Global Indifference & the Mothers of Invention (feat. Tom Crisp, Emmanuel Katongole)
Pope Francis has criticized “the globalization of indifference” in recent years. Despite the constant cycle of suffering we observe in our social feeds, leading to unprecedented awareness of others’ pain, and despite our increasing ability to reach those in need of our care, we’re numb. What is the loving response to suffering? Evan Rosa interviews Tom Crisp and Emmanuel Katongole in this first installment of a two-part series on love’s response to suffering. Featuring the (in?)famous pond case applied to relief efforts, an exploration of lament, Pope Francis on the globalization of indifference in the face of suffering and violence, and the beautiful story of Maggie Barankitse, who witnessed first hand the atrocities of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide and responded with loving action.
Evan Rosa: Hey guys, this is Evan. You are listening to “The Table Audio”. Just a quick heads‑up before we jump into this episode.
We start off the episode with a fairly graphic philosophical example. Like most philosophical example that have zombies, or brain swaps, or people dying, hmm, things are a little graphic. If you’re sensitive about that kind of thing, you might want to jump ahead just a couple minutes. Here’s the episode.
Tom Crisp: Suppose you’re on your way to work, and you walk everyday past an ornamental pond. This morning, you notice in the pond a child struggling to stay afloat, seemingly in danger of drowning. You look around. There are no other adults. It’s just you and this child.
You think to yourself, “I’ve got to jump in and save this child or she’s going to drown.” The next thought occurs to you, which is you have an important meeting this morning first thing. This meeting will determine whether you get this promotion you’ve been hoping for, for a long time, which will come with a substantial raise.
Not only that, but you’re wearing a really nice pair of shoes and a really nice new pair of slacks. It occurs to you if you jump in and try to save this child, you’re going to ruin these shoes and you’re going to ruin these slacks.
You think to yourself, “Hmm, I might miss out on this promotion and all the excess money that that entails, and I might ruin my shoes and my slacks both of which were very expensive.” You say to yourself, “I think I’m going to just have to let this one go.”
You go. You pass by, and go on your way to work, and pretend that you never saw anything. And, the child drowns.
Now, what would we say to a person who did that? Most of us, I take it, would think that’s abominable. That’s morally abhorrent behavior.
Evan: Indeed, that is incredibly disturbing, and you may well have heard that thought experiment before, the pond case. Telling it was philosopher, Tom Crisp, Professor of Philosophy at Biola University and a Scholar‑in‑Residence at Biola University Center for Christian Thought.
Tom: This is a case that comes from a famous paper of Peter Singer’s called “Famine, Affluence and Morality” from 1970s.
What Singer suggests is that what we learn from a case like this is that we tend to presuppose a principal that goes something like this. That if I can save someone or prevent someone from undergoing terrible suffering or from suffering a terrible tragedy without sacrificing anything nearly so important of my own, then morally I should.
In this case, I can save this child from drowning without sacrificing anything nearly as important as the life of this child. Sure, my shoes, my pants, my promotion, but all of that pales in comparison to the importance of this child’s life. Because I can help this child without sacrificing anything nearly as important, morally I should.
Evan: Of course, such a principle is so widely accepted. Some of the earliest philosophers used just this exact case.
Mencius or Mengzi, a disciple of the Chinese philosopher Confucius, said, “Even nowadays, if people suddenly see a child about to fall into a well, they will without exception experience a feeling of alarm and distress.”
“They will feel so not as a ground on which they may gain the favor of the child’s parents nor is on a ground which they may seek the praise of their neighbors and friends nor from a dislike for reputation of having been unmoved by such a thing.”
“From this case,” he says, “we may perceive that the feeling of commiseration is essential to man.” Elsewhere, he says, “All people have a mind which cannot bear to see the sufferings of others.”
Really though? Is that true? Because, more and more, it just seems like we’re numb to the sufferings of others. Whether by overexposure or activist paralysis, week to week in our news media, in our social feeds, we encounter, we even come to expect, bad news. Sometimes it’s across the sea. Sometimes it’s across the street.
Let’s not even assume schadenfreude, the German has a word for this, taking joy in others’ misfortune. It’s not the active hope for others’ suffering that’s a problem in the pond case. It’s in the indifference to suffering. That seems abhorrent. But there’s a further point to be made. Here’s Tom again.
Tom: What is the difference exactly between this person’s behavior…
Evan: That’s the person that walks away from the drowning child.
Tom: …and my behavior when I’m solicited by an aid organization with the opportunity to help a starving child on the other side of the world? Yet I…
Tom: …will often decide not to help because I have money that I was hoping to use for various luxuries, Starbucks coffee, eating out, vacations that are purely a matter of luxury. Singer asks, “What is the morally relevant difference between the cases?”
He argues that there really isn’t any, that what we learn from the pond case is that it looks to be a general principle of morality that if you can help someone and prevent them from undergoing terrible suffering at very little cost to yourself, at the cost, say, of forgoing some luxury items, that morally you should.
That since we affluent Westerners are pretty much always in a situation where we can do without luxury and send money that we would have otherwise spent on luxury and frivol to help those in dire poverty, that we should.
That therefore we affluent Westerners ought to be giving with a much more radical kind of generosity to those who suffer than we do on pain of being in the same moral situation as is the person who passes the child drowning in a pond.
Evan: The writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once wrote, “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.”
“Because of indifference, one dies before one actually dies. To be in the window and watch people being sent to concentration camps or being attacked in the street”—or I’d add, in a mosque or a country music concert or a church—”and do nothing, that’s being dead.”
If that’s being dead, then how in the world can we come alive? Today at the table, the first of a two‑part series on love’s response to suffering.
Evan: We’ll talk about what Pope Francis meant when he said, “We are a culture of indifference.” We’ll talk about slacktivism with an ethicist who thinks the world is not ours to save. We’ll dig into the “most viral video of all time.”
Specifically, we’ll get into the difference between indifferent bystanding and inventive love. Listen on and you’ll hear two stories of women for whom, when disaster hit, love made them inventors.
I’m Evan Rosa, and you’re listening to The Table Audio.
Evan: I first heard these two moving stories from Emmanuel Katongole.
Emmanuel Katongole: I never tried an elevator speech, but my name is Emmanuel Katongole. I am a Catholic priest from Uganda. I teach at University of Notre Dame in the Theology Department and the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.
Evan: Emmanuel is a very kind and warm man.
Why did you become a Catholic priest?
Emmanuel: How much time do you have?
Evan: It’s a long story I imagine.
Emmanuel: Of course, I don’t know. It’s a question that I keep asking myself. I don’t know.
From early on, I remember wanting to be a priest. Why? I don’t know. I think there is something like a sense of a call, that you feel called to something, but you don’t have a real clear sense of why it is.
Also the sense of a journey and something that you’re going to get deeper and deeper into it, not that I fully understand what that is. I’m just trying to be myself in other words.
Evan: That’s a good way to be.
Emmanuel: I guess.
Evan: When Emmanuel and I spoke, we started on the concept of lament as a response to suffering, specifically the apparent absence of lament. That is, our response to the world’s suffering is often driven by commonplace curiosity instead of a deep‑seated care.
There is of course a personal aspect to it, but in many cultures lament is public.
Emmanuel: I think it is that public element, notion of lament, that I think is socially powerful. Not that you can easily disconnect the personal from the social but it is that social power of lament.
I did tell the story of Pope Francis, that the very first journey outside the Vatican was last year when he went to this tiny island in the Mediterranean.
Evan: There he’s talking about the island of Lampedusa, an island where North African refugees often seek solace. The most recent disaster in April 2015, a boat carrying 700 passengers capsized, leaving a mass grave in the Mediterranean.
Emmanuel: The migrants are washed up. Many of them have died. There he celebrated a Mass for forgiveness and repentance.
Emmanuel: During his homily, his preaching, he talked about the globalization of indifference, which has taken from us the ability to weep. That as a community, as a society, we have lost that ability to weep, to cry.
Evan: Because you have to care.
Emmanuel: You have to care.
Evan: Here, I shall make my world debut of translating Pope Francis.
Pope Francis: [non‑English speech]
Evan: Today, no one in our world feels responsible. We have lost a sense of responsibility for our brothers and sister. We have fallen into the hypocrisy of the priest and the Levite whom Jesus described in the parable of the Good Samaritan.
We see our brother half‑dead on the side of the road, and perhaps we say to ourselves, “Poor soul,” and then go our way. It’s not our responsibility. With that, we feel reassured, assuaged. The culture of comfort which makes us think only of ourselves makes us insensitive to the cries of other people, makes us live in soap bubbles, which however lonely, are insubstantial.
They offer a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others. Indeed, it even leads to the globalization of indifference. 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.”
We are a society that has forgotten the experience of weeping, of suffering with. The globalization of indifference has taken from us the ability to weep.
Emmanuel: There is something about the globalization of indifference that, according to Francis, is connected with the social, political, and economic realities of the world in which we live within this story, is that it is about me, and whatever I can get out. I don’t care about the others.
The building up of resources, of wealth, in a way, adds to that globalization of indifference, that is all about what I can get out. That takes from us, according to Francis, the ability to really see the suffering of the other, and therefore weep.
Evan: Would you say that there is a sort of care or a passion for the other in order to move from indifference to involvement?
Emmanuel: Yes, of course. You have to have the care for the other, but when you live within society and by narratives that constantly tell us that is all about you, that you are the center of everything, eventually your sensitivity and passion for the other gets numbed.
I think that’s what Francis is talking about, that globalization of indifference. That then we live as units, individual units that are atoms.
Emmanuel: Therefore, the connection with the other is lost. That deep affinity, emotional connection with the other is lost. Also, it happens when there is so much violence all around. Every time, we are bombarded with these images of suffering and so forth. We try to dismiss them as just a news item, and then we on with our lives.
Announcer: This is Hiroshima the day after the atom bomb exploded over Japan’s seventh largest city and etched this…
Announcer: First, land the atomic bomb. It’s used against the city of Japan. Even now, after hearing many times the description of this new weapon, its capabilities continue to tempt human imagination.
Announcer: Here is the motion picture spectacle of all time.
Announcer: A million tons of water, alive with deadly rays. Awe‑inspiring in its significance for man, who learned how to control the atom, but must now learn to control himself.
Evan: What can we do to retrain our sensitivity to suffering? As you might guess, there are no easy or quick fixes to this problem. A callus like this is hard to remove overnight just by listening to a podcast or reading a blog.
Emmanuel instead suggests it’s more of a long term lifestyle issue, that we might follow the example of the incarnation, whereby God took a human nature to be with us, to establish a connection with us.
Emmanuel: Francis, in a number of ways, has talked about the poor, connecting with the poor, living with the poor, living simpler lives. In one way, he’s encouraging the priests, for example, to get out of our sanctuaries and go among the poor.
The priest, the shepherd, needs to smell like the sheep. That’s the expression that he used. It’s living with the poor, among the poor, that there is no better way to get a sensitivity about the other than actually living with the other. There is no shortcut to that.
Evan: That’s very incarnational.
Emmanuel: Very incarnational, exactly. Living among and with the poor at the margins is part of really habilitating, if you like, cultivating, that sensitivity to the other. Also, the lifestyle. Now and again, he has talked about the lifestyle.
We need to live simpler lifestyles. That is one way of opening our hearts to the needs of the others. If we don’t live simpler lifestyles, we shall always be caught up in the drive to get more and more. Then it doesn’t matter who is trampled along the way as we are trying to get more and more. A settled, simpler lifestyle actually opens one’s heart to the plight and the needs of the other.
Evan: We have a way of incorporating violence into our speech. Whenever we’re talking about ideas, politics, religion, things that matter, there’s a tendency for each side to escalate the conversation to increasing levels of animosity.
We have a hard enough time understanding one another when we’re at peace. Inculcating intellectual virtues like open‑mindedness, charity, hospitality, those are important, but in the context of globalized indifference to suffering, war, atrocities against humanity, how in the world can we expect our words to make a difference?
On this matter, Emmanuel suggests that we start by acknowledging a deep fear in the human heart, a fear that can overpower our ability to listen and reason with one another in contexts of violence.
Emmanuel: Of course, an open‑mindedness is needed, but I think mind is overrated. It seems like just that we are making all these choices through a kind of rational acculturation, the question of intellectual virtue, and so forth.
Most of the people that are fighting or killing one another, their lives are driven also by fear, either fear of the unknown, or fear of what is going to happen to them, that unless they do that, they are going to end up being killed, or just by the power of ideology that has convinced them that the destruction of the other is for their own good, that without that, there is no future.
All these are not so much rational choices that could very easily be overcome by clarifying people’s thoughts about that. Dealing, for example, with the question of fear. Dealing with the questions of why people feel so demoralized.
I’m thinking especially the sense of lack of self‑respect. At times, in a way, violence against the other reflects a certain hatred against oneself. The kind of forces, in a way, that lead people to hate themselves, that often expresses itself outwardly in violence against the other.
It’s a more complex approach than just helping people to think clearly about the situation, and therefore come up with these rational choices.
Evan: It seems like a situation in which you have to lead with certain habits, or almost embodied practices, and then allow the mind to follow.
Emmanuel: Yeah, but also, the alternatives. People seeing that there is, actually, an alternative. Alternatives, to be believed, many times, they have to be seen. It’s not just a question of abstract talk, but presenting people with very concrete alternatives which they can immediately see, is another way to create peace.
Evan: That word, peace. Most of us have good intuition about what that means, but it can be helpful to think about what it really entails. Is peace just a buzzword from bumper‑sticker legalism and media morality, “We Are the World” kind of thing?
Perhaps we need to get back to an older, richer concept, shalom. Most people identify the word shalom with peace, but shalom is much more complex. That ancient Hebrew word has a more robust and complex meaning.
It includes not just freedom from violence, but care for others’ most basic necessities. Again, here is Tom Crisp, who suggests that Shalom is a state of communal well‑being and wholeness.
Tom: A community where the sustenance needs of all are met, where all are safe against harms—physical harms, psychological harms, enslavement, warfare, and so forth—a community in which all are treated in accordance with justice, in which neighbors care for one another with neighborly care, the term that Hebrew writers use to describe such a community is shalom.
Evan: In fighting the culture of indifference, where posting a link in your pity about the latest global atrocity to Facebook, counts as doing social justice, we need to think and act with more creativity, with more innovation, more concretely. That’s when we move from indifference toward involvement, towards shalom.
Evan: Coming up after the break, a story over 20 years in the making, one woman’s response to a violent genocide, and how she found love to be the true mother of invention. Coming up in just a moment on The Table.
For more from The Table, check out our website at cct.biola.edu. You can sign up for our regular email journal, get access to hundreds of free resources like e‑books, short and longform articles on thought pieces, also to videos. Everything we do features Christian perspectives on the big questions.
What is love? Can we grow from suffering? How can we disagree well? How can practices of humility, gratitude, and forgiveness lead us to the good life? What does it mean to be human?
For example, from a recent public talk on humility and political ambition, philosopher Robert C. Roberts.
Robert C. Roberts: Electoral politics is an especially difficult context for the cultivation and display of virtuous pride and humility, because of their association with power, the abundance of limelight, the enormous entitlements that are at stake, and the I’m‑better‑than‑you rivalrous ethos of the campaign trail, which we’ve seen some horrific examples recently.
Evan: You can find that talk, as well as a downloadable e‑book exclusively for our subscribers at cct.biola.edu.
At this point, we find a way back to those two women I mentioned earlier. Two women who are innovators and inventors. In stark contrast to bumper‑sticker ethics and Facebook‑style justice, they offer two examples of the concrete, embodied shalom that does away with indifference, by living and acting in the community.
Here’s the first, the story of Marguerite Barankitse, Maggie. Her story starts with the history of conflict, a conflict between Hutu and Tutsi people in the sub‑Saharan African regions near Rwanda and Maggie’s country, Burundi.
Centuries of hate between the two ethnic groups came to a head in 1994, with the widespread genocide of the Tutsi by the Hutu. In April and May of 1994, a span of just six weeks, approximately 800,000 Tutsi were slaughtered. Historian Gerard Brunier points out that this was a rate of around five times that of the Nazi Final Solution.
The result was a mass exodus, leaving hundreds of thousands of Rwandans in exile, refugees.
Reporter: A sea of body stretching almost to the horizon. These are the toughest of Rwanda’s refugees. They survived war, disease, hunger, and thirst. Thousands have died on the road to get here.
The slaughter in Rwanda that started all this began four months ago. The world watched as Africa’s most crowded nation plunged into civil war. Some simply abandoned their children, hoping the relief agencies would pick them up and feed them. They did, and now there is a generation of orphans.
More and more questions are raised about how little the West has done, and how late it’s come.
Evan: Just six months before this Rwandan genocide, in October 1993, Maggie was working in a local parish in Burundi, serving her community while living at the bishop’s house. Amidst the conflict, the local Catholic church hid all the town’s Hutus.
A Tutsi militia, driven by revenge against all Hutu attacked and set fire to the church and surrounding buildings. When Maggie, also Tutsi, begged them to desist, they stripped her, bound her, and forced her to watch as they murdered dozens of innocent people.
Emmanuel: She was working in the bishop’s house when the militia attacked and killed all the people—73 people—in front of her. She herself was stripped. Then they killed also her friend, who brought her children to her.
She said what she was able to see in the eyes of the killers was hatred, but also, what she was able see, that how the hatred over the years had turned into revenge and counter‑revenge. The children that were born are born into this story of hatred and revenge.
Her question was, how do you raise children within a different story? She was determined, because of her Christian faith, that she was going to raise these children in the story of love. She has felt tremendous love. She felt tremendous love by God, but also by her family, mother. She said she is going to raise these children in a new story of love.
Evan: We’re not just talking about a few children. Maggie’s immediate response was to take in the 25 children orphaned by the militia’s attack, but this single woman never once turned a child away, whether Tutsi or Hutu.
As a result, many thousands of children orphaned by the hate between Tutsi and Hutu have found a mother in Maggie. She is now well‑known to the entire nation as the mother of Burundi, as she has welcomed so many into her Maison Shalom, her house of shalom.
You see, when an orphaned child meets Maggie, he isn’t merely added to an ever‑expanding orphanage. Instead, he is given a home. Maggie has built over 3,000 homes in Burundi in the past 22 years, literally rebuilding the community, and establishing a stability based in peace and love of neighbor. Here is Maggie from a recent interview.
Marguerite Barankitse: Love make us inventor, because if you love, you will find the solution. In the eyes of those children, we have universal mission, vocation, and our vocation. Human vocation, very noble, is love.
Emmanuel: She says, “Love has made me an inventor.” She is doing whatever she is doing, because it is love that is pushing her. Also, she says she wants to invent love. She is inventing love for these kids, providing them with a new vision of life, and what she means to live in dignity. That is very concrete love.
Evan: That means retelling the story.
Emmanuel: Yeah, retelling the story, saying who you are. If the other story was telling them, “No, no, you are Tutsi, you are Hutu, and therefore you hate the other,” she is retelling the story in their own identity now. Your identity is you are a child of God. You’re created in the image of God. That is a new dignity that you have.
Evan: That gives them a power to operate from a different place.
Emmanuel: Yeah, from a different narrative. When the world comes and say, “Oh, look at all these poor orphans,” she is, “No, no, no, they’re not orphans. They are princes and princesses in the house of God.” She is offering an alternative.
Evan: Taking a cue from Maggie, we need to live into our originating purpose, that when faced with violence, disorder, hate, whatever the pain or suffering we encounter, we imitate our creator, and our souls become creative, innovative, inventing new expressions of love, new alternatives, new narratives that operate from a shared human dignity.
That’s within our powers as those who bear the image of God.
Emmanuel: In the context of the violence of speech, the hatred, what are Christians to do? It’s precisely to do that, how to invent love. How to, in a way, stand within a different story.
The story within which we stand is the story that we’ve been talking about, the story of new creation, how the new creation actually provides a different purchase, if you like, a different platform from which to see what is going on, but also different possibilities in terms of the language that can be offered.
In case of Maggie, it’s that language of identity, new human dignity, that it’s connected with love which, according to her, is the true calling for every person who is created by God. Quite powerful.
Evan: Next time, on The Table audio, what happens when an American documentary dedicated to raising awareness and trying to do something about suffering on the other side of the world goes crazy viral but we forget about the people practicing inventive love in that very local community. Like one woman…
Emmanuel: Angelina Atyam, whose daughter was abducted.
When the rebels, we had just watched them march through the jungles, stormed the school, they abducted 139 girls from that school and just taken them captive in the jungle.
Evan: All that, and even a little bit more, next time on The Table.
[background music—“Brother” by The Brilliance]
Evan: The Table Audio is hosted by me, Evan Rosa, and is produced by the Biola University Center for Christian Thought, which is supported by generous grants from the John Templeton Foundation, Templeton Religion Trust, and the Blankemeyer Foundation along with people like you who care about seeking Christian wisdom for life’s big questions.
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[background music—“We Are the World”]
Evan: Willie, come on. I mean, I love you, but that’s the exact opposite of what Jesus did. He refused to turn stone to bread, bro. You were given one line… there’s so many bible verses, you could have chosen… please.