The Opposite of Love -- Sermon 9/30/12


Exodus 7:3  God is speaking:  “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart and I will multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt.”

Elie Wiesel at the 1989 Bucknell University commencement:

One of my mottos has been that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.

That means the opposite of education is not ignorance, it is indifference.

The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, but indifference.

The opposite of life is not death, but indifference. Indifference to life and death.

So whatever you do in your life, indifference is never an option.

Indifference is never the beginning of a process, it is the end of a process.

The Opposite of Love

Eli Wiesel says that the opposite of love is not hate; it is indifference.  The point is that hate is another kind of deep engagement with another person; it runs close to love, but on another track.  

And as you know, I have been thinking a lot about love, all of the ways that we think of love, all of the meanings that we put on that word.  

Our previous intern, Kim Hampton, once wrote that she was put off by the Unitarian Universalist Association’s slogan “standing on the side of love” because she didn’t think anyone would stand on the side of Hate.  Which is probably true.

But indifference?  There’s a lot of that going around. 

Conscious indifference is a short-lived emotion.  

For example, you see a person panhandling by the freeway exit.  He has a sign, or she has a sign, and it lays out the general story of the life that he or she has.  “Out of Work”, “Homeless Veteran”  “Pregnant”  -- Please Help -- God Bless You. 

And for a very short time, you find yourself thinking about that person’s life -- where do they live?  What is it like to come home at the end of the day with a pile of bills and coins in the bottom of a big gulp cup, and to count it out, budget it out for food and whatever.  For a very short time, you are engaged with them.  And then, in the length of time it take for a thought to flash through your mind, you decide that you are not going to care about  that, the life they lead, what it looks like and feels like. 

Maybe you decide that you are going to care, and maybe you do something with that care, in which case, God Bless You.  

But most of the time, for most of us, you put all their grim details out of your mind, and you decide that you are not going to care about that today.  And maybe decide is too strong a word -- sometimes, it feels more passive than that -- you accept the fact that you don’t care.  A door is closing in your mind, and on the other side of that door is what you know or imagine about that person and their life, their pain, their frustration, their compulsion and necessities.

And then, the moment is gone, and something else takes your attention.  The light has turned and you are on your way to wherever you are going.  And in seconds, all of it is gone from your thinking.  Completely forgotten.  

You are indifferent to that person’s life and suffering.  And the essence of indifference is NOT thinking.  But right before the not thinking is the thought  -- I am not going to think about this.....   

And in that moment, indifference is an act of will.  You watch a mental door close.

If the opposite of indifference is love, then love interrupts us at that tiny split second of thought when you decide not to care, or think about another’s suffering.  Love puts its foot in the door that is closing.  

Do you get what I am saying -- your tendency is to close the door on someone else.  You are deciding that you are closing the door, pulling the curtains down, putting up a screen to block the view and love interrupts that motion.

Think of it this way: the three most critical words of love are “wait a second.!”  The words with which you stop yourself from moving on, closing the door. 

Indifference is saying that “I am choosing not to care what is going to happen next to that person.”  

There are different kinds of indifference. 

There is an indifference that comes from ignorance.  

I remember reading some left-wing environmental magazine a long time ago.  It was at the time of the Exxon Valdez oil spill up in Alaska -- there are probably people who don’t remember that at all -- this big oil tanker ran aground in March 1989 and spilled crude oil all over Prince William Sound in Alaska.  A real mess. I think that it was the captain’s fault.

And this article started out with “The problem is that many middle-class Americans who use oil everyday are not paying any attention to the subsistence fishing communities that depend on these Alaskan waters for their livelihood.”  Or something to that effect. 

We had not “been paying attention to subsistence fishermen”.  Well, I resented that accusation but then I thought about it and I realized I was guilty, guilty, guilty as charged.  In fact, you could say that I was so inattentive that I had fallen headlong into complete and total indifference.  

Of course, I knew nothing about it, had never thought about it, and was completely indifferent to their fate.  But then, I read the article, and was taken by their plight, but still I decided that I was not going to found a chapter on the Alaska Fisherman Solidarity Committee and then there was that split second moment where I decided to be indifferent to their situation.  In my defense, I did not know them and had enough in my life, and had been ignorant of them until a few moments ago.  I did wish them all the best and I hoped that things would turn out well for them.  But I was going to be indifferent.  

I hope you can understand my position, but It was not love that I felt for them. 

There is a much more hostile kind of indifference going around.   It is a punitive indifference and it is involved in all forms of punishment.  Something unpleasant is going to happen to someone, and for a brief moment, you can imagine how difficult it is going to be for them, and you decide that you are not going to care about that.  The door closes in your mind, and while you don’t want to think that what is going to happen on the other side of that door, because you are glad that it is going to happen.  

A violent criminal is being sentenced to prison.  For a second you think that his days are going to be filled with violence and fear and boredom and noise -- a life that you would avoid any way you could -- and instead of pity or concern, you say to yourself:  I don’t care how unpleasant his life is going to be.  He is being punished.  

Leave aside for a moment all the internal arguments you may have about the criminal justice system and the rights of prisoners and the inherent futility of punishment, and just hear me.  

If we think that another person deserves unhappiness and suffering, we are indifferent to it.  Even if it is just that we don’t like them at all.

There is indifference that arises of ignorance and there is indifference that arises out of antagonism.   And while we can argue over where they are justified, we have to say that they are not love.  

Sometimes a punishing indifference is cloaked by a thin thin coating of supposed concern, which gets us into “Tough Love”.

This culture loves “Tough Love”.  

It started out as a strategy and tactic for dealing with rebellious teenagers.  Even though you love your child, you have to be tough enough to let them suffer the consequences of their actions.  You can’t always ride to the rescue.  

And “tough Love” gets used for dealing with friends and families who have problems of addiction or alcoholism.  You can’t keep rescuing them because they seem to have no control over what is happening to them.  You have steel yourself and let bad things happen to them.  You have to be indifferent to some of their suffering.  All in the interest of your greater love.  

The whole theory of Tough Love contradicts Elie Wiesel’s proposition that the opposite of love is indifference.  Sometimes Love demands indifference -- Indifference to some suffering and pain is an expression of a greater love.

But you can’t exercise “Tough Love” with someone you don’t love.  Being indifferent to people for whom you feel no love is just indifference.  The Love part is just a self-justification.

The ethic of “Tough Love” has moved beyond child rearing and caring for addicted or alcoholic people.  It has become a part of our debates about social policy.  It is believed that Tough Love is the antidote for dependency.  If people are not self-sufficient then the thing to do is to deprive them of help.  

Let’s take a little side trip into history for a minute.  This is a peculiar little obsession: the strange belief that the reason why someone dies of kidney failure is because they are dependent on dialysis machines.  

 Americans have been contrasting self-sufficiency vs dependency for a long long time -- back before the Civil War.  Independence and Self-sufficiency are a part of the American character, we are told.  We know the stories: hard working men and women who were poor but proud -- never interested in anyone’s charity -- never looking for a handout, just a chance to give an honest day’s for an honest wage.  These themes are part of many of our families’ stories and legends. If you listened or watched of either party’s convention, you heard a variation of this story over and over again.  

I hate to break it to you, but these stories, like most things American, have a forgotten racial subtext.   The contrast between the independent white worker or farmer and the supposedly dependent African American slave started to get made before the Civil War.  The worker and the farmer paid cash for everything they got -- their food, their house, their basic living conditions.  The slave on the other hand, got everything from the slave master: their housing, their food everything just given to them, as long as they lived.  

There has been a conflict and competition between white workers and farmers and African American former slaves, and in that conflict, one theme has been that blacks want for nothing, what whites have had to work for. 

You have to remember for the poorest farmers and the poorest urban workers, their living standards were not significantly better than some slaves.  

There’s a lot here to study and learn about the economic history of the country and the development of its political thoughts, but all I will say today is that there is a long history of people thinking that African Americans have been getting a free ride in this country, and have become dependent on the largesse of others, generosity that they don’t deserve.  

It’s not surprising that in this country, there would be a consistent confusion of poverty with dependency, and that would be a persistent belief that all attempts at supporting poor people only makes more poor people.  That all of our social programs would be designed first and foremost to guard against people who might want to get something that they don’t deserve.  And that the main structure of the social safety net is designed to look like a savings plan and an insurance plan instead of what it really is -- an income transfer from current workers to those who can no longer work, or cannot work due to disability.

There is a whole ideology that justifies indifference to what happens to other people.  It starts with the assumption that everyone could be prosperous and self-sufficient if they wanted to be, and people have needs because they choose to be dependent rather than that they are dependent because they have unmet needs and that tough love is the only answer, and so it best to not to think about what happens to people who are poor and unlucky and needful, as we make their lives harder and harder, while all the while saying it hurts us more than it hurts them.  

Whatever you want to say about it, it must be said that it not love.

Love puts its foot in the closing door.  Love stops and interrupts our split second thought that when it says -- I choose not to think about what it going to be happening to, or what has already happened to another human being.  

I am a minister, and you pay me to tell you ridiculous, unimaginable and idealistic things.  You pay me to tell you that you are loved by a universe that only seems to treat you with harsh indifference  You pay me to tell you that you are acceptable as you are, and that you have much good work to do to save this world from itself, you, weak, frail, distracted, narcissistic you.  You pay me to tell you that there is a good chance that all of this will somehow work out.  You pay me to tell you can make a difference and that the arc of the universe is bending toward justice.  You pay me to say these things because you, in your heart of hearts, do believe things and you want to be reminded of them every week.

Well, today the wild and ridiculous thing I have to say is that one of the obstacles to love in your life is the hardness of your heart -- a hardness that shows itself in choosing to be indifferent to others.  to let the door close and hide what suffering comes -- 

The ridiculous and crazy thing I have to say today is that you can build the habits of love, with yourself and in the network of your friends and fellow citizens, by choosing another way.  You can choose to let love put its foot in the closing door in your mind -- to think more clearly and with more focus on the pain and suffering of others that in the past you have chosen to not think about.  Choose today to love. 


  1. Jim Dolan4:17 PM

    And you can't have Love, without giving it away. Great Sermon


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