Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name. --Psalm 86:11

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Antidote to Apathy?

One of my most passionate students sent me an email today telling me to watch a video: Dave Meslin: The antidote to apathy. The video related to my recent post about the lack of spiritual hunger in many American Christians, which we might call apathy. Meslin proposes “that apathy, as we think we know it, doesn’t actually exist.” People do genuinely care about changing the world, but “we live in a world that actively discourages engagement by constantly putting obstacles and barriers in our way.” These make change difficult if not impossible. He offers a number of examples. Here are some:
  1. Obscure, difficult public notices “intentionally exclude” people who might want to engage (contrast with private company ads that intentionally engage you so you’ll buy their product).
  2. Money controls messages in public spaces, so many important messages go unheard because they can’t “pay for signage.”
  3. The media filters political content (choosing instead to focus on “celebrities and scandals”), and when they do report on politics, they provide no information on how to get involved (contrast book, movie or restaurant reviews that provide name, address, show times, etc.). This “reinforces the dangerous idea that politics is a spectator sport.”
  4. In the movies, heroes are “chosen,” or called by prophecy.  But in reality, leadership is “voluntary;” it comes from within. You follow your dreams and work with others to make them come true.
  5. Political parties, which should be entry points for engagement, have become uncreative, uninspiring groups that feed cynicism instead of engaging people in bold, creative initiatives for change.
“You add all this up together, and of course people are apathetic; it’s like trying to run into a brick wall.”
Very interesting. He’s right and he’s wrong.
He’s right that society makes it very hard to be an agent of change. There are too many people who benefit from the status quo. He notes a number of important barriers that are as prevalent in America as in Canada, where he lives.
But his conclusion is wrong. He says, “As long as we believe that people are selfish, stupid or lazy, there’s no hope … If we can redefine apathy not as some internal syndrome, but as a complex web of cultural barriers that reinforce disengagement, and if we can clearly define, clearly identify, what those obstacles are, and then if we can work together collectively to dismantle those obstacles, then anything is possible.”
He’s wrong because coupled with these legitimate obstacles and barriers, people really are selfish, stupid and lazy. Internal and external factors work together to block social change. “Real substantial change” is possible, but it will only happen when we fix both the broken systems and the broken people who create and perpetuate those systems.
Hope in the essential goodness and potential of people is the arrogant delusion of the Enlightenment. In reality, change begins in recognizing our own brokenness. And hope is found in the good news that God can turn selfish, stupid, lazy people into selfless, wise, passionate servants of his kingdom. These renewed people actually can change the world, because they are inspired and empowered the strongest force in the universe: the Spirit of Almighty God.


  1. Apathy. I think we might also add that apathy sets in when we try to change things, but they don't change. (I've personally struggled with that where I'm currently at). The antidote? As you said: The Spirit of God. If God has sent the Spirit to empower the Church as an agent of mission, then God himself is not apathetic (nor disillusioned), and neither should we be. Hope is an essential characteristic of the resurrection.

    Thanks for your thoughts, Mark.

  2. Thanks Jeff. This is a key insight for ministry. Hope is crucial when progress seems to have ceased. I heard a quote a few years back: With God, even when it seems like nothing's happening, something's happening. He's at work, subtly and silently, through his Spirit. This is important truths to remember as a long semester of tiring work winds down and it's time to reflect. God knows what he's doing, and he's doing it! And because he's doing it, I can't give up on it!