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St. Anthony Messenger

Apathy Is the New Deadly Sin

October 4, 2020
Apathy Is the New Deadly Sin | Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

Express outrage, offer prayers, do nothing; express outrage, offer prayers, do nothing; repeat! Sound familiar? This is our pattern after every mass shooting. We hear about a horrific shooting where many men, women, children (fill in the blank) are killed by—depending on if the person is white, black, or Muslim—a terrorist, thug, or mentally unstable individual. We are shocked. The talking heads on TV ask: “How this could happen?” 

Our political and religious leaders offer their prayers and thoughts. For a few days, we talk about how we have to do something so this does not keep happening. When things get back to normal, nothing changes except the headlines. We bury our heads in the sand and keep electing the same people over and over who refuse to do anything.

It is predictable what political leaders will say after an event like the horrific 2017 shooting in Las Vegas. Those on the right will talk about the need for mental health reform. Former Speaker Paul Ryan was right on cue after Las Vegas, saying, “Mental health reform is a critical ingredient to making sure we can try and prevent some of these things that have happened in the past.” After the 2015 Sandy Hook shooting, Ryan called for a moment of silence on the floor of the House of Representatives, talked about the need to reform the mental health system, and criticized the Democrats for politicizing the issue.

On the other side of the aisle, the left calls for their own solution: gun control. Their response is equally narrow and repetitious, including accusing Republicans of political aims.

And on either side, nothing gets done.

 

Multiple Issues

I am beginning to think Ryan is right: The issue is about mental health. Albert Einstein is credited with saying, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Perhaps we should be looking at the mental health not of those committing these horrific acts, but rather of those who sit back and do the same thing over and over, expecting that this time the results will be different. Maybe Einstein is right. We keep reacting the same way, looking for the same solutions, proposing the same legislation, and hoping we get different results.

It is not just the issue of guns. It is a multitude of issues including racism, climate degradation, immigration, human trafficking, Islamophobia, abortion, and on and on. It is not just folks who would be considered “right-leaning”; it is those who are on the left as well. In her book No Is Not Enough, Naomi Klein asks: “How do they intersect? What root cause connects them? How can these issues be tackled in tandem, at the same time?”

Her questions are some of the more interesting ones. We tend to view issues in isolation. We live in silos, not really thinking about the intersectionality of all these issues. Issues like gun safety and regulations often are viewed simply from the perspective of the Second Amendment. People who oppose any changes to our gun laws will say it is our God-given right to own guns. They rarely consider the history of the Second Amendment or think about the connection between guns and racism.

I wonder if folks would think differently about the Second Amendment if they knew that its genesis was, at least in part, a concern with preserving slavery. Southern leaders wanted armed militias to control their slaves. So they insisted on language in the new nation’s Constitution protecting that right. In the 1960s, when the Black Panthers started arming themselves, conservatives called for stronger gun laws. In 1967, targeting the Black Panthers, California introduced legislation to ban carrying a loaded weapon in public. The National Rifle Association testified in favor of the legislation.

 

Fighting against Apathy

I have been engaged in the work of transformative social change for many years. I believe the greatest obstacle to social change is not a lack of concern—we want to help the poor and marginalized. But we have been enticed into a perception of apathetic consumerism. We feel good about ourselves when we bring a bag of groceries to church for a food pantry somewhere or write a check to provide aid when there is a tsunami in the Philippines or a hurricane in Puerto Rico or Houston—as long as it does not involve a personal encounter with the homeless or poor.

I often give talks on social change, and afterward someone always comes up and tells me how much they admire me for the work that I do. My response is, “Don’t admire me; join me.” These are good people, well-meaning folks who understand that things are not right and who would like to help: except they have to pick up the kids at Little League, dance class, music lessons; they need to mow the lawn; they’re too tired because they work more hours to buy the latest gadget—and a myriad of other rationalizations. Meanwhile, gun violence and mass shootings continue; children are kidnapped, trafficked, and sold into slavery so we can have access to cheap products; women are trafficked and sold into the sex trade; and the climate is being destroyed.

There is the possibility that the mental health disease that afflicts all of us is apathy. In her book, Beyond Apathy: A Theology for Bystanders, Dr. Elisabeth Vasko argues that we are complacent when we are willing to tolerate violence against the poor and the marginalized. She describes this as “bystander participation in patterns of violence.” It is not necessarily just the overt forms of violence, such as mass murders, that have become commonplace. Dr. Vasko describes the more covert forms of violence such as bullying, sexism, hidden racism, and sexual violence. She says: “We live in a society that is all too willing to tolerate violence. Violence, a communal problem, impacts the flourishing of all involved: victims, perpetrators, and bystanders. Violence desecrates the image of God as it dehumanizes and fractures communion among all God’s people.”

 

We're All in This Together

How do we counter the sin of apathy? Catalyzing mass public demand for change requires first laying a moral foundation. As people of faith, we should have the courage to speak with a prophetic voice and lay bare our country’s political leaders, religious leaders, and corporate CEOs who understand this mortal threat, yet consistently enact policies and practices that worsen it or do nothing at all. Dr. Vasko states: “To be a Christian is to take sides with those who are marginalized, dehumanized, and subject to violence. Whether we like it or not, neutrality isn’t an option. In the face of violent activity, to hide behind the mirror of ignorance is to take sides with the powers that be.”

In Making All Things New, Sister Ilia Delio, a Franciscan theologian, says: “Eucharist means being an active participant in the cosmic body of Christ, a body evolving unto fullness, the cosmic person, through the rise of consciousness and unity in Love . . . . The Gospel life is not a social agency of good works but a life of mindful presence.”

So the question is: Do we keep reacting the same way? Do we propose the same solutions? Pope Francis says in “Laudato Si’”: “Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change. We lack an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone. This basic awareness would enable the development of new convictions, attitudes, and forms of life. A great cultural, spiritual, and educational challenge stands before us, and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal.”

Twentieth-century visionary Buckminster Fuller stated: “In order to change an existing paradigm, you do not struggle to try and change the problematic model. You create a new model and make the old one obsolete.” Isn’t it time to break out of the endless loop of “express outrage, offer prayers, do nothing, repeat”? Jesus’ message is one of love and peace, not fear, hatred, and war. The marginalized, the poor, the refugees—all of us—are the body of Christ. Will we welcome the body or reject Christ? If we truly believe the message of Jesus, then everything must change.


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