The Problem of Indifference

by Marcus Mescher

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Editor's note: Michael Sean Winters is on vacation through March 1. Filling in for him are various writers from Millennial, a journal featuring the writing of millennial Catholics. Winters will be back next week.

For the last year, Pope Francis has been urging Catholics to confront the problem of indifference.

It was what he challenged Catholics to give up for Lent last year, highlighted as a primary obstacle to the "ecological conversion" called for in Laudato Si', a point of emphasis in his visit to the U.S. last fall, the focal theme of his 2016 World Day of Peace Message, and a key part of the attention he gave to the issue of migration during his recent trip to Mexico.

And yet, indifference remains a persistent and pervasive reality in U.S. households today. Americans continue to show a lack of concern about a number of pressing issues. Earlier this year, a YouGov poll found 91 percent of Americans "aren't worried about global warming." Syria's civil war has resulted in the death or displacement of half its population -- totaling more than 11 million people -- and even though most of the refugees are children, less than 40 percent of Americans support President Obama's proposal to welcome 10,000 refugees, according to a recent Gallup Poll. Increasing incidents of mass shootings haven't been enough to garner widespread support for gun control. Although economic inequality has reached its highest point since the 1920s, little is being done to address the root causes.

And as more and more voices call out to address racial injustice, one Pew Research survey found that half of white Americans see no unfair treatment of black Americans when it comes to their experiences with police, courts, work environments, local public schools, in stores or restaurants, access to health care, or voting.

After the Paris attacks in November, terrorism became the "most important problem" in the US, and the most recent poll data shows similar levels of concern for a litany of issues: dissatisfaction with government, immigration, and national security.

Of course, Pope Francis isn't trying to foment fear; on the contrary, he is working to catalyze consciousness. In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, Francis challenges us to "leave the nest that contains us" and burst the "soap bubbles" of our own self-concern. He laments the vanity of these isolating soap bubbles, the deceptive fantasy that creates the illusions of innocence and separateness. These myopic soap bubbles sew "terrible anxiety" and "take away peace" because peace -- in the biblical tradition -- is not the absence of conflict, but shalom: balance and wholeness in the fullness of right-relationship with God and our neighbors. 

The way to right-relationship is by fostering a "culture of encounter," as Francis contends. In one of his most extensive descriptions of what a "culture of encounter" involves, Francis contrasts the indifference of the priest and Levite with the Samaritan's willingness to enter into the ditch and draw near the man who was beaten, robbed, and left for dead on the road to Jericho in Luke 10:25-37. The pope explains:

Today no one in the world feels responsible … we have fallen into the hypocritical attitude of the priest and of the servant of the altar that Jesus speaks about in the parable of the Good Samaritan: We look upon the brother half dead by the roadside, perhaps we think "poor guy," and we continue on our way, it's none of our business; and we feel fine with this … The culture of well-being, that makes us think of ourselves, that makes us insensitive to the cries of others, that makes us live in soap bubbles, that are beautiful but are nothing, are illusions of futility, of the transient, that brings indifference to others, that brings even the globalization of indifference … We are accustomed to the suffering of others, it doesn't concern us, it's none of our business.

Encounter is a prerequisite for mercy, the act of "opening one's heart to wretchedness" as Pope Francis has defined in his new book, The Name of God is Mercy. If encounter is what fends off indifference, then the challenge for us today is to follow the Samaritan's example to draw near others, especially those in great need. To "go and do likewise" -- as the final line of this Gospel story commands -- is to move our feet, being willing to enter the ditch and take that vantage point as our own. It means reaching out to connect with others, to listen and share, to cultivate friendship and aspire for solidarity across barriers that separate, marginalize, and exclude.

This is what Fr. Greg Boyle, S.J., has described in Tattoos on the Heart when he writes:

All Jesus asks is, Where are you standing? And after chilling defeat and soul-numbing failure, He asks again, "Are you still standing there?" Can we stay faithful and persistent in our fidelity even when things seem not to succeed? I suppose Jesus could have chosen a strategy that worked better (evidence-based outcomes) -- that didn't end in the Cross -- but he couldn't find a strategy more soaked with fidelity than the one he embraced. You stand with the least likely to succeed until success is succeeded by something more valuable: kinship.

At a talk at Xavier University last week, Boyle added to his recipe for fostering kinship by raising a question: "Can you be reached by others?" Counteracting indifference requires bursting the soap bubbles of self-assurance that insulate us from so many neighbors in need. Indifference is disrupted by the questions, "Whom do you receive and allow to receive you? And who is left out of this equation, and why?" We will only overcome indifference to the extent that we allow ourselves to be reached by others. This is the first step on the road to mercy.

[Marcus Mescher is assistant professor of Christian ethics at Xavier University. He specializes in Catholic social thought and moral formation; some of his work can be found at Millennial and Justice Magazine.

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