Beyond Apathy

A Theology for Bystanders

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Elisabeth T. Vasko
Justice and Peace
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    Fortress Press
    , January
     192 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Elisabeth T. Vasko’s Beyond Apathy: A Theology for Bystanders is a bold and timely work of constructive theological ethics addressing the complicity of passive “bystanders” in structural violence and injustice. By definition, Vasko takes “bystander complicity” to particularly mean the failure of those who benefit from racial, social, and cultural hegemony to recognize and renounce their participation in systemic violence, and to instead “become allies or advocates in the struggle for justice, in the work of bringing about the kin-dom [sic] of God” (12).

For Vasko, unethical passivity includes the apathy of white, Western Christians who are privileged by their race and social power. Vasko’s leading ethical premise in Beyond Apathy might be summarized in the words of Jim Wallis: “To benefit from oppression is to be responsible for changing it.” (America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, Brazos Press, 2016.) Vasko goes further, however, drawing on liberation, black, womanist, and feminist writers. Her leading theological premise is that classical Christian theology itself has fostered such apathy and passivity by its commitments to divine immutability, penal substitutionary atonement theory, a high and perfectionist christology, and individualized, juridical notions of sin. Vasko admits her claims will be confronting for some readers, and it is likely that many theologians will find some of the book’s theological proposals unconvincing. Nevertheless, there remains much important and germane material in Vasko’s text.

In chapter 1, Vasko considers privileged passivity in relation to violence and hiddenness in the contemporary American social milieu, focussing her discussion on bullying and structural violence as they relate to her signature concerns of race, gender, and sexuality. Vasko underlines the ethical ambiguity of the space between “good” and “evil” occupied by those invested with social power who, while not directly responsible for violence, nevertheless benefit from the social status quo. For Vasko, the socially privileged includes Christian disciples—particularly white, male, and straight—that, she contends, “must find new ways of sitting with pain, of embracing vulnerability, if [they] are to participate in the healing of the world” (67).

Chapter 2 further examines racism and racial privilege in the US, and the ways in which unethical passivity is manifested by whites in what Vasko terms as the “systemic unknowing, permission to escape, and ineffective guilt” (73). Citing James Cone, Kelly Brown Douglas, Delores S. Williams, and similar authors, Vasko argues that white Christian apathy, and an unconscious bias towards white supremacy, are deeply entrenched in the collective moral imaginary, in part, because of the classical conceptions of penal substitutionary atonement, and models of retributive divine justice. Vasko proposes that the surrogacy of Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross legitimizes and even divinizes the “sacrificial scape-goating” (99) and surrogate suffering of those from socially marginal groups. Vasko is also concerned that human apathy is reified by theological models of divine immutability and transcendence.

Vasko turns, in chapter 3, to “sin-talk,” arguing that traditional, verticalized, individualized, and criminalized notions of sin are inadequate for addressing group complicity in structural violence. For Vasko, the recovery of “the language of lament instead of blame or disobedience” (118) firstly enables the privileged to hear the cries of the those who suffer injustice, and secondly, provides a means to lament the violence and harm in which they are implicated. Lament, for Vasko, is thus a vehicle for communal solidarity between bystanders to injustice and those who suffer from it.

Before recognizing their participation in injustice, some socially privileged persons may need to be “ambushed” concerning their complicity, argues Vasko. Accordingly, in chapter 4, Vasko draws on a provocative interpretation of Jesus’s encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30) to challenge perfectionist christologies, and suggests that Jesus himself was, at least on one occasion, directly implicated in the structural sin of racial prejudice. Developing these ideas further in chapter 5, Vasko proposes that ambush “can be seen as a form of redeeming grace” (216) when it generates a sense of unease and discomfort among elites, leading to a redemptive renunciation of privilege, and solidarity—the “sine qua non of salvation”—with the oppressed (201). Following Gustavo Gutiérrez and other liberationists, Vasko advocates a soteriology substantially realized by social transformation. Toward this end, Vasko proposes several “soteriological praxes” to help socially and culturally privileged Christians to become “allies [of those who suffer] in the work of bringing about the kingdom” (223).

On the constructive theological side of her work, some of Vasko’s propositions raise some difficulties. In particular, the author may be overly optimistic about the capacity of human agents and societies, so deeply implicated in systemic evil, to effect widespread, permanent social transformation. Vasko also places considerable confidence in the role of human agency in bringing God’s reign to the world. In this regard, some theologians may find that Vasko tips the balance toward an over-realized, temporalized eschatology, implemented largely by human effort, and in which God’s triune Self becomes something of a passive—and even, arguably, complicit—bystander. Vasko’s reading of the story of Jesus’s encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman will also likely have worrying implications for many biblical and systematic scholars.

More compelling is Vasko’s call for a new hamartiological grammar that better describes the form of sin and evil involved in passive complicity. Similarly, the author’s proposal for the social and spiritual utility of “lament” has potentially wide-ranging benefits. While Vasko speaks particularly to the issues of racial, sexual and gender justice—in the US—her ethical observations would likely bear wider applications. Indeed, in the context of recent trends in US and global politics, many of the author’s powerful and challenging ethical observations are so pertinent as to seem almost prophetic.

Vasko’s work is intended for a scholarly audience in theology, theological ethics and social ethics, though non-specialist academic readers would likely find the work sufficiently accessible. In sum, although Vasko’s constructive theological moves are not always compelling, there remains much astute and challenging material in Beyond Apathy, which deserves to be widely–and closely–considered.

About the Reviewer(s): 

D. J. Konz is adjunct lecturer at Tabor College of Higher Education, Australia.

Date of Review: 
February 28, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Elisabeth T. Vasko is assistant professor of theology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.



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