The Death of Compassion

Twenty years ago I saw a play called An Inspector Calls.

The premise was that a police detective is called to investigate the death of a young lady who works for a prominent family to discover how she died. The family is horrified, and initially confused, as to why the Inspector is called to interview them. What follows is a tense and uncomfortable investigation. In the end, the family discovers that they were all, in fact, caught up in this poor girl’s death.

Although no one in the family actually killed her each, in their own way, was complicit and responsible for her death. Through neglect or indifference, the combination and culmination of all their actions led to her untimely demise.

The play has stayed with me over the years because it touches on how each of our seemingly separate lives is intertwined. There is no escaping our responsibility to one another. There are always consequences to our actions. I was starkly reminded of this when, a few weeks ago in my home town of Austin, TX, a man shot and killed three people. He fled, was hunted by police and, near capture, killed himself. Although I did not know him, I knew many people who did.

What I do know is that he was behind on his bills as many of his customers had not paid him. Normally, he could cope with financial pressures; but, with his wife diagnosed with cancer and no medical insurance, his needs were more pressing.  Add to that a daughter ready to go to off to college, and I would imagine his lack of receivables and worries put him over the edge.

As a contractor, he had recently done a great deal of work for a local family who refused to pay him. He killed the couple and their neighbor. The couple he killed had a reputation for “stiffing” contractors…getting free work any way they could. Two weeks ago their luck ran out. Perhaps had his other customers paid him timely he might have been able to shrug off that particular insult. Clearly he could not. The result of it all is four dead people. Yes, the contractor is responsible for the deaths of four people. But, as I am reminded of that play many years ago, it seems all the others were quite complicit in this tragedy as well.

Not one of us is disconnected from the whole. None of us fully, or necessarily ever, knows the damage we do to other people through carelessness, insensitive, neglect or maliciousness. In this case, it was not paying bills on time for work received.

In the Catholic faith, we believe not only are there sins committed through our actions but also by our inaction (sins of omission). This theology supports the reality that we are not bystanders in life. We will be held accountable for what we do… and what we fail to do.

The recent story of attacks on Jews in Europe triggered my thoughts on this subject. Recently, in Europe, there has been a sharp uptick in attacks on Jews. This has been well documented and tied to the influx of new, poorly vetted immigrants. Yet, there has been no coordinated effort anywhere, by Jews or non-Jews, to stop this. I am not Jewish; but, I have many friends who are. Most of them carry a fury about what happened during the Holocaust and have vowed “never again. Yet, all of them go on with their lives…work, play, dinner with friends etc. None of them have boarded a plane to France to help defend their brethren. They are all bystanders. For all of their talk, none of have taken action to help their brothers in faith.

Still, I am no different. The ongoing, global attacks on Christians and Catholics have also been on the rise and I’ve not taken up arms to help them. Although I served in the military and fought in a just war, throwing the Iraqi’s out of Kuwait, and did my duty, I have been remiss in my duties to my fellow Catholics who are being slaughtered all over the Middle East. I am a spectator from afar. And yes, it pains me that I am like everyone else. I have my own responsibilities with six kids to feed, clothe and take care of and so I tend to what is in front of me and push to the back of my mind, and my priorities, what is not.

However, we have examples of people who take up the fight. In the Bible we have the story of Moses, who fled his homeland and settled down to start a new life. But the gnawing feeling of the oppression he witnessed in Egypt stayed with him. After nine years, he left his wife and son to return to Egypt to help his People.  In more modern times, there was Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King. When reading their stories, all I can think of is, “Would I be able to make such a sacrifice?”

Even at home, here in the U.S., when give the chance to defend our rights we do not. In the recent United Airlines scandal, not one passenger intervened when a fellow passenger was assaulted and forcibly dragged from the aircraft. They acted like sheep. Maybe instead of watching they could have tried to stop the police from doing something illegal. Or maybe all of the passengers could have disembarked from the plane to protest the egregious act. Yet, they did none of that. They all sat on their rear ends because they had things to do elsewhere and places to go. They were weak because they did not want to complicate their lives.

United Airlines dragged a passenger off the plane because they knew the other passengers would do nothing. The airline knew they could get away with it. Even our government knows this as they brazenly pass laws and regulations contradictory to our Constitution. They know it when they empower TSA agents to exceed their boundaries and terrorize passengers with what are clearly illegal searches. The architect of Obamacare brazenly said the Administration lied to the public and then bragged to the press about how it passed the Affordable Care Act…because he and they knew Americans were “too stupid” and too lazy to fight, or even challenge, the law. This is our state of affairs.

We are getting close to a tipping point as our public and private institutions continue to treat the general public with revulsion and disdain. It hurts me to say we deserve it. If we, as individuals, are not willing to fight for our rights, why should we expect it from others? There irony is, of course, that in forgetting how connected we all are, and how action and inaction affects us all, our silence as individuals in the face of oppression will be the undoing of us all.

Steve

sleeclark@gmail.com