Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Deadly Sin of Apathy


It's "Election Day" in America and the headline in our local newspaper this morning read: "Low Turnout Expected for a High Stakes Election." The article went on to suggest that voter turnout is expected to be lower than usual all across the country, not only because this is a midterm election, but because people have become very apathetic and indifferent to government and politics nowadays. The article went on to speculate that voters have been worn down by endless mean-spirited political ads, are sick and tired of political infighting and gridlock, and debilitated by Ebola scares or fear of ISIS  attacks. They ask themselves "what difference will my little vote make to fix this mess?" So they stay home.

I have been thinking about apathy and indifference on this "Election Day."  My guess is that the newspaper article I read this morning made some pretty astute observations about contemporary life in America. Many people feel that this country and the world in general is one big mess and they can't do anything about it, so they shrug their shoulders and say "oh well, as long as I'm relatively happy, who cares?"

I often think twice before I use the word "sin" because this word carries so much baggage with it. Most people hear the word and they think of something you say or do that offends God or incurs "God's" wrath.  But I think of "sin" in a much broader context - sin is something you say or think or do that breaks or ruptures relationships. When you cut yourself off from others and retreat into your own self-centered ego, you commit a sin, and so you certainly don't have to believe in God to commit a sin.

Traditionally "apathy" has been defined as a "deadly sin" along with other sins like greed or anger or hate.  I actually believe that "apathy' may be the deadliest sin of all.

The psychologist, Erich Fromm, once said: 

Hate is not the opposite of love; apathy is.

I think there is great wisdom in this observation.  When I care so little about others that I pretend they don't even exist or they don't matter, it's probably worse than hating them. At least if I am angry with someone or even if I hate someone, I acknowledge they exist, there is some sort of connection.  When I am apathetic, I cut myself off completely - it's a deadly sin. 

I used to keep a little plaque on my desk in my office - a quote from the theologian Harvey Cox

Not to decide is to decide.

The plaque offered me a constant reminder that my apathy and my indifference are choices I make.  My choice not to care about others, my choice not to work for justice and peace, my choice not to make amends with a person from whom I am estranged, my choice not  to vote are indeed "my choices," and little though they may be, my choices ultimately count - making the world a little better place or just a bit more messed up.  

So as I sit in my garden for my morning reflection on this Election Day, I am thinking about the choices I will make today. Now it's time for me to go and vote. 


  1. We vote by mail or by placing the ballot mailed to us in the ballot box in Oregon. My vote was placed in the ballot box several days ago. Some of the things I voted for were to mandate labeling of food that have GMO products in them, a bond issue for the local college and the legalization of marijuana.

  2. Election Day is a great day in America. Some people feel so far removed from politics and public policy. Others just blame each other on either side of the aisle.

    It's very tough to engage, but I do think we must do so when we are able to without exciting our internal reactivity, or becoming entrenched in being right and others being wrong.

    If we're really about broadening our understanding instead of deciding and judging, we have at least an opportunity to create some common ground.

    1. Great comment Kevin-thanks. Yes, I agree totally.