The ancient Greek meaning of the word “apatheia” was akin to the Buddhist concept translated as non-attachment. It meant that one stoically bore the vicissitudes of life, not holding fast to things that were not changeable, but accepting them with equanimity and moving on to live an ethical life. Like many concepts that we inherit from the ancient Greeks, this one has been distorted so much on its journey to us that it now means nearly the opposite of what it meant to the philosophers who originally coined it. Just as an “epicure” now is someone with refined and expensive taste in wine, food, and luxury items while the original Epicurus was actually a great promoter of a deeply enjoying a very simple life, our word “apathy” is now defined thus by Wikipedia: “Apathy (also called impassivity or perfunctoriness) is a state of indifference, or the suppression of emotions such as concern, excitement, motivation and passion. An apathetic individual has an absence of interest or concern to emotional, social, or physical life. They may also exhibit an insensibility or sluggishness.” In this sense, apathy is a kind of soul-sickness; a deadening of the heart that isolates and numbs us.
I want to post this blog before the presidential election is done so that nobody misconstrues this for a partisan message. One of the great gifts of working with the NCC is that we are a non-partisan organization both because we are a non-profit, and because we represent Christians from across the political spectrum. Naturally, we all have our own views and inclinations, but the diversity of belief and perspective makes us stronger and more creative as an organization than we might be if we adhered to a particular political philosophy. Neither party has a monopoly on Christian values certainly, and in fact reminding one and all of Christian values is what we are about on Capitol Hill.
I am tired of the election. I bet you are too. It’s been exhausting. It is the longest election in history, and the most expensive. The primaries were a much bigger deal than they usually are, and then vice-presidential picks, lots of snarkyness on both sides, a financial “crisis,” amidst all the usual lunacy. What has been exciting is that Americans seem less apathetic this year than sometimes in the past. We are told to expect a record number of voters, more young people are involved in both campaigns than has been typical in the past, and there is even a great deal of global attention on our elections. (Note: Guess who would win by a landslide if the world could vote for U.S. President? Check out the Economist: http://www.economist.com/vote2008/index.cfm?mode=leadershipboard)
My point is, the election is what is happening. We still don’t like to talk politics with strangers in America, but there’s plenty of politics going on. We are hearing about issues, learning about them, trying to get through the rhetoric, and weighing in.
So here’s the thing: It is all over on November 4th, barring some vote counting debacle, and we will then know who is doing what for the next four years. The exhaustion with the election will likely cause citizens to become very interested in reality TV shows, sports, celebrity gossip, shopping, and the myriad of other opiates that are the weapons of mass distraction. But this is not the way to go.
Let’s face it: Neither party has all the answers, and neither is completely benighted in their outlook or strategies either. There is no cause for engaged citizens to go back to sleep after the election. If your guy wins, trust me, he will not just “take care of it.” Presidents are technically the executive branch, and they are supposed to execute policy more and make policy less than they do. [See: http://www.fcnl.org/now/now_item.php?item_id=590&issue_id=58} U.S. presidents are limited in a way that Fidel Castro was not. The system of checks and balances means that even if one party wins both the White House and a bicameral majority in Congress, they will not be running away with their agenda—they will wheel and deal and compromise the way they always have. When it comes to protecting the biosphere, neither candidate has a plan that is fully commensurate with the magnitude of the problem, mostly because anyone who would publicly grapple with the problem on the scale on which it needs to be grappled with would come to conclusions that would render them unelectable. [This would include seriously considering things like carbon tax rather than cap-n-trade schemes, steady state economies rather than economies that are runaway feedback loops of growth, equal sharing of world resources rather than 5% of the world’s population using 25% of resources as the U.S.A. does, and the unsustainability of so-called “military solutions.”] The functioning of our legislative bodies involves parsing out solutions and strategies into proscribed committees in a way which makes a comprehensive plan for creating a politics, economics, and ethics of sustainability (that is, honoring God’s Creation), a piecemeal, incremental process which necessarily includes many missteps and contradictions. (And this is, arguably, still the best system humankind has yet devised for governance on a national scale.)
If your guy loses, you’d better work twice as hard to influence the decision makers as you did before. If your guy wins, don’t go back to sleep—you might be able to make some changes in the status quo if you let your views be known by working twice as hard as you did during the election.
When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the famous donkey, they came into the gate opposite of where the local Roman dignitary traditionally rode into town on a huge stallion in a great parade. Jesus sat on his disciple’s cloaks (which you can bet were not of the finest or cleanest) riding a donkey. He did not have a saddle gilded in silver and gold. The Jewish people who followed his teaching spread their cloaks on the road and cut branches from trees to spread before him, just as the Roman lord rode over strewn flowers and branches. The rag tag group walked with Jesus through the street, instead of an armed cohort with shiny breastplates and sharp spears. Christ was engaged in a political parody—exemplifying a kingdom “not of this world.”
The prophets of the Old Testament spoke out against the unjust rulers of their days, sometimes resorting to political theatre in the form of outrageous wardrobe, diet or behavior. It is in this tradition that the NCC’s Ecumenical Statement on the Environment contains the imperative: “Advocating boldly with all our leaders on behalf of creation’s most vulnerable members (including human members). We must shed our complacency, denial, and fears and speak God’s truth to power, on behalf of all who have been denied dignity and for the sake of all voiceless members of the community of life.” You can view the complete statement at: http://nccecojustice.org/theolstate.pdf
Perhaps the most succinct statement of true Greek apatheia in contemporary society is to be found in the Serenity Prayer, originated by Reinhold Niebuhr as: “God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” Amen. Don’t go back to sleep on Nov. 5th! We’ll still have work to do as we strive to live lives that testify to Christ’s witness of love in the world. Discipleship doesn’t involve going to sleep again and again, as Peter found out to his sorrow at Gethsemane when Jesus told him, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” (Matthew 26:36)