Happy to Be Apathetic?

I know what everyone is thinking: easier said than done.  ‘Happiness’ is not really just a mouse click and $50 dollar donation to charity away.  After all, the nature of poverty is cyclical, where each contributing factor facilitates and affects others.  For example, take a child living in extreme poverty.  Because she lives in less than sanitary housing conditions and her parents can’t afford to feed her nutritious (if any) food, she is more prone to illness.  And if her parents can afford to transport her to school, she is often too tired or sick to participate. These factors–education, health, housing–all interact and affect one another, making it difficult for the poor to experience upward mobility.  There are also larger structural factors that contribute to poverty, such as corruption within government institutions and a struggling economy.  The concept of poverty is so overwhelmingly complex that just thinking about it is enough to make a person feel depressed and helpless. And when someone in the position to help feels helpless, the tempting attitude is one of apathy, because it is much easier to avoid problems than to solve them, especially when they don’t direct affect one’s own quality of life.  So the real question that anyone in a position to help must ask themselves is:  What is the source of apathy?

In his book, A Hole in our Gospel, Richard Stearns, the current president of World Vision, highlights one major source of apathy for Christians.  As Stearns sees it, Christians have mostly ignored the charge Jesus gives to his believers in the Beatitudes to help the poor and the downtrodden because of the focus on the next life.  Christians see the Beatitudes as a promise to the poor in heaven, rather than an actionable reality that will be ushered in on earth.  Stearns refers to the reduction of the gospel to an eschatological focus as “fire insurance,” in which Christians are covered for the afterlife, and must therefore accept poverty as an uninsurable worldly affliction.  This view facilitates an apathetic approach to evangelism, in which the right words can absolve Christians from the dual responsibility of word and action. John MacArthur noted the disparity between word and action in his observation that, “Hell will be full of people who thought highly of the Sermon on the Mount.  You must do more than that. You must obey it and take action.”  Similarly, St. Francis of Assisi noted, “Preach the gospel always, use words only when necessary.” Both men note that words should be accompanied by action; otherwise, the Sermon on the Mount is just a moral suggestion.

There is perhaps another, more institutionalized source of apathy, noted by Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman in their book, Enough, that exists on a global scale and threatens to widen the gap between the rich and the poor.  Kilman and Thurow embarked on a journalistic quest to discover why the poorest people on earth starve when there is actually enough food produced to feed them.  On this quest, they interviewed several Ethiopian farmers, each of whom expressed frustration over the fact that Ethiopian grain couldn’t compete in the market with the price of grain from subsidized farms in the United States.  Since the Ethiopian government can’t afford to subsidize Ethiopian farms, U.S. grain monopolizes Ethiopian markets, causing a surplus of homegrown grain to go to waste.  Changing Americans policies to accommodate the growth of markets in Africa would be admitting that our policies designed to provide food aid to developing nations were actually detrimental to fledgling markets.  Perhaps the United States government appears apathetic to the expressed needs of African farmers because we are either unwilling or embarrassed to take responsibility for faulty policy. The United States is hardly calloused to the idea of foreign aid, but long term growth in developing nations requires a reevaluation of the policy that we impose on other nations, and collaboration with those countries to support organic growth.

So why don’t more people engage the directive given by Jesus in the Beatitudes?  It seems that the answer to this question lays partly in the idea of compartmentalization. Most people in the world aren’t callously apathetic to the idea of poverty, and would consider “the elimination of extreme poverty” a worthwhile cause.  But many of these people, like me, are big picture thinkers, meaning, they are excited by the vision, and can see the desired outcome surrounded by a shimmering, ethereal light at some point in the future, but are too overwhelmed to actually address the issues.  On numerous occasions, I have found myself thinking about what it would be like to live on less than $1 per day, as 1.2 billion people do, and have become too overwhelmed to even think about ways that I could help.  Poverty is such a holistic problem that it is difficult to identify the best and most effective means to help.  There is a poster that hangs in almost every division within the ONE office that quotes Margaret Mead, and reads “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world.  Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”  This quote speaks straight to big picture thinkers who struggle with the overwhelming number of avenues through which to pursue the fight against extreme poverty and calls them to commitment.  If you commit to a cause, truly put thought into the details of that commitment, and are willing to put long hours into making excel spreadsheets (I speak from experience on that one), apathy will succumb to action.  Let me put it another way: if we succumb to apathy, we are disobeying a clear, biblical directive.