The Anatomy of Apathy

[Adapted from Chapter 12 in Pursuing Justice: The Call to Live and Die for Bigger Things]

In Matthew 7:12 Jesus says, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” We know it as the golden rule. American culture, however, has twisted the golden rule into the silver rule: Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you. And the extra word–not–makes all the difference.

The golden rule requires action–do–while the silver rule allows for passivity and neutrality. The golden rule makes just actions necessary, while the silver rule can allow just actions to be optional. We like to talk about the golden rule, but we often live the silver rule.

The golden rule requires me to love, give, sacrifice, serve, initiate, speak up, create, listen, practice justice, and much more. The silver rule only requires me not to harm anyone. That’s why the golden rule is difficult to practice.

The gap between what we ought to be doing and what we’re actually doing causes us to feel guilty. If we ignore the golden rule we don’t feel guilty. But still, we know we’re supposed to be following some rule… which is why we latch on to the silver rule. It’s so much easier. Seriously, we can go through entire days without breaking the silver rule.

Perhaps we’re righteous after all. Or perhaps not. In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus tells a parable about this very thing. Starting in verse 41 he says:

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'”

I find it interesting that the unrighteous in this parable, those who are separated from God and “go away to eternal punishment,” followed the silver rule. But who is invited into the Father’s kingdom to receive a reward? Those who acted with justice and love.

What do you want out of life? The same thing everyone wants: health, freedom, good relationships, happiness, a chance to work and meet your needs. And what do you want when you are somehow deprived of these things? You want someone to help you restore them.

Jesus is asking us to do more than avoid harming others. He’s saying that the only way to know His Father is to give our lives away to others and to do good to others – and by extension, to do good to our Father. We may not choose apathy, but when we choose anything other than love and empathetic justice, we get apathy by default.

“The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be either good or evil.” Hanna Arendt

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Categories: Justice & Culture

Theology and Culture