On Prisoner 16670
[Jer.38:4-6; 8-10; Heb.12:1-4; 8-19; Lk.12:49-53]
What is the opposite of love? Most people would say it’s hate, but Pope Francis says that many people aren’t aware of ‘a conscious hate’. So, the more common opposite of love is actually indifference. [i]
This is what Elie Wiesel fought against all his life. Elie Wiesel (1928-2016) was a Romanian author and philosopher who survived the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz and became the world’s leading spokesman on the Holocaust.
In a speech called The Perils of Indifference (1999) he said, ‘In the place that I come from, society was composed of three simple categories: the killers, the victims, and the bystanders. During the darkest of times, inside the ghettoes and the death camps… we felt abandoned, forgotten. All of us did.’
He referred to the many failures that cast such a dark shadow over humanity in the 20th Century: two World Wars, countless civil wars, the senseless assassinations of Gandhi, the Kennedys, Martin Luther King…, bloodbaths in Cambodia and Rwanda, the inhumanity of the gulag, the tragedy of Hiroshima and the horrors of Auschwitz and Treblinka. All this violence was marked by so much indifference.
‘To be indifferent to that suffering,’ he said, ‘is what makes the human being inhuman. Indifference is more dangerous than anger and hatred. Anger can be creative. One writes a great poem, a great symphony. One does something special for the sake of humanity because one is angry at the injustice.’
‘But indifference is never creative. Even hatred at times may elicit a response, but indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a beginning; it’s an end. And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor – never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees – not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity, we betray our own.’
‘Indifference,’ Weisel says, ‘Is not only a sin, it’s a punishment.’ [ii]
Have you ever suffered from the indifference of others? Sometimes, our deepest wounds come not from what people do to us, but from what they don’t do when we most need them.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus says he’s come to spread fire and to cause division. These words disturb some people, because they expect Jesus to always be a peacemaker (Mt.5:9; Lk.1:79; Jn.14:27).
But as Elie Wiesel says, the opposite of peace isn’t conflict. It’s indifference, and that’s what Jesus is talking about today.
The fire Jesus wants to spread is the fire of the Holy Spirit (Ex.3:2, Acts 2:2-4). It’s the fire of divine love. It’s burning inside Jesus and he wants to pour it into our hearts. This fire is the very opposite of indifference.
When the fire of God’s love fills our hearts, things are never quite the same again. Our lives are transformed; we start seeing things differently and we act differently. But our secular world dislikes this and that’s when division occurs.
It happens when those who seek the truth turn to Christ, and those who choose the darkness turn away (Jn.3:20-21). Division is the natural result of Jesus’ work, and sometimes it even happens in our own families.
In 1941 when a prisoner escaped from Auschwitz, the commandant announced that ten men would die. He enjoyed selecting them. As the ten were marched to their deaths, prisoner Number 16670 dared to step forward. ‘I’d like to take that man’s place,’ he said. ‘He has a wife and children.’
‘Who are you?’ asked the commandant.
‘A priest,’ he replied. A stunned silence followed.
The commandant ordered Fr Kolbe to join the other nine. In a darkened cell they spent two weeks, naked, starving and thirsty. But there was no screaming. The prisoners sang and they prayed.
By the eve of the Assumption, only four were still alive. And as Fr Kolbe prayed quietly in a corner, a jailer gave him a lethal injection of carbolic acid.
He was canonized as St Maximilian Kolbe in 1982.
In 2013 Pope Francis warned of a growing culture that makes us think only of ourselves. ‘We’ve fallen into globalized indifference,’ he said. ‘We’ve become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business.’ [iii]
Someone once said that love will find a way, but indifference will always find an excuse.
What about you? What
do you think is the opposite of love?