Beyond Apathy: A Theology for Bystanders (Fortress Press, 2015)

[1] In this highly readable book Elisabeth Vasko presents many of the arguments of liberation theology as a framework for looking particularly at the ways in which passivity, rooted in ideological blindness, supports the harm being done to marginalized persons. She would have us see how social, economic and cultural privilege cause us to “pass by on the other side” of the victims of injustice. She would have us recognize that being a bystander refers not simply to individual instances of calculated indifference to suffering of others but more particularly to a failure to see violations of others’ humanity because of our ideological captivity to elite social positions. There are “collective manifestations of privileged apathy” that are rooted in “systemic ignorance, denial and permission to escape.” Apathy has social dimensions.

Apathy fuels oppression. In our efforts to escape suffering, we isolate ourselves, erecting physical, geographical, economic and emotional barriers. These barriers create distance, making it easier to rationalize violence against persons and communities who are deemed to be of “no account.”

[2] The components of privilege are well known to those familiar with liberation theologies: being male, white, straight, Western, a beneficiary of the global capitalist system. Privilege’s accompanying ideology serves as an implicit system of unquestioned values that dehumanizes not only the one victimized by it but also the one who “benefits” from it. Therefore, conscientizaton is a first step for both and in the case of the advantaged sometimes takes the form of an “ambush” that confronts elites with their own captivity. An interesting chapter explores how the Syro-Phoenician woman ambushes Jesus who denies her request for her daughter’s healing out of the Hebraic ideology of his day only to have him commend her, rather than rebuking her. In this instance she, not he, is the agent of God’s redemptive word.

[3] Vasko challenges the churches to recognize their own captivity to regnant privilege and its ideology. But beyond that, they must challenge their traditional monarchical vision of God and their dominant soteriological assumptions.

The dominant theological modus encourages privileged Christians to turn to Jesus as a source of comfort. While visions of Jesus as a “rock” and “resting place” can be appropriate within certain pastoral contexts, in view of the violence that not only “surrounds us” but operatives within us, we need a soteriological vision that “jolts” us out of apathy and into spaces of compassionate witnessing.

[4] My first response is to ask: Who is she addressing? Who does she believe will take these insights to heart? Having lived my professional life in the academy I know how easy it is to assume that instruction to the captive audience of a required course or engaging in stimulating discussions with students who opt for an elective seminar can seduce one into assuming there is a ready-made audience. And this parochial framework is only reinforced by appreciative comments about papers delivered at the AAR or the Society of Christian Ethics. I am interested in seeing how one can find or even build a larger audience. I think texts such as this, despite its winsome style, cannot translate easily into congregational study. My hope is that it could provide stimulus to the preaching task. There is a desperate need for Lutheran pastors to recognize they are called on to preach the Law and not just the Gospel. In fact, neglecting the former results in a very pale “gospel.” I am not talking about scolding or shaming but rather an opening up of our eyes to our own captivity to sin, including the dominant ideology that holds all of us captive. We need “the left hand of the God” who ambushes us in order to open us to the possibility of being made more whole, more of the image we are created to be. Vasko’s analysis, carefully “translated” and contextualized, can be a resource for preaching.

[5] My second response is to wonder: How does all of this get us beyond “compassion fatigue” and the temptation of cynicism when crusading energy flags? Several times she says overcoming apathy is difficult. It comes at personal cost. For example, she mentions the need to push past our self-isolation to make contact with the “other.” I assume her living arrangements in Pittsburgh for herself and her young family expresses this decision. However, when I was in graduate school and our family was friendly with a young faculty member and his family, he told me that he and his wife has decided to send their young children to the neighborhood New York City public school rather than enroll them in private schools like the children of most other faculty. This particular school had a questionable reputation for quality at that time. Admirable, yes: a witness to Christian social solidarity with the local community, yes. But the parents were making a decision whose consequences would be borne primarily by their children. I don’t sense Professor Vasko recognizing inescapable existential ambiguity of so many situations or helping us to figure out how to live with it. Sociologists have argued that the flight of the black middle class to suburban housing and some of resident leadership that went with it became a major cause of the deterioration of black city neighborhoods. Assuming for a moment that this analysis is warranted, does that mean those who left should have stayed?

[6] Am I endorsing quietism? I don’t mean to. I would like to have seen Professor Vasko show more awareness of a “belieful-realism” that assists Christians engaged in the struggles of social confrontation and transformation. Eschatological hope is one resource. She notes:

We are graced with the capacity to be agents of social change—to partake in the work of bringing about God’s basileia. When we engage in liberative praxis, our lives reflect the hope of the resurrection. Such hope is not fanciful or easy. To engage in the praxis of Christian hope, we must stretch. Through the praxis of Christian hope we are called to go beyond ourselves; to go outside our “comfort zone” and beyond our current situation.

How does that work, concretely? And what are other resources that enable us to “keep on keeping on” despite the ambiguity, limitations, failure, and undoing of what is achievable? Perhaps that requires another book.

Donald G. Luck

Donald G. Luck is Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio