(This is part of a periodic series here at CMT that we call “You Should Read This.” In each post a contributor recommends a book or article worth reading. Search “You Should Read This” for other entries.)
In her newly published book, Beyond Apathy: A Theology for Bystanders, Elisabeth T. Vasko crafts a strong and nuanced theo-ethical argument on the problem of bystander complicity and the need for radical social transformation. This is an important and timely book that makes a significant contribution to theological discourse. It will make privileged readers squirm, mourn, and question. One might feel “ambushed”—but in a constructive and ultimately healthy way. The purpose of the book is to challenge Christian complacency in the face of violence and to interpret traditional sources and doctrines in fresh ways in order to encourage bystanders to practice compassionate solidarity. The book is written for an academic audience and is particularly focused on privileged elites who identify as followers of Christ. I found Vasko’s argument to be both challenging and persuasive.
The argument of the book unfolds in five chapters. In chapter one, Vasko introduces what she calls the dynamism of hiddenness and violence. Throughout the book she is very attentive to how power confers privilege. She discusses not only interpersonal violence (the victim-perpetrator dynamic), but also structural violence (elitism, heterosexism, sexism, racism, poverty, and ethnocentrism, see 37). Vasko is concerned with the degree to which Western Christians are conditioned to believe that social inequality is normal (40, 62). She examines patterns of bullying drawing on recent cases that received attention from the news media in the US context (cyberbulling, gay bashing, and slut shaming) and analyzes the ways in which hegemonic masculinity is privileged both in our culture and in our churches. Taking a close look at gay bashing and slut shaming, Vasko explains that these patterns of shaming and harming vulnerable others are made possible because of the silence and inaction of passive bystanders. Vasko shows how “conflict-avoidant behavior and indifference to suffering participate in the maintenance of hegemonic forms of violence” (63). Christians need to think critically and compassionately about our socialization, especially socialization about race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Vasko encourages readers to question cultural systems that value “obedience to authority, competitiveness, [and] indifference to suffering” (65).
In chapter two, Vasko explores how white Christians perpetuate racial oppression by our failures to question racial privilege. Particularly valuable for readers of this blog is the recognition of the complicity of white theologians in perpetuating ignorance and protecting the myth of white moral innocence. Drawing on the scholarship of Catholic theologians such as Bryan Massingale, M. Shawn Copeland, Jon Nilson, Karen Teel, and many others, Vasko argues that apathy among white Christians (and especially among white Catholic theologians) is seen most often in our lack of engagement with scholars of color. In contrast, Vasko’s whole book is an example of engagement with black, womanist, mujerista, and postcolonial scholars (for example, James Cone, Delores S. Williams, Kelly Brown Douglas, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, Emilie Townes, Musa W. Dube, Hisako Kinukawa, Kwok Pui-Lan, and many others). Too often in US culture, black and brown bodies become symbols of “everything wrong in this country,” writes Delores Williams. Vasko shows how scapegoating of nonwhites has functioned as a mechanism of social control:
Sacrificial scapegoating blames victims, allowing those who are systemically privileged to maintain a sense of moral innocence without relinquishing social dominance and the benefits that they accrue. In the context of racial privilege, white denial—in its overt or covert manifestation—functions to preserve white dominance while denying white complicity in racial injustice (93).
In such a context, Vasko exposes the weaknesses of atonement theories of salvation:
“Satisfaction and moral influence models of atonement function to normalize patterns of sacrificial scapegoating already operative within American society, offering privileged elites a theological escape from having to address their own complicity in systemic injustice” (108).
Instead, we need a theology of suffering that encourages mature responsibility. When we think of salvation as an other-worldly concern, we let ourselves off the hook. Instead, Vasko sets the stage here for an argument that she deepens later in the book, namely, that solidarity is the sine qua non of salvation (201). The dismantling of hegemony—which is part of the task of being Christian in our context—requires deliberate attempts to relinquish power and privilege and to transform current injustices.
In chapter three, Vasko rethinks the category of sin through the lens of bystander apathy, with the aim of nurturing collective responsibility in light of structural violence and its effect on the sinned-against (118). Vasko demonstrates that some traditional categories of sin-talk are unhelpful (namely, verticalizing, individualizing, and criminalizing, 124-131). She recovers lamentation as a way to name oppression and make Christians uncomfortable in the face of injustice. “In this way, sin-talk becomes a wake-up call” (135). Sin-talk must be understood from an assumption of interdependent relationality; we sin when we hide from reality, when we escape into mindless conformity, when we fail to recognize the suffering of others. But sin is not only experienced individually, it is also collective, as when we participate in unjust and oppressive structures in society (145).
In chapter four, Vasko draws on postcolonial, liberationist, womanist, and feminist biblical scholarship to wrestle with the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30) and to interpret it in a way that challenges privileged elites who have sanitized Christology. What do we make of Jesus’s statement to the woman? “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Vasko situates the passage in the wider gospel narrative and explains the social context of first century Judaism and some of the ethnic tensions at play in the story. In the same way that readers are encouraged to consider their own social location in previous chapters, Vasko here considers how Jesus’s race and gender conferred status and privilege, and afforded him the opportunity to withdraw in some cases and, seemingly, to engage in name-calling tactics in this particular story. Vasko’s interpretation is liberative in the way she raises up the Syro-Phoenician woman as a graced disrupter: “What is remarkable about this biblical narrative is that the word of an ‘unclean’ woman not only interjects a ‘christological word,’ but it also effects a change in Jesus” (175). Thus the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman is a story that both acknowledges and resists structural sin. Instead of trying to “clean up the narrative,” Vasko suggests that the story can be read as a warning to address Christian complicity with violence. Vasko also encourages readers to see the importance of speaking up, as the Syro-Phoenecian woman did, since even this unnamed woman was able to change Jesus’s mind and initiate a metanoia of sorts.
In chapter five, Vasko argues that salvation is not an other-worldly experience but a continuous project rooted in history that is connected to the concrete liberation of those who suffer injustice. In a world so broken, sometimes grace interrupts through feelings of discomfort, or even “ambush,” (196) when privileged Christians face up to the realities of violence and commit to the hard work of the praxis of solidarity. She encourages privileged readers to maintain a sense of openness, acknowledging that change can be painful and renouncing privilege can be difficult. Churches, too, must repent for the emotional and spiritual harm experienced by LGBTQ persons, nonwhites, and other persons harmed by church complicity with heteropatriarchy and white supremacy. Genuine solidarity is hard work; it involves messy conversations, long-term partnerships, political activism, and willingness to suffer as a result of becoming a friend to the oppressed. In her conclusion, Vasko says that “the journey from passive bystander to compassionate witness is a life’s work” (245).
“To be ambushed is to have been confronted with one’s own complicity in injustice. It is a profound experience of dis-ease,” writes Vasko (209). And for many readers, Beyond Apathy will provide such an experience. But it is worth it. Throughout the book, Vasko strikes a balance between epistemological humility and prophetic social criticism; she is able to do this because she admits her own imperfections and failures even as she constructs a hopeful way forward for like-minded believers. This book is deeply faithful to the gospel and appropriately critical of ecclesial failures to live up to that same gospel. But it is not a book focusing on blame; rather, it focuses on redeeming grace. Through the persistent invitation to self-reflection, readers will consider their own complicity with violence, but also the many ways that we can disrupt this reality.