In February 1915, only six months after the beginning of World War I, Lancet, a British medical journal, used for the first time the expression “shell shock.” This newly coined expression was used to describe the feeling of helplessness that soldiers felt after exposure to constant bombardment. The term was new, but not the reality. After every war, soldiers return from combat, suffering “shell shock.”
Watching their comrades mowed down by enemy fire or left maimed and strewn on the battlefield, combatants become immune to feelings of connectedness and concern. Today, this phenomenon is becoming an epidemic. We are constantly being bombarded by bad news. The catastrophic and inhumane events that interrupt our everyday life are causing many people to escape from the brutality by becoming shell shocked.
Terrorist attacks in Belgium, Syria, Africa, and in England; daily violence on the streets of Chicago, New York, Paterson; the massacre of our children in their schools and of believers in their churches, synagogues and mosques; the interminable disputes and rancor over immigration; allegations of racism and sexism; the incessant reporting of scandals, present and past! Moment by moment these evils confront us. So fast does news travel that one story stumbles over the other with images of the dead, the wounded, the homeless imprinted on our minds. These problems do not admit of simple solutions. And, since we are more aware of them today than in the past and yet less able to find solutions, many, left numb and disillusioned, drift into apathy.
In addition, newspapers, blogs and TV commentaries flash before us cause after cause, such as global poverty and climate change. “Every cause seems urgent, but nobody has the time, the energy, or the information necessary to make an impact. Knowing all the ways in which the world is flawed in a very real, raw, up-close kind of way without the ability to make any sort of important change is perhaps the most unwelcome symptom of the digital age” (Jamie Varon, “Generation apathy: How internet outrage is making us all numb and hopeless,” August 20, 2015).
Some Christians have drunk the hemlock of apathy. They are becoming more and more indifferent to evil in the world and, sadly, more and more detached from religion. Unconnected. Not invested. Religion may be good; but, when it comes to God, they have hung up a “Do Not Disturb Sign.” For them, weddings, funerals, First Communions, Confirmations, if even celebrated, are mostly social occasions.
Apathy within the Church is far more devastating than outside the Church. The Church is the sign and sacrament of salvation for the world. It is an instrument in God’s hands. But if the instrument is dull and listless, it hinders God’s activity. When people become apathetic, something more is needed than telling them to be kind and compassionate. Such preaching falls on deaf ears and hardened hearts. What is needed today is the bold proclamation of the kerygma, that is, the love of God given us in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
God is not apathetic. He is intensely passionate about his relationship with us and his world. He is the lover who pursues his beloved. He never gives up on us, despite our sins. He woos us back to himself (cf. Hosea 2:11). He did not turn his back on the evil of our world, but sent his Son to be our Redeemer.
“God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son” (Jn 3:16). In the death and resurrection of Jesus, God’s love is a fact. In Jesus, God has begun the work of forgiving sins and recreating the world. And, he gifts us with the Holy Spirit so that, together with him, we make all things new. We are not helpless. We are not alone. Apathy makes people murmur a half-silent “No” to the world in which we live. But, faith in Jesus Crucified and Risen makes us shout a resounding “Yes” to God’s work of the New Creation. Faith is the antidote to apathy.