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Dear Good People of Saint Bernadette,
Writing this column today it is Tuesday. 70 degrees or more, an all-time record. Less than a week ago, record cold with wind-chills that could flash freeze your face if it weren’t covered up. We live the extremes. The most rain in one year in all recorded history. The most fires, intense storms, record flooding and earthquakes. The longest government shutdown in our history. The deepest divide in our society, the greatest confusion of the difference between right and wrong.
I don’t know if we are experiencing the lowest level of religious or racial tolerance in history, but what seems to be the most constant thing about us now is that we continue to exceed expectations with regard to our indifference. Is it possible that our indifference is more of a survival tactic in the face of such extreme experiences of life today? Even what we used to call conservative or liberal seems to have reached a kind of jihadism that allows nothing of the coexistence of others who may have a different understanding of life. We retreat into a melancholic indifference and wonder how we got to where we are in all this mess.
I first experienced this thing when I was a priest in the Dominican Republic. My parish was on the border of Haiti and there was great violence between the Haitian and Dominican peoples. Murder was common, violence with machetes, probably drug traffic through our town which was the only place where you could safely cross the Artibonito River. Danger and death was a part of our every day. I had received a call from home, the nearest phone 30 minutes away by truck on bad roads and the message was brought by someone coming back from the town. My parents were calling to tell me that my aunt Rose had died. It was late, but I got in the truck anyway, knowing I would probably have another flat tire. There was no electricity and I remember it was a particularly dark night. I came around a turn in the road and there in the headlights of my pickup were four men standing across the road with rifles pointed at me. The moment seemed like an eternity. I remember asking myself several times: do I stop, or just hit the gas? At that moment I realized that I had been compromised. I had allowed the evil of life to let me drift into indifference. All the extremes in my life had hit a limit. Enough. Do I care?
I experienced this type of thing again, I think, when I visited Israel-Palestine right after the second intifada, I think it was 2004. The buildings were all shot up with bullets and missiles, great craters in the ground where streets had been. Buildings, piles of rubble. I remember while once in the area that had become a no man’s land north of Bethlehem and south of Jerusalem (now controlled by 30’ walls that choke Bethlehem) I heard bullets whiz past. “They are probably rubber bullets,” I was told by our guide. Good, not to worry, I thought. We just need to adjust to a new normal here.
A bomb went off in the next neighborhood, but nothing was happening where we were so it was okay. We were there to take photos of the wall that the Israelis were building across the land of the Palestinians, taking land and water that wasn’t theirs, well beyond the Green Line agreements of 1968. Soldiers pointed machine guns at us while we took photos of the wall being built that we would later share with Church leaders and senators and members of the House on the hill which were generally met with indifference. “That can’t be true,” the Papal Nuncio said in Jerusalem, “I have it on good authority that they have stopped building the wall.” Even though we had the photos of the cranes setting the concrete wall in place.
The process of desensitization is gradual and hardly noticeable sometimes. You’ve heard of the classic simile of the frog who is swimming around happily in the pot of water. The fire is lit, the water becomes pleasantly warm, like a bath, then warmer, suddenly the frog is cooked before he even knows what happened.
I believe we are swimming in the water of indifference. Ultimately we will discover so much that has happened while we were not alert and on vigil watching and waiting for the Lord to come. You see, he calls everyday. The Gospel today is an interesting example. The men who would become Jesus’ greatest Apostles are working day to day fishing, mending their nets, maintaining their boats. That was important work, and it was probably the work of their fathers and grandfathers. But suddenly the moment comes when the Lord speaks. It is a voice you’ve never heard before, but there is something familiar about it that catches your attention and touches something deep in your heart. You know immediately that you have to leave the indifference and go to work.
For now, we have to be caring witnesses that proclaim: this violence is not okay. This racism and persecution is not okay. Our out of control selfishness is destroying us. We cannot be indifferent any longer. We must answer the Call.
God bless you.