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A few months ago in a provincial city of China, a young toddler wandered into a busy street. The scene was captured by a surveillance camera. The child was struck by a white van, run over and left injured and bleeding on the street. Numerous people on bicycles and walking on the sidewalk clearly saw the injured child and even looked directly at her – but all went by without helping. After a few minutes, the child was run over by another van. Once again, many cyclists pedaled by – many within mere feet. Over five minutes passed before a trash collector ventured into the traffic to rescue the girl. She later died from her injuries.
The video spread virally throughout China. It sparked a national dialogue about whether the nation’s rush to modernize had sapped the Chinese of a sense of morality and responsibility to help others.
Just last month, the Hartford, Connecticut police released a video showing a 78 year old man step off a curb into a street. One car sped around and swerved to just barely miss him. A second car, however, struck the man and sent him flying like a rag doll. He fell to the street and lay motionless. Over ten cars drove around the injured man but did not stop. Some slowed down as the drivers looked directly at the injured man but nobody got out to help him. Several minutes passed before a police car pulled up and the officer got out to render assistance. The police chief later commented about the incident, “At the end of the day, we have to look at ourselves and understand that our moral values have now changed. We have no regard for each other.”
Over a year ago in a Brooklyn, New York hospital psychiatric ward waiting room, another camera recorded a woman fall off her chair, land directly on her face and begin convulsing. Two patients sitting nearby stared at the woman but did nothing. A hospital staff member entered the room, observed the woman convulsing, saw her hospital gown pulled above her waist, but then casually watched TV for a few minutes before walking away. The woman stopped convulsing but still lay on the floor. A long time passed before another staff member entered the room, saw the woman, nudged her with his foot and then also walked away. Many more minutes passed before finally a gurney was brought into the room, the woman was given oxygen and wheeled away. She was soon declared dead. The woman was a Jamaican immigrant here to work and send money to her two children. Over one hour passed between her initial fall and when help was finally rendered. What is not seen in the video is that she fell only a few feet from the reception desk window where many staff continued to work. Many staff members were reprimanded and four were fired – including one doctor – all of whom had seen the woman’s condition but did nothing.
Such harrowing tales of indifference to human pain and suffering are common. We know of many such examples in history, the most extreme of which occurred during the Holocaust. The documentary film “Shoah” attempted to understand why so many Germans did nothing during that time. Most people in the film answered defensively in interviews that they did not know the Holocaust was going on. One Protestant minister who spent seven years in a concentration camp would later write, “First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out because I was not a communist. Then they came for the labor leaders, and I did not speak out because I was not a labor leader. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics and I did not speak out because I am a Protestant. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
As the famed Nazi war crimes hunter Elie Wiesel once said about the failure of so many to do anything to stop the Holocaust, “The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference. Indifference is the epitome of evil.”
The epidemic of bullying in our schools occurs precisely because of such indifference by school administrators, teachers, parents and a majority of students. In the documentary film “Bully”, Alex, a teenage boy who was born premature and remains small, thin and developmentally different in appearance, is ruthlessly teased and taunted with the name “fishface.” Pushed into lockers, poked with pencils, nearly strangulated and constantly laughed at by other kids, the documentary shows the boy trying to stoically persevere. The assistant principal is indifferent to his plight, claims she will take care of the problem but then simply asks the bullies to stop. The boy’s parents seem indifferent to his suffering and ignore his troubled demeanor. Mostly, we watch a few bullies regularly torment the boy while the vast majority of kids watch and do nothing.
Another teenage boy in Mohawk County, New York committed suicide due to constant harassment by bullies after he came out as gay. His cell phone was forcibly broken, food was often thrown at him in the cafeteria and he daily endured vulgar insults within full earshot of teachers. His parents complained to the school and offered evidence of the psychological damage done to their son, the changes in his personality and the sharp decline in his grades. The school district claimed that as an open gay teen, the boy was not protected against harassment since homosexuality is not a legally protected classification like race, gender or disability. Indeed, it appears many of this boy’s tormentors knew that due to the indifference of adults, they faced little risk of punishment.
Just last week Pope Francis, of whom I am a growing fan, commented in his Sunday message about a lack of widespread concern for the hundreds of undocumented immigrants who recently died when their boat sank off the coast of Italy. He said, “There exists a globalization of indifference; we’ve grown accustomed to the suffering of others; it doesn’t concern us; it’s none of our business.” Citing mothers who drowned still clutching their children and fathers who died in a desperate effort to find a better life for their families, Pope Francis asked where are the tears for these people and others like them? As he said, too many people in our world suffer from an anesthesia of the heart.
The pope echoes what is a disturbing isolationism in our communities and nation. Even as cultures and economies become more diverse and global, too many people react with fear at this trend, pull up their proverbial drawbridges and withdraw into the seeming security of their own group. The poor, the homeless, the hungry, the immigrant, the disabled – they are no longer persons deserving of compassion and assistance. They allegedly sap the economic vitality of a community and nation. A cold indifference grips our culture. Social safety nets are undone, reasonable taxes are condemned as theft instead of as ways to help the most vulnerable, and charities beg for donations and volunteers. Millions suffer under dehumanizing poverty, through no fault of their own, while too many fellow humans isolate within a smug cocoon of indifference and pretended ignorance.
As one anonymous commentator said many years ago, “we must all fear the actions of evil people. But the kind of evil we must fear the most is the indifference of good people.”
The important question we should ask ourselves is how we react when faced with a decision to help others? Is the indifference we see in the world a disease that infects us too? Deep inside any of us, is there an apathetic little creature that often fails to serve the plight and need of others, or, is there a hero waiting to boldly act to save the wounded, defend the tormented and serve the needy?
Psychologists and sociologists maintain that indifference to the suffering of others is a common attitude. It’s reflected in what many call a bystander effect. As social creatures, few of us are willing to act alone or in very small numbers. We tend to act only when many others act too – whether in our heroism, hate, or deliberate indifference. Indeed, according to social psychologists who have studied the bystander effect, large numbers of bystanders tend to discourage individual heroic action. When we see those around us not act, we fear acting alone.
Reasons for this are many. We see that others are not acting so we comfort ourselves by doing the same. We tell ourselves that others are better trained, have more time or more money to act and serve. We also fear acting while others are watching – fearing being judged in how we help. This diffusion of responsibility allows individuals to be indifferent to doing something themselves. We reassure ourselves that our inaction, our apathy, our laziness, or our indifference are OK because many others are not helping, and those who do help, they are the ones who are most capable.
Experts assert that the vast majority of people act with indifference in situations of need. We are herd oriented creatures. We care deeply what others think of us and so we conform to what the mass does. Only a very few are willing to step outside the herd to act, serve or give.
According to Paul Loeb, who is a lecturer on ethics and author of a book entitled “Soul of a Citizen”, most people believe bad things that happen to others are not their personal responsibility. They transfer responsibility to unknown others – police, charities, hospitals, experts, or simply someone’s family and friends. People do not believe the pains in this world are their responsibility as a fellow human or citizen. We can watch women and children in another nation be murdered and poisoned by gas but believe its not our responsibility to do anything about it. We know that children in poverty in our own community lack the home environment, parenting and community resources to learn basic skills but we assume it is not our fault and not our responsibility. We witness other people, agencies and charities doing the work to assist people in need and believe it is their job and not our own.
Even more, says Loeb, is a common belief that our duty as individuals is to just take care of ourselves. Personally, I hope others will not get sick, suffer in poverty or be injured – and I despair when they do. I’m happy when people do help others but transferring my hope into action by myself is difficult. Helping people in need is not my duty or my moral imperative, I can tell myself. I’m not a person’s relative, I’m not his or her fellow citizen, I’m not their doctor, I’m not their Pastor, policeman, fireman, emergency medic, social worker, fellow church member or rich friend. Those people can and should handle the problem. Not me.
But when does the proverbial buck stop at my door? When do my excuses, my apathy, my indifference become sins not against any god but sins against universal laws of compassion and common goodness – laws that I know deep in my heart? I make no excuses for myself. I’ve done many things in my life to help others. I know deep in my soul, however, that I could have done more. I am guilty of the sin of indifference. I must take off that scary mask. I must do more.
Jesus, according the Biblical book of Luke, is said to have told a story about a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus. The rich man dressed in expensive clothing, lived in a large and luxurious house, ate extravagantly and spent his days in leisure. Outside the gates to his home, the beggar Lazarus sat and hoped for scraps of food or glimmers of compassion from the rich man. He got nothing. After both died, the rich man appealed to God to relieve his unending misery in hell. God answered him by saying he had lived his life of ease and indifference. He was now reaping what he had sown.
While I reject the idea that there is a literal reward and punishment system at work after we die, that is not the message to be learned from Jesus’ parable. We build our own heavens and hells. The rich man had built his own hell – one of arrogance, aloofness, indifference and greed. Physical indulgences and material wealth offer fleeting pleasures but they are not lasting. We deceive ourselves with an alleged heaven of comfort and luxury. We ignore the hell-like consequences of hate, indifference and judgment. Failing to do all we can, failing to serve, failing to give, failing to act when we have the time and ability, no matter how small, to help others in need – those little failures can add up to a life of little worth, a soul with little warmth, an ego with little humility and a hellish existence with little meaning or purpose.
Experts tell us we can avoid this hell of our own making. To banish an attitude of indifference and failure to act, they recommend several choices to make. First, we can endeavor to teach others the skills and knowledge we have acquired. Teaching throughout our lives gives us purpose and the opportunity to build a legacy that will reach far into the future. Second, we can be creative by building and beginning new ways to serve and give. Such bold creativity in charity allows us to step away from our herd instincts to instead be leaders and creators. Third, we can connect with like minded people who share our vision to serve and give. As we all know, churches are perfect places to meet those who selflessly give and serve. Churches are one of the few institutions where service to others is made possible. It is one of the key reasons to belong to a church. None of us should therefore fail to participate in the many ways to regularly serve others here at the Gathering. Fourth, we can stay informed about world issues, world poverty and world-wide needs. News and information about hurt and pain in the world keeps us grounded and alive to the needs others have. Finally, we can decide here and now to always act when we see incidents of hurt or injustice. We can decide to never excuse such incidents as unintended, normal or none of our business. We can decide to banish fear from our minds – choosing, no matter what, to act, serve and give when we perceive a need.
A life worth living, a life worthy of all that we consume, a life worthy of being called a human being, is one of continuous, active and concerted care for others. Such a life is one of true heroism – a life where we step outside fear and apathy. The timid, the weak and the uncaring are the ones who wear scary masks of indifference. The superheroes are the ones who act, serve, and give even though the crowd all around them are frozen in their inaction.
The Gathering, while I serve here, will not be a place of indifference to the needs and injustices of this world. We will do our part to build a form of heaven for others in need. While I serve here, I pray it will not be a place where the few do more than their share – filling in for the indifference and inaction of others. As I said earlier, we each owe a debt – for our lives, for countless blessings, for the good that has been given us, for the privilege of each and every day. This debt we owe continues until the day we die. Some people are takers in life. Some are givers. The same is true for churches. This place, this congregation, this little collection of heroes and doers – we will be givers.