The Curse of Indifference in the American Church | Sojourners

The Curse of Indifference in the American Church

“The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.”
― Elie Wiesel

This week many churches celebrated the 4th of July from their pulpits. Maybe it was a barbecue on the church lawn or a short chorus of “America, The Beautiful. Maybe here or there someone read from The Declaration of Independence to celebrate the founding of the United States.

As with many American holidays, I struggle as a Native American woman with the ideas of the founding of this nation and the generations of hate toward native people that have followed. But worse than the hate is the indifference toward issues relating to native peoples, a problem that I believe goes back to the earliest education in our school systems, in which we hear stories of the Indians and the Pilgrims at Thanksgiving. Beyond that we consider Native Americans historic savages that no longer walk the earth.

After sharing some of my struggles with the 4th of July, numerous people sent me messages and emails with questions and apologies, things like, “I’m so sorry, I just didn’t know. Now I will pay attention.”

I consider those small moments a huge victory in connecting my own people back to the land we were born on, and connecting to my non-native friends who truly want to be better human beings, who claim their ignorance and want to move past it, just as I claim ignorance of my own identity as I attempt to move forward in it.

The curse of American indifference is a long and deep one, and we live it out loud today. American privilege is seen and heard loud and clear, especially as people of color speak out of corners of the world that have been quiet for so long.

If we blindly live where we’ve been living without listening to the voices of those who are downcast, we lose for the sake of the gospel. Our churches suffer a fate worse than hate or ugliness or death; we suffer indifference — lack of care for those around us.

Immigrants can see our indifference when we treat them only as workers or people who shouldn’t have come here in the first place.

Indigenous people see the indifference when someone expects that we look like the pictures that come out of our American history books, or think that we do not live into our native cultures today.

CBS Religion recently shared a video called “Beyond Tolerance” that addresses the problems of indifference — good people who simply follow the ways of a political, social, and religious culture without questioning what it means or what effects it has on others. It calls to the surface the problem of our silence in this political, social, and religious climate.

This is different than ignorance. A lack of knowledge is different than a lack of concern for others. And while much of the problem of American Christianity lies in ignorance, much more of it stems from the problem of indifference.

This is a time to take sides — not always politically — but socially, ethically, spiritually. If we say in our churches that we live on the side of Jesus, we cannot be indifferent to the injustices going on in our own country and the injustices going on in the rest of the world.

We could all work to be people who pray ourselves out of our indifference, who pray ourselves into places of passionate care for others, of compassionate care and love.

We pass our indifference down generation to generation. To fix that, it is not that we create a generation of religious zealots, but we raise up young people who are aware of the world around them, who are not blanketed by their privilege, who learn to take hold of what God has given them instead of complaining about it. We raise our children to ask questions, to live in love, to value human life and our created world in every country, in every situation.

People who fight indifference are those who have the immigrants and refugees at their table, who look them in the eyes when they encounter them on the street. People who fight indifference are fighting a church movement that sits on the outside of the world’s pain and remains comfortable in its own Christian skin.

Jesus did not call us to indifference.

He called us to radical love.

He called us to carry the burden of the world.

And he called us to do it with our hands and our feet, with our bodies and our minds, with our very spirits. And we cannot do that if we are silent.

Jesus showed us what it looks like to live intentionally, with those on the margins always a steady part of our own narrative — because the connection from one human being to another matters.

Indifference tells the lie that it does not matter.

That lie has carried on long enough.

To be honest about privilege is to be honest about how one life affects another, and in those honest and difficult conversations, shalom is born.

The truth of living against indifference means living our own stories in such a way that every other life we encounter is a part of us as well.

Your non-native life is still affected and a part of my native life, whether we go to church together or not. And if we do go to church together, there is another kind of tether between us — the work of Jesus, the constant work of community, the work of working through who we are together because of who Jesus is to each of us. That is fighting indifference and that is the language of shalom.

The future of the church depends on the people who take up the cross of Jesus in a way that proclaims the enduring, hard, and beautiful work of shalom, the very thing that has the power to untangle us from our indifference entirely.

May we pick up our crosses if it cures us of what has ailed American Christianity.

May we pick up our crosses if it teaches us to connect to each other again in a way that honors who Jesus has always been.

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