In recent years, we’ve witnessed members of religious and political circles repeatedly engage in a form of rhetoric known as “whataboutism.” This is a technique of responding to an accusation or difficult question with posing a counteraccusation or pointing out a flaw of the opposing side. In the campaign leading up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election, many Catholics used this technique to deflect from discussing issues. For example, when challenged on the Republican positions on healthcare or immigration some would bring up the Democratic Party’s position on abortion issue, and vice-versa. More recently, in response to the insurrection of January 6, 2021, many pundits responded with questions such as, “What about the violence from Black Lives Matter protestors during the summer?”
Whataboutism is a rhetorical game that impedes serious dialogue about issues. Lately, however, I’ve been seeing an even more destructive trend, which I’ll call “sowhatism.”
Sowhatism (“so what?”-ism) is apathy: a lack of care, an aloofness, a cold indifference to serious matters that affect other people. Apathy stems from self-centeredness: if it’s not about me, then I don’t care.
Jesus spoke strongly against apathy. “I know your works; I know that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” (Rev 3:15-16).
When Jesus describes apathy with a metaphor of a gag-and-vomit reflex, it deserves our attention. Jesus calls us, not to be lukewarm, but to be inflamed with his love, which leads us to show love to those who are disregarded by the sowhatism and apathy of the world.
When members of our Church and our society participate in sowhatism, they allow many sins and social evils to fester and remained unchecked. Sowhatism turns a blind eye to racial inequality, discrimination against migrants and refugees, religious and cultural prejudice. Sowhatism has resulted in higher infection and death rates from Covid-19 among the poor and people of color. It has allowed economic inequality and insufficiency to increase. Sowhatism resulted in outrageous displays of hate to go unchallenged and resulted in the conspiracism-fueled insurrection we witnessed last week. Sowhatism leaves us confronting the very real danger of further violence, insurrection, and even domestic terrorism in the near future.
We saw this on display throughout 2020, in the apathy of Church and political leaders regarding racial injustice and the deaths of Black people including George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. The firing of Gloria Purvis from the Guadalupe Radio Network and EWTN for speaking out on race last year was a sign from prominent Catholics that they believe race is a topic that deserves our apathy.
For Catholics, however, apathy is not an acceptable response. Sometimes holy rage is required against injustices, like that ignited in St. Oscar Romero when his people were brutally murdered, when his friend Fr. Rutilio Grande and two companions were martyred. A holy rage is not violent. Romero decried violence. But a holy rage burns against the types of injustice that is so prevalent today.
In the face of injustice, silence is complicity, silence is a sign of apathy. Our Christian identity is incompatible with sowhatism because our identity in Christ is always united with the marginalized.
Encounter and Accompaniment lead to Conversion
We must encounter those experiencing injustice. We must make an effort to draw close to those who suffer. Pope Francis calls for a culture of encounter, which employs the “art of accompaniment” (EG 169).
Accompaniment recognizes that the other person stands on holy ground as well. It acknowledges the other’s inherent dignity and realizes that God can and does speak to and through them. We embrace Christ’s compassion and loving, sympathetic gaze when we practice the art of accompaniment.
I have experienced the fruit of accompaniment and encounter in my own life. Fifteen years ago, I seriously believed that undocumented immigrants ought to be arrested and sent to their home countries. However in 2010, on the Mexican side of Nogales, I spent time with a Catholic initiative called El Comedor, or the “dining room.” This was a place for people who had been turned away from the US border, where they could receive food, care, and compassion. When I met the people face-to-face—those who had been rejected at the US border—the names, faces, and stories of those trying to emigrate to the U.S. suddenly became real. These were not opportunists seeking to benefit from U.S. welfare and social services. The people I met were desperate people trying to escape treacherous circumstances that threatened their lives, their safety, and their families.
I became aware of the hardness in my heart that formed my old beliefs. I realized they were not “those people,” they were God’s people and therefore they were my people. I could no longer judge those who crossed the border seeking a better life. I was filled with the graces of compassion and understanding. Doing this also brought me closer to the Lord, as my heart of stone became transformed into a heart of flesh (cf. Ezekiel 36:26).
As Gustavo Gutierrez once noted, “The poor and marginalized have a deep-rooted conviction that no one is interested in their lives and misfortunes.” This signifies the importance of encountering those who are in need not only to reaffirm the dignity of the marginalized, but to counter the tendency of sowhatism.
True Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus
The venerable devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus ought to go beyond images and written prayers. If we are truly devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, we experience deep conversion and union with the Heart of Christ. Admittedly this is a process, but the more we draw closer to Jesus’ Heart, the more we share in the sentiments within Jesus’ Heart.
My experience with those seeking to come to the US at El Comedor taught me much about Jesus: How much Jesus loves those who suffer and how he is with those who suffer. Not only is Jesus with those who suffers, but he suffers with them, which is the literal translation of the word compassion.
“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted, saves those whose spirit is crushed” (Psalm 34:19).
Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises places importance on the verb sentir, “to feel.” The goal of the Exercises, transformation into Christ, partly comes through feeling the way Christ feels. The more we imitate the way Christ feels about a person or situation, the more we become like Christ through the alignment of our heart with his Heart.
The Gospels are not silent about the Heart of Jesus towards his People. Christ’s Sacred Heart is mentioned frequently in the Gospels. For example his heart went out to his followers, “At the sight of the crowds, (Jesus’) heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt 9:36).
It is impossible to be authentically devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus without being devotion to his entire Heart, which loves all people and suffers with everyone experiencing injustice. His Heart is especially close to the marginalized. A devotion to the Sacred Heart that leads us to the praxis of compassion for those who suffer is a safeguard against sowhatism.
In this New Year, let us make the resolution of discernment and taking action against apathy. 2020 witnessed the devastation of humanity via the Covid-19 pandemic, racial injustice, and threats to democracy. The antidote to this devastation is love, experienced through compassion and accompaniment. If we let sowhatism persist in our Church and society, we will draw further away from our neighbor and from our Lord. Let us combat the vice of apathy with the Heart of Christ, which has the power to heal us and lead us to renewal in this New Year.
 Gustavo Gutierrez, On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1987), 24.
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