Beyond Apathy or Outrage

Putting everything in God’s hands, we see that He puts many things back into ours

When sorely pressed, my mother often said, “Let’s put it all in God’s hands.” Such was the path to peace. But of what sort? Friends of the indefatigable socialist Norman Thomas often commented that he never lost his capacity for outrage. But to what end?

Of late, both Mom’s adage and Thomas’s ferocity frequently come to my mind. Are they compatible? Might we even learn from both? It depends, I suspect, on how well we draw some distinctions. As Jacques Maritain counseled, “Distinguish to unite.” We better add, “Distinguish to clarify.”

Let’s start with Mom. Some people put everything in God’s hands. They want to dodge the outrageous slings and arrows of our “interesting times.” Living in Babylon takes a toll. Sometimes, unfortunately, we develop a “Jesus and me” spirituality. Our “closer walk” with Jesus means that we don’t much notice anybody else. A sweet serenity becomes our goal.

In the history of heresies, the cocoon of serenity can morph into something far worse. Some opt for the Stoic’s indifference or the Gnostic’s illumination. But even if we put everything in God’s hands, we still have to deal with ourselves. One answer is full-blown Quietism. Now the goal is the dissolution of the self. In some mystical traditions the self somehow vanishes in a nameless Absolute.

Back now to Mom. Her serenity never became a cocoon. She wasn’t on the front line of the culture wars, but she didn’t discount them. They were as real in her era as they are in ours. She taught in an inner-city school. For decades, too, she was active in the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). It’s a group founded by Jane Addams of Hull House; Addams won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. (Caveat: today WILPF ignores the lethal violence against females in the womb.)

And what about Norman Thomas? He was always on the front lines of the core economic struggle against monopoly capitalism. In my view, he would have done better to follow the distributism of Chesterton than anything Eugene Debs had on offer. But Thomas fought the good fight as he saw it, and he wasn’t an incendiary.

Still, outrage remains rage. And rage is unreasoning. Where reason fails, blind will takes over. It readily becomes the will to power. If it succeeds in ousting one tyrant, it soon enough introduces another. Choose your poison! But poison kills, and its form mutates in murderous fashion.

What we need is righteous indignation. Often, though, the contests of the day are between rage and apathy. If we find ourselves drifting toward apathy, a statistic from Fortune Magazine might redirect us. The average worker at an S&P 500 company would have to work around five lifetimes to match their CEO’s annual pay. So there are usurers and money changers aplenty, whether in our Temples or workplaces or in our hearts.

But enough, at least for a blog post. The question is whether putting everything in God’s hands and never losing our capacity for outrage are compatible. If so, can we learn from both? Yes, and yes again, so long as we keep our heads clear. When we put everything in God’s hands, we need to recognize that He puts a good many things back into our hands. Which things? The things that are central to the vocation that he gives us. And when we are on the verge of outrage, we need to do the distinctively human thing: exercise our reason and direct our indignation to build rather than destroy. It’s a demanding challenge of discernment. Come, Holy Spirit!


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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