Of the 4 types of choices, passive choices are the most overlooked but potentially the most deadly. What opportunity for injustice are we creating when we allow ourselves to be swept up by cultural currents or we go along with the crowd? The Holocaust is the inescapable example. It was made possible by people who stood by because they thought they had no choice. They were mistaken about that. The choices may have been all bad, but they had choices.
If the Holocaust seems distant, let’s turn to something nearer. On the consumer level, how do I benefit from the oppression of others, and how do I choose oppression? When I drink the fancy bottled water in my hotel room, am I patronizing a company in cahoots with an oppressive regime? When I choose cheap prices at a superstore, am I supporting an industry that capitalizes on underpaid offshore workers and contributes to domestic underemployment? I may be powerless as an individual to change an industry, but my individual actions still have consequences. When replicated millions of times across a nation, the cumulative consequence matters.
Turning nearer still, our culture encourages consumption, even excessive consumption. Do I take more than I need? What are the consequences? Am I generous with the excess that I have? The Jewish tradition offers guidance for prioritizing tzedakah and for establishing what, exactly, counts as tzedakah under what circumstances.
Perhaps the most harmful of our passive choices are when we stand by on the playground or in the gossip circle. The United States is suffering from a bystander crisis playing out in the nation’s schools. No less than ten US government offices and agencies have initiated a dozen summits, campaigns and reports to get a handle on bullying. Tellingly, one report concludes, “Student-witnesses appear to have a central role in creating opportunities for bullying.” We now have massive government machinery in motion to address our passive choices.
Cultural currents do not sweep us to compassion. “So much of what passes for entertainment is about being rude, nasty and crass,” said Meline Kevorkian, who studies bullying at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale-Davie, Fla. “What we see as comedy is actually making fun of other people.” Am I a customer of this kind of comedy? If I submit that the failure of individuals often relates to the weaknesses of society, how does my commercial support for mean media contribute to cultural conditioning of young people?
Virtually all world religions teach the golden rule and draw us to compassion. “Thou shall not stand idly by the shedding of the blood of thy fellow man,” is a biblical commandment. (Leviticus 19:16) The Hebrew word is not “akhikha,” Jewish brother, but “réakha,” fellow human being, Jewish or not. In the New Testament, The beatitudes make clear that God calls us not to stand by but to stand up, especially when doing so is unpopular. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10)
Examining passive choices is not meant to heap the weight of all society’s sins on your shoulders. All actions have consequences, however. Sometimes a minor adjustment replicated by enough thoughtful individuals is all it takes to induce a cultural course correction.
Join the conversation. Has choosing ignorance helped you avoid action?
Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.