I was listening to my local public radio station during the Republican primaries one day and I caught a segment where the host was complaining about the tone of the Republican debates. He said it was offensive, disgusting, and a shame to our democratic process. Not only were the candidates calling each other names, he said, they were also interrupting each other, yelling, and even using expletives. In my few years of listening to the show, I had never heard the host sound so angry and offended.
I sat in my office rather perplexed. I wanted to call in and ask, “During all the policy debates between Republicans it was their tone that pissed you off the most?” With talks of who could build the bigger wall, cut more taxes for the wealthy, build more prisons, and threaten the survival of more countries, the really offensive part, apparently, was the candidates’ tone. It wasn’t capitalism or the border patrol or the Pentagon that was violent. It was the way the candidates were speaking to each other. Little hope could be found on the opposing side, of course, as the Democratic party leaders rallied behind a candidate who wished to continue Barack Obama’s legacy of befriending bankers, allowing police officers to get away with murder, deporting scores of undocumented immigrants, and dropping tens of thousands of bombs in Muslim countries. As the perceptive bumper sticker states, “Vote Democrat for more sensitive imperialism.”
I was initially drawn to Elisabeth Vasko’s book Beyond Apathy: A Theology for Bystanders since the back cover promised “resources for Christians in a violent world.” As I read her work for the first time, what struck me as both refreshing and profound was Vasko’s attention to the many forms of violence that often remain invisible. “Violence does not always have visible wounds and complicity does not always entail wielding a weapon or physical assault,” Vasko writes. “Violence impacts everyone and leaves very few spaces of innocence” (4).
Vasko’s words reminded me of a talk Saidiya Hartman gave where she explains how certain “forms of structural violence,” even if we cannot always “see” it, “continue to make large sectors of the population vulnerable to premature death, not as the result of frontal assault, or war, or anarchic violence but as the slow and enduring violence that allows people to die every day from poverty, neglect, incarceration, and extreme forms of exploitation and social marginality.” “To some,” Hartman concludes, “this might appear to be violence without an agent or fail to register as violence at all, but it produces a regular death toll.”1 In her groundbreaking work Scenes of Subjection, Hartman challenges us further, not by detailing the violence of the whip and noose, but by showing how violence can also appear in the form of empathy, silence, absence, or benevolence.2
Beyond Apathy argues that the many forms of violence experienced today are “tied to the tacit (and sometimes overt) acceptance of cultural norms that allow for the denigration of entire groups of people” (3). Vasko observes that Christians occupying various sites of political and social privilege “have been bystanders to violence,” and that their apathy needs to “be interrogated in view of patterns of social conditioning that support and even reward indifference to suffering” (9–10). Vasko is very intentional as to why she chooses the category of bystander, arguing that the term “works to disrupt victim-perpetrator and oppressor-oppressed binaries and the hierarchal dualisms often accompanying it: good/evil, innocence/guilt, men/women, white/nonwhites, God/creation, mind/body—to name a few.” “Hierarchical dualisms,” she continues, “have played a pivotal role in theological justification of hegemony” (14). Throughout her work, Vasko remains committed to the idea that true social change must involve changing the way we think about each other and organizing collectively to dismantle systems of oppression. The aim of “disrupting indifference,” she writes, “requires the transformation of individuals and social structures” (10).
We are honored to have five scholars engage Vasko in fruitful conversation. In his essay to kick off the symposium, George Yancy describes Beyond Apathy as a “weighty gift,” but “a gift that leaves all of us ruptured at the very core of who we say we are as Christians.” He writes of his indebtedness to Vasko for helping him theorize and rethink what he calls a “radical relational ontology: a body with no edges.” What Beyond Apathy offers us, Yancy says, is a book that demonstrates this radical relational ontology—“the fact that we have no edges”—by refusing “to cover over the violence, pain, and suffering that we cause others—even if it is unintentional and unconscious.” Rebecca Todd Peters praises Vasco’s critique of white anti-racist work for too often seeing itself “as part of the solution rather than part of the problem.” Claiming that privileged white people don’t get points for just showing up, Peters invites readers to heed Vasco’s call to become attuned not just to the “overt acts of violence in our world,” but to “the everyday acts of implicit prejudice and discrimination by white people.” Christine Hong notes that Vasko’s book, despite being written prior to the 2016 general election, is a timely and “essential read.” Hong reads Vasko as stressing the importance of directing compassion not just “towards others but towards the self that is learning to move beyond apathy and after that, beyond a paralyzing guilt.” In the process, Hong wonders what it might look like to prevent such deep listening and compassionate silence from drowning out “swift and courageous action within one’s own community of privilege.” In other words, “targeted communities and those under attack by their own government,” Hong writes, “do not have the leisure of waiting for privileged people to move beyond their acts of contemplative listening and learning.”
Nikia Smith Robert credits Vasko for refusing to place “the onus of reconciliation as an unwanted burden imposed upon the backs of the oppressed” yet raises questions about her discussions of white guilt and solidarity. Robert not only argues that it is sometimes warranted to shame the oppressor, but she also asks why, in instances of horrific violence, white guilt should even be a priority of ours. “Reconciliation should happen whether white people feel good or guilty,” Robert writes. “This is the essence of accountability.” In another provocative response to Vasko’s book, Jeanine Viau uses Justin Torres’s commentary on the Pulse Nightclub shooting to question the limitations of Vasko’s argument. “Curing apathy is insufficient to bring about a livable world for those living irregular lives,” Viau contends. “This will require active dissent and not just a reordering of those most esteemed values of chastity and mercy.”
In an article written in the New Inquiry, Mariame Kaba invites us to adopt what she coins the “practice of abolitionist care.” “Defense campaigns for criminalized survivors of violence like Bresha Meadows and Marissa Alexander,” she argues, “are an important part of a larger abolitionist project. Some might suggest that it is a mistake to focus on freeing individuals when all prisons need to be dismantled. The problem with this argument is that it tends to render the people currently in prison as invisible, and thus disposable, while we are organizing towards an abolitionist future.”3
I read Elisabeth Vasko’s book as an exemplary and essential resource for Christians wanting to participate in this practice of abolitionist care. For years I’ve taken a counterproductive approach to addressing my students’ apathy in the classroom. I always thought that taking them beyond apathy meant taking them to a place where they cared about issues, but nothing more. By doing this, I only reinforced the violence that comes with abstractions. Vasko’s book hit me hard. Even to this day, when I still fail countless times to get my students to care, her work reminds me that what lies beyond apathy is not care about things, or even care for people. Rather, it involves practices of care—of deep listening, public advocacy, and what she calls “eucharistic solidarity.” As Vasko explains, to move beyond apathy means finding “new ways of sitting with pain, of embracing vulnerability, if we are going to participate in the healing of the world.”4
My hope is that the rich conversations around Vasko’s book move more Christians to engage in the practice of abolitionist care, which according to Kaba, “underscores that our fates are intertwined and our liberation is interconnected.”5 Perhaps then we can all join Saidiya Hartman and live out the messy yet beautiful truth that “care is the antidote to violence.”6
Hartman, “Slavery, Human Rights, and Personhood,” presented at Human Rights and the Humanities, National Humanities Center, March 20, 2014.↩
Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).↩
Mariame Kaba, “Free Us All: Participatory Defense Campaigns as Abolitionist Organizing,” New Inquiry, May 8, 2017, https://thenewinquiry.com/free-us-all.↩
Kaba, “Free Us All.”↩
Hartman, Saidiya, “Introduction to In the Wake: A Salon in Honor of Christina Sharpe,” presented at Barnard Center for Research on Women, March 20, 2017.↩