I vividly remember a day in early high school one English class in which we discussed what the opposite of love is. We all fell right into our teacher’s scheme–we chuckled knowingly because we infinitely-wise-high-schoolers knew it was OBVIOUSLY “hatred.” He said okay, then asked us to list all the qualities of hatred. We came up with descriptors like “passionate,” “powerful,” “distracting,” “consuming,” “blinding.” It was a pretty thorough list of adjectives. When we were done our list he said, “What does this list describe?” I felt confused. Hatred, obviously. (Didn’t this man have his masters degree?) Again, scheme-fallen, we didn’t understand what he was asking. He erased the title of the list–”HATRED”–and instead wrote “LOVE” at the top. He turned to us and said, “Do any of the words on this list not also describe love?” Silence.
“So if love and hatred fall on similar sides of the spectrum, what’s on the other side of love and hate?” This conversation and the wise lessons that followed mark the first time in my life that I remember understanding the meaning of indifference. (A deeply appreciative shout-out to Mr Jim Favino, by the way – a man who changed my life in countless ways, indeed, and will always be too humble to take credit for it.)
This lesson in indifference was Mr Favino’s introduction to the book Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. This book remains one of my all-time favorites. It is a poignant, insightful, and challenging book telling just one of many stories of a South Africa rifted by its escalation into apartheid. At the very least, it’s a story about the dialectical experience of accepting what is, yet ever-longing for what should be. As the book deals with this dilemma, it also remains honest about the power of both fear and indifference, which shows up in one famous quote from the book:
Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.
Prejudice of any kind is fueled by tumult and discord. It also perpetuates tumult and discord. It is passionate, powerful, distracting, consuming, it is blinding – the list our English class made. The two grand jury verdicts we have heard in the past month in America are fiercely troubling because of this. While I don’t claim to have a solution to racism or prejudice, I have experienced that one antidote for prejudice and injustice is to actively choose to listen well to the cries of those who suffer.
A Christian reporter called Jonathan Merritt wrote a piece yesterday on the power of listening to one another called “It’s high time white Christians listen to our Black brothers and sisters” (click the title link if you'd like to read it). Not only was it a chilling read (ultimately, in a good way), it inspired this very blog entry! He talks about how his own sense of urgency to speak out against injustices has been recently converted to a sense of urgency to listen instead. Merritt shares how the Eric Garner verdict has solidified this shift in him. He says:
In one sense, I don’t have to speak in such a moment because Garner has already said enough. His final pleas fell on the deaf ears of those who claimed to be his protectors: “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”
This part of Garner’s story makes it a crystal-clear picture of injustice: he cried out and those who had the power to help did nothing. Doing nothing just isn't an actual option, however, if anything is ever going to change.
Ann Voskamp visited Rwanda around the same time I did last summer. She visisted the Genocide Memorial while in Rwanda, and on her way home happened to also visit the Anne Frank Annex in Amsterdam. In her blog about this poignant juxtaposition, she addresses this "do nothing" tendency so well I almost melted:
Whenever we demonize and dehumanize anybody, we can legitimize anything. And whenever we want to break the bonds of prejudice and injustice and indifference, we begin by breaking a loaf of bread together.... History could stop repeating itself — because we could realize neutrality is a myth and the notion of a non-response is a universal scam. [There is no such thing as] non-response. We’re either responding with indifference or with intercession, either with apathy or aid, either with coldness or care. You can’t turn from the face of suffering and just plead the fifth amendment. Your life is always your answer.
Indifference. That thing that I first began to really understand when I was 15 years old in English class. That passive non-response that is the opposite of both love and hate.
Between what I learned (and am still learning) from Cry, the Beloved Country, Jonathan Merritt’s article (including the incredible Dr John Perkins’s thoughts in that article), Ann Voskamp's blog, and my own personal observations of soul-rattling injustice as a trauma counselor, I’ve learned that indifference is not a workable option. Crying out is a workable option. Listening to the cries of others is a workable option. Indifference just isn’t. It keeps things exactly how they are or makes them worse.
Honestly, this is what astounds me about Jesus. One of the first things I learned on my road to becoming a trauma counselor is that what the world typically calls “unspeakable” must be spoken (credit: Judith Herman). One name for Jesus is “the Word of God” (John 1). Jesus is God’s palpable response to the “unspeakable” fracturedness of injustice, His active response in a non-response world. This is why the season of Advent is so nurturing to me–we waited (and still wait) with deep anticipation for God’s response to injustice. And we didn’t and don’t wait in vain. He delivers.
When we think there’s no word, He sends His Word. When we think He doesn’t hear, He gives proof He’s been listening. This is His work, His way. When racial injustice is happening, it’s not happening because He isn’t listening. It’s happening and He’s listening. And so should we. As Richard Rohr says in my very favorite Advent book, “Suffering and solidarity with the suffering of others has an immense capacity to ‘make room’ inside of us. It is probably our primary spiritual teacher.”
So. What can you and I do in times of great injustice, in times when we are tempted by indifference and/or fear? Is there one person whose cry you can listen to today? What fears present themselves inside you when you think about listening to the cries of others? What will happen when you listen? What has happened in you when others listened to your cries?