This past semester at Yale Divinity School I took a course titled “Moral Revolution and Social Change,” in which we analyzed how Christianity informs contemporary movements for democratic social change in the pursuit of justice. On the last day of the semester, we were discussing the protests that had taken place at Yale over the course of the academic year. Despite the amount of undergraduate students who took part in these protests, many students were uninterested, ambivalent, and unaffected. The professor looked to the room of nearly 30 students and asked, “Why did so many remain indifferent to the racial injustices? Why did so many students not join in the protests?” The class fell silent. Despite having studied these themes for an entire semester, not one person could effectively respond to the question of indifference. This comes as no surprise to me. The question of indifference is, I think, a defining question of our historical milieu.
It is one thing to be struck by the overwhelming amount of poverty and violence present in our world today; it is another to be faced with seeming ambivalence towards it. To wrestle with why human beings can be so indifferent to violence and poverty is incredibly complex. It bears on theological, philosophical, sociological, historical, and psychological discourse. The reality and prevalence of indifference is haunting. In 2010, for example, Hugo Alfredo Tale- Yax, a homeless man living in Queens, NY, was fatally stabbed after saving a woman from an attacker. He laid dying in a pool of his own blood as over 25 people strolled by him. This is the very indifference that philosopher Hannah Arendt grappled with in her seminal work Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Arendt posits that evil deeds are, for the most part, not perpetrated by monsters or sadists. Most often, evil is perpetuated by seemingly ordinary people who value conformity and narrow-self interest over the welfare of others. The “banality of evil” present during the Holocaust, Arendt contends, was characterized by callous indifference.
The timbre of urgency to face our capacity for indifference is only amplifying. In a passionate homily during his visit to Lampedusa, Pope Francis condemned “the globalization of indifference” as an attitude that prevents people from responding to the plight of their brothers and sisters. Pope Francis said, “In this globalized world, we have fallen into globalized indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business!”And so according to Pope Francis, even if we see the suffering of others, we seem unwilling or unable to address it.
The question of why we are indifferent remains. As we attempt to respond, it is important to note what indifference means for our world today. Indifference is literally defined as lack of interest or concern about something; as in an indifferent attitude or feeling. But when we look at examples of indifference (we can note the two above); indifference is not mere lack of interest. Indifference, understood in the way Pope Francis articulates it, is both deliberate and intentional. Pope Francis continues a long trajectory of thought that asks how humans can look upon the gravity of injustice and willfully or unwittingly plead ignorance. As Christians we must not only ask how indifference can be so prevalent in our world today, but ask what we can do to concretely strive against it.
From a theological perspective, indifference can be understood as our failure to love the wounded Christ in our midst. My college professor and mentor, Roberto Goizueta, speaks powerfully on this very point in his work Christ Our Companion. It is worth quoting him in full:
“To be a human being is to exist in a state of the most profound vulnerability and contingency; our lives are ultimately not in our control, for they can be extinguished at any moment. But we cannot bear this fact. So we construct a world that will shield us from this terrifying truth … Indeed, our consumer culture is premised upon and driven by the promise that all these forms of human vulnerability are avoidable … if we have a large enough bank account, the right kind of insurance, the latest model automobile, or the most effective deodorant (“Never let them see you sweat”)… We surround ourselves with things that promise security and invulnerability, and we run from persons, since they demand vulnerability and the possibility of pain… But we run not just from any persons; rather, we run from weak, powerless, vulnerable, wounded persons in particular, for they especially threaten our sense of invulnerability” (Goizueta, 16-17).
As Goizueta would understand it, the globalization of indifference is the direct result of fear. We run from others because we are running from ourselves. We seek greatness, because we fear weakness. We want the promise of material goods, because we wouldn’t know how to define our humanity without them. We belittle and dehumanize others, because we fear humility. We want power, because we fear vulnerability. We build walls – literally and figuratively – because we fear our commonality with people who we perceive as different, weaker, or less than ourselves. Fear aids in an active and deliberate indifference.
If this is the reality of indifference in our world today, then we do not need to look far to see the ways it is embodied and manifested. And this brings me to my next point on an issue that I can no longer remain silent on: this past week it was announced that Donald Trump is the presumptive GOP nominee for President of the United States.
For the purposes of this article, I intend to write from a theological perspective, as a Christian and as a Catholic.
Numerous articles have been written on how Trump’s campaign is dividing Christians: while some insist that he is a good Christian in line with Christ’s teachings, others insist that Christians need to take a stand against him, declaring that he is not a Christian at all. Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York, wrote an article last year on the ways in which Trump’s rhetoric is a dangerous return to nativism. Trump’s controversial remarks on Pope Francis (and Pope Francis’ controversial response) demonstrated to a lot of Christians just how many of Trump’s remarks counter the task of discipleship. Trump has consistently insulted, belittled, sexualized, and stereotyped women. He has directly and implicitly made racist remarks. He has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims – 1.6 billion members of an entire religion – from entering the United States. He has promised to build a “great wall” between America’s border with Mexico. However, to scratch the surface of Trump’s hateful remarks and platform that strives to “make America great again,” is to discover the desperation of fear in our society. He epitomizes the globalization of indifference because he capitalized on what Americans fear: our weak and vulnerable selves. What I worry the most about Donald Trump becoming President is that as we construct an identity of greatness, of strength, of wealth, of power, one that is seemingly impenetrable to weakness and vulnerability, we increase our capacity for active indifference.That is, we become more apt to intentionally and deliberately walk by the wounded Christ in our midst. We will become more intentional and deliberate about separating ourselves from others who we think are somehow less than us. We will not only become more like those 25 people who walked by Hugo Alfredo Tale- Yax as he laid dying, but we will justify our callous indifference.
And so our perception that we have a great and powerful nation will be nothing other than a mask of vulnerability and weakness.
Last summer, Donald Trump was interviewed by Frank Luntz on the very topic of his Christian faith. Luntz asked Trump a very simple question, “Have you ever asked God for forgiveness?” Trump avoided the question. Luntz asked again in a more direct and deliberate tone, to which Trump said, “I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so . . . I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”
It does not surprise me that Donald Trump has not asked God for forgiveness; particularly because asking God for forgiveness is an incredibly vulnerable and humbling act. Asking for forgiveness is about letting God into the spaces where we have been weak and where we have failed. It is about acknowledging where we have failed to love others, where we have failed to encounter the wounded Christ in our midst. To ask God for forgiveness is not about dismissing our fears, it is about looking at how our fears have deliberately lead us away from God, from others, and from ourselves.
In an age of indifference, one negatively manifesting itself in Donald Trump’s campaign, Pentecost has several important lessons to teach us. We are not unlike the cowering disciples: trying to make sense of the resurrection of Christ, afraid of the cost of true discipleship in a world marked by injustice. Pentecost reminds us that God comes into the spaces where we are most terrified. God calls us to a different standard of greatness than the one purported by the Trump campaign. God did not empower the disciples to a form of strength that distanced them from others. Rather, the form of empowerment was quite literally a call to go out to those people and those places where they had not gone before. And we should invite that task.
What Pentecost offers us is not the strength to become more powerful, or more wealthy. It is the strength is become humble in a world that is losing the ability to love and losing the ability to enter into the suffering of others. In the season of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit empowers us to not remain indifferent to situations of injustice. No matter what your political alignment is, as Christians we can not remain indifferent. Pentecost reminds us, in the words of Fr. Dean Brackley, to discover our vocation in downward mobility. It is a different greatness that demands we enter into the suffering of others, rather than construct an identity of power. “ It’s a scary request,” Fr. Dean writes, “The world is obsessed with wealth and security and upward mobility and prestige. But let us teach solidarity, walking with the victims, serving and loving. I offer this for you to consider – downward mobility.”
 Pope Francis, Visit to Lampedusa: Homily of Holy Father Francis (Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2013).
Meg Stapleton Smith is a master’s candidate in Ethics at Yale Divinity School. In the fall, she will be pursuing her PhD in Theological and Social Ethics at Fordham University.