A Theology of Indifference – What Have We Become? by Karen Hernandez

karen hernandezSay his name – Bashar al-Assad. From my research and understanding, as President, Assad is most responsible for Syria’s devastation. Yes, there are many other players, but, Assad holds a special place. Responsible for making sure the first shots were fired at peaceful Arab Spring protesters, to using chemical weapons on his own people, he is one bad dude.

Yet, what perplexes me is that people love him. In fact, they adore him. How do I know? I follow the Syrian Presidency on Instagram. Yes, the Syrian Presidency has an Instagram account. How can a man that is responsible for the deaths of millions have an Instagram account?

I ask myself this question literally every day.

But more, I question Social Media’s role in injustice every day. People who kill en masse do so in the open now, all the while propagating their message of intolerance for the world to see. And what do we do? We watch. This is indifference at its worst. Yet I will say that I think most of us are paralyzed by all of this, because it feels helpless, and disconnected from most of our realities.

Indifference and atrocities go hand in hand, I’ve learned. I studied with holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Elie Wiesel, three times throughout my educational career and in those lessons gleaned from not only the classroom, but Professor Wiesel himself, indifference and being a bystander go hand in hand.

In 2004, my senior year at Wellesley College, I took a genocide class with Sociologist, Thomas Cushman. It was intense and emotionally draining, especially because Darfur had just been officially declared a genocide and the United Nations seemed to be doing what they do well – reacting slowly. As I moved through this course and researched my final project on indifference and genocide going hand in hand, I realized that throughout time, indifference has been the human mode of operation in most atrocities. Indifference has been apparent individually, as well as within large groups of people, including governmental organizations.

I read letters from doctors who were experimenting on patients who were in concentration camps – letters to their “Mummies,” that casually spoke of their day – trying out new modes of torture or “medicines,” to what their Pastor preached about the Sunday before, to the mundane facts about what they ate for dinner, or how well they were sleeping. These letters exhibited human indifference on a level that was utterly grotesque.

About fifty years later, we heard from Romeo Dallaire, who frantically sent messages to the United Nations about the impending Rwandan genocide. Dallaire saw it coming, warning officials for at least two weeks, in CAPITAL LETTERS, and got no response. And now we have Assad. A whole new war criminal, President Assad destructively governs while killing, posting pictures on Instagram of his “other side.” Pictures of him sharing meals, praying, attending events, and shall I dare say, smiling. “Does he even have the right to smile?” I ask myself! Three times I admit to commenting under his pictures and asking him if he was smiling because people are dying of starvation in Madaya, or if he’s smiling because babies are still drowning. My snarky questions were promptly deleted.

More disturbing however is that under these happy photos out of Syria, people post their love and support, through words and Emojis. This man is a war criminal. And he gets heartfelt emojis, posted with reverence and endearment. I am perplexed by this. Infuriated by this. Stunned by this. Are you?

I ponder quite often why people are so indifferent. I wonder why the vast majority of humans will stand in line for three days to get an X-Box or the new iPhone, but, would anyone ever stand in line three days to save lives, end a war, feed people, or educate people – in their own country, let alone across the world? The sad reality is, it isn’t just the doctor I read from at the concentration camp that was indifferent. It isn’t just the United Nations that has been indifferent. It isn’t just Assad that is indifferent. Humans are indifferent.

Because if we were anything else, things would be different.

Sometimes I wonder if God is indifferent because She’s given up on us. She’s just letting us do ourselves in, because we are doing such a great job at it. But then I find hope in all the souls who are not indifferent, who are doing good work in the world – working to never be a bystander. It’s easier to be a bystander for most, I believe. Being a bystander takes one thing – indifference. Refusing to be a bystander stems from wanting to make a difference.

There’s a lot more to indifference than what I’ve written about here, I understand that, yet, in reference to Syria – when Assad has an Instagram account and no one challenges it, that’s indifference. When people comment under Assad’s happy pictures with love and happy face emojis, that’s indifference. When dead babies keep washing up on shore, that’s indifference. When an estimated 10,000 Syrian children have disappeared and are feared trafficked, that’s indifference. When people are literally dying of starvation in Madaya, that’s indifference. When countries close their borders to desperate, hungry people, that’s indifference. When people choose to say nothing to injustice, that’s indifference.

This Theology of Indifference is a choice. Humans choose to be indifferent. However, I will not sit idly by and say nothing. I will not be muted. I will continue to listen, speak, and tell. And I will continue to ask, What have we become?

You should too.

Karen Leslie Hernandez is a Theologian and interfaith activist. With a focus in Christian-Muslim Understanding, as well as religious fundamentalism and extremism, Karen is the only theologian who is a Latina and a United Methodist, doing this type of theological work in the US. She has published with several media outlets including the Women’s United Nations Report Network, The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue/Studies, the Interfaith Observer, and she is the only Christian to publish an ongoing Op-Ed Column with OnIslam out of Cairo, Egypt. She loves to teach and last year designed and taught an Interfaith Dialogue workshop with Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago. Karen currently lives in San Francisco, is consulting with the United Religions Initiative, is an Ambassador with Parliament of the World’s Religions, and she also does Domestic Violence Faith Advocacy work across the US.

Categories: Abuse of Power, Activism, Breaking News, Children, civil rights, communication, Community, Education, General, God, Human Rights, In the News, Peacemaking, Politics, power, Power relations, Resistance, Social Justice, Theology

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10 replies

  1. Many people are so focused on themselves, they do not care about the plight of others worldwide. I teach high school and I often quote the line from John Donne, “No man is an island….” The world is more and more with us. We ignore the plight of others at our own peril.


  2. I feel the outrage, and also, as you mentioned, the helplessness, searching for any kind of toehold into how I might make a difference when… I’ll look for more of your work. Btw, M Div, Meadville, 2009.


  3. There may be some hope out there, this is News from two days ago:

    “Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has accepted a ceasefire deal announced by Russia and the United States. To guarantee that the cessation of hostilities will successfully start on the set date of Saturday, February 27, the Syrian government is ready to continue coordinating with Russia to determine the areas and armed groups that will fall under this ceasefire,” the statement said.

    “The US and Russia announced on Monday that a “cessation of hostilities” would take effect this coming Saturday. US President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin reportedly discussed the accord by phone.”


  4. Thank you for your important article, and the questions you raise. I myself feel the same when I venture into the strange world of Facebook, and not only about the tragedy going on in Syria. Every day I encounter sad stories, videos even, documenting the demise of species, the destruction of the environment (for example, the disaster that has recently occurred to destroy a river in Brazil), the ending of whole lines of species………and the indifferent acceptance of what amounts to a global genocide for future generations.


  5. We need to remember that people also loved Stalin, and some Russians want to escape the modern world and go back to the “good old days.” This, even though they’re living under a modern tsar named Putin. Some people loved Hitler. Some people loved Mao and Ho and Pol Pot. I don’t understand why, but there it is. And there’s The Donald, too. You raise important–nay, crucial and vital–issues in your post. Thanks for inspiriting us to think.


  6. So many things lay underneath our indifference and fertilize it. I wonder why people idolize Donald Trump, and why we gave Stephen Harper 10 years in power to vandalize Canada. I find hope in all those who are awake and active, even though they don’t often get covered in the news.


  7. Bravo for your passion, Karen. Keep on shouting, even when no one seems to be listening.


  8. If I knew I could make a difference by standing in line three days, I would do so. I too, feel the helplessness with so much suffering around me and ask myself daily what it is that I can do. I can reach out to my immediate neighbor, take her some soup when she is ill, help her care for her children, volunteer for hospice, stop eating animals (so much suffering there), do the best possible job I can in whatever my work or calling might be. I believe wherever the need arises, there I will find my calling, and thereby I can help. It may not be much, but if everybody stepped up to fill an immediate need, the world would eventually be a much better place in the larger picture.


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