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.”
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.
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.