin Graham)
    Now, what’s troubling me….what should our attitude be toward white supremacists? or Antifa? or any hate group? We condemn their actions; but, what about them? What about the woman caught in adultery? What about the log in our eyes; yet the splinter in other’s eyes? (I am sure that Christians, all, have had unrighteous thoughts about others.) My question is not about the event; but, our attitude toward the people. Each individual? They are people who need Jesus, just as we all do. The only thing I know to do is to pray that the LIGHT of the world will invade their “space” and each one will bow his knee to the Savior. Are we right to condemn racism? Yes! But, maybe we shouldn’t stop there?

    • Ruth Barton on August 25, 2017 at 7:27 am

      I think this is why the ministry and leadership of Dr. MLK, Jr. was such a powerful force for good in the end. He cast vision for a more just society in which all can flourish but taught, modeled and upheld non-violent resistance to the evil of racism as the way to get there. He held himself and others to this very high standard–“through non-violent resistance we shall be able to oppose the unjust system and at the same time love the perpetrators of the system.” The result of this clarity was soul force–leadership that was truly transforming. I keep watching and praying for that kind of leadership to emerge from among us again.

  17. David Hughes on August 23, 2017 at 2:23 pm

    Thanks for these timely words, Ruth! They remind me of a poem written by German pastor Martin Niemoller who was appalled by the silent indifference of his fellow pastors in Hitler’s Germany re: the plight of Jews and other ostracized groups. One variation (it appears in several versions) of the poem reads this way:

    “When the Nazis came for the communists,
    I remained silent;
    I was not a communist.

    “When they locked up the social democrats,
    I remained silent;
    I was not a social democrat.

    “When they came for the trade unionists,
    I did not speak out;
    I was not a trade unionist.

    “When they came for the Jews,
    I remained silent;
    I wasn’t a Jew.

    “When they came for me,
    there was no one left to speak out.”

    • Ruth Barton on August 23, 2017 at 2:47 pm

      This is so good, David. Thank you!

      • Bill holston on August 24, 2017 at 1:17 pm

        A friend shared your article with me. I work providing free legal services to immigrants in Texas. She thought I would find it encouraging, and I do. I love this Niemoeller quote, even more knowing what it cost him, Years in Dachau. We need that witness now more than ever. I can tell you here in Dallas, the Evangelical voice is mostly silent, leaving to to Unitarians and Liberals to be a witness to G-d’s call for Justice. Thank you for your voice. I sincerelyn appreciate it.



      • David Hughes on August 25, 2017 at 2:35 pm

        Thanks for your words of encouragement, Bill! Thanks for the free legal services you provide for our immigrant friends!



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