Beyond Apathy: A Theology for Bystanders

June 6, 2016

By Steering Committee Member, Patrick Carolan

Little Use for Apathetic Bystanders

I recently finished reading an awesome book by Dr. Elizabeth Vasko: Beyond Apathy: A Theology for Bystanders. In her book Dr. Vasco argues that we are complacent when we are willing to tolerate violence against the poor and the marginalized. As she describes it “bystander participation in patterns of violence.” It is not necessarily just the overt forms of violence such as mass murders that have become commonplace. We all express horror and outrage when we hear of another mass shooting. Dr. Vasko describes the more covert forms of violence such as bullying, sexism, hidden racism and sexual violence. As she says: “We live in a society that is all too willing to tolerate violence. Violence, a communal problem, impacts the flourishing of all involved: victims, perpetrators, and bystanders. Violence desecrates the image of God as it dehumanizes and fractures communion among all God’s people.”

In our readings for the Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time we are challenged to be more than apathetic bystanders. In the second reading from Galatians the writer tells us “that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” Living by works of law allows us to rationalize our apathy. We get to sit back, express our outrage from a distance and never look at root causes of the violence or reflect on what role we all have played in the continual cycle of violence, racism and sexism. The reading goes on to say “I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.” Jesus challenged the law on a regular basis. He lived outside the power structure and in the margins. Every time Jesus healed the sick on the Sabbath (which he did on a regular basis) he broke the law and committed acts of civil disobedience. If we sit back in as Dr. Vasko describes it “collective manifestations of privileged apathy,” we are saying that Christ died for nothing.

Dr. Vasko states “To be a Christian is to take sides with those who are marginalized, dehumanized and subject to violence. Whether we like it or not neutrality isn’t an option. In the face of violent activity, to hide behind the mirror of ignorance is to take sides with the powers that be.” Sunday’s Gospel from Luke clearly says where Jesus stands. In Luke 7:39 it states; “When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner.”

Jesus stood with the poor, hungry, sinners and marginalized over the religious and political leaders. Jesus had little use for apathetic bystanders.

Peace and All Good,

Patrick Carolan
FAN Executive Director

Suggested Petitions

For the courage to take sides with those who are marginalized and dehumanized, let us pray…

During this Torture Awareness Month, for all victims and survivors of torture, let us pray…


Collect Prayer:

O God, strength of those who hope in you,
graciously hear our pleas,
and, since without you mortal frailty can do nothing,
grant us always the help of your grace,
that in following your commands
we may please you by our resolve and our deeds.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.