Ferguson and the Price of Indifference

Ferguson goes on, and I guess I’m not surprised. It’s been hard for me to watch this story, a tragedy from every side. I went to college with one of the main players in this drama, one of my frat brothers, and I remember him as a sincerely good guy with principles, someone I could trust my life with. I have known many like him and am proud to call them friends and relatives. I’ve also seen enough poor neighborhoods to have an inkling about the frustration with society as a whole and institutions in particular. My exposure to poverty isn’t just black neighborhoods: I’ve seen rural poverty and third world poverty up close and personal. There’s little motivation to play fair when the games seem to be rigged against you, and others appear to succeed at cheating. It’s also tempting to give up and believe nothing can be done, to believe even God can’t help those who don’t seem to want to help themselves. Of all the commentaries I’ve read about this situation and the systems that have fed it, I’ve come up with this conclusion:

We really don’t care about what’s going on around us.

It’s true of all of us: black, white, or other; liberal, moderate, conservative, libertarian; rich, poor, middle class. If it doesn’t affect us directly, we don’t care; if we don’t have to care, we don’t care. We only care if we or someone we love seems threatened, then we charge straight to Defcom 5. When we do get involved with government, we invest more emotional energy and electoral effort in levels of far removed from us than those closest to us. In fact, we hardly bother to find out who our local mayors, school boards, county administrators (however they’re called), we ask no questions of local government policies (unless they obviously screw with us), and we pay no attention to the economy under an apparent assumption we can’t control it in any way. We choose local officials for taking public positions that have nothing to do with the offices they seek, rather than how well they might do their job. We elect Pro-Life candidates for Street Sweeper, and Pro-Business candidates for City Clerk. We choose the County Coroner and the Dog Catcher on whether they support Senator Cruz or President Obama even though their job has no effect on Washington. We buy things on the cheap without asking who’s selling it to us and how they’re getting it.

Please don’t think I’m standing on a pedestal here, I’m as guilty as anyone. I have done all of the above in my lifetime, plus what follows here. Stephen Colbert’s comment about American Christianity’s attitude toward the poor applies to me as much as anyone else.

We also don’t believe all lives matter. This isn’t just true in the inner city, it’s also true in rural America, true in every neighborhood. Part of human nature is finding a class of people to look down upon, to write off as undeserving, and we’ve let that part of our nature go unchecked. If there aren’t black people around, there are “trailer park trash” who fill the bill, or the undocumented, and they’re usually all right with that because they can still look down on the blacks and illegal aliens, look down on someone at least. We want a class system, we want to be in the upper class, and we want to do everything to sustain it. We want to be the only people that matter, and we don’t want to care about anyone else. That’s our inclination.

We want other people to follow the law as written without question, while we want to bend it to suit our whims. We want lawbreakers punished remorselessly while we want pardon without repentance for ourselves. We want people to get what they deserve, but we deserve the best and deserve a break when we’re caught doing something wrong.

We also don’t want to understand how the world really works as long as we generally get left alone and don’t get caught in the gears of the machine. We assume things will generally stay the same without finding out if our wealth is fragile or whether forces beyond our control (Global climate change, Global economic dysfunction, Global markets getting ready for a repeat of 1929) are in the process of undoing it, not realizing if the big house of cards falls down, we all fall with it. I’m sure in 1944 there were ambitious young people moving up the ladder all over Europe in the military, government and corporations that supported the Holocaust who didn’t know everything their employers were doing (or care), or that losing the war would not only reduce them to poverty but to universal scorn as well. They probably starved as much in the winter of 1945 as others did in spite of their best efforts. Their individual drive and ambition did them little good when the world fell apart.

If we cared, we could do what’s needed to correct at least some of the hideous injustices in our country, we could talk to each other and work things out. We could realize making a just peace is in our best interest and need to find a way to talk to the people we think are against us in a meaningful way. We could realize that even if we can’t make things perfect, we can make things better. But it seems we don’t want to talk or work because the only thing we care about is preserving ourselves and our view of what’s Right in the Universe.

There will be other Fergusons sooner or later. There are many kinds of sparks that will set them off, and many reservoirs of hate and frustration that will feed them. People will riot and others will counter-attack in the name of enforcing the law (and not just police or national guards). There won’t be a way to prevent it until most of the people in this country decide to care about what’s going on around them, and work together regardless of race or political orientation to do something about it. Obeying the law isn’t enough, changing individual motivations about work aren’t enough, generating jobs isn’t enough, even educating, feeding and housing the poor isn’t enough, even though all these things should be done without question.

We need to keep all the pictures in sight, Big and Little, and know what we can do to affect them. We have to participate because it’s in our individual best interest as well as part of seeking the Common Good. It’s been 30+ years since the Common Good has mattered much in this country. It’s been at least 30+ years since local government policy matter much to us, probably more in most areas. At least we need to recognize that a fair portion of the public doesn’t trust government or the other part of society, and understand there’s a price to pay for putting up with this distrust. If we don’t care about what’s going on around us, our personal nirvanas are going to get trashed and the cause will be our own laziness. We can move away from danger, but it will follow us: White Flight has only changed the topography of our conflicts, not abated them. If we insist on demonizing people, all the demons, great and small, will get us and Jesus will not bail us out, for He cannot save us from ourselves. Like the Garden of Eden, we are letting Evil to run unchecked among us, and that Evil looks at us from the mirror every morning. We may not be able to stop it completely, but we can try to keep from giving it energy, we can keep from pouring gas on the fire. At least we should look at it when it looks at us, and try to stare it down.

If most of us don’t start caring about what’s going on around us, then Ferguson will go on in many places under many different names. If most of us don’t care, we will keep getting leaders in both parties who care about us as much as Stalin or Hitler really cared about their people, and local politicians who get their jobs because they have the right connections and nothing else. If we don’t care, what we don’t know will hurt us and keep hurting us until we wake up. If we don’t care, the world will fall apart from our indifference, just as the levees of New Orleans did in 2005.



  1. Monica Chapman · · Reply

    OUTSTANDING!!! I wish this could be published as on Op-Ed in every newspaper in the country!
    Thank you for such a great clarification of our national dis-ease.

  2. Your call to wake up is one of the many rich themes and messages of Advent. Compassion and social awareness are among the virtuous fruits of the spiritual practice of awakening which is the heart of contemplation, a lifelong pursuit.

  3. Really liked this one,you nailed it. So true ,hard to hear, but true

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