Everyday Tragedies

It’s tempting to feel like we are in a moment of unprecedented chaos and disorder.

We aren’t.

It’s been a hard few weeks. The abject toxicity of the rhetoric surrounding our presidential election has been demoralizing, but over the past couple of weeks I’ve gotten an exhausting reprieve from the news articles and knee-jerk Facebook posts about the campaign: Britain’s government went into disarray. A successful terrorist attack in Nice. An attempted coup in Turkey. And, of course, near-daily videos chronicling murder of or by police.

It’s tempting to feel like we are in a moment of unprecedented chaos and disorder.

We aren’t.

The only difference between today’s circumstances and the vast majority of human history is that today, a bunch of people like me spent most of their lives insulated from these kinds of events.

People who were born into or came of age as part of the majority culture in the US during the 70s, 80s or 90s share a point-of-reference for the world that is rare. We can easily believe that everyone has a right to a quiet life, that the world is a fundamentally safe and prosperous place, because that is basically the world as many of us have experienced it. We had never taken part in racist violence. War hadn’t touched our shores in our adult lives. We had only ever experienced peaceful transitions of power. We knew these things still happened in the world, but we primarily experienced them at a distance—as stories on TV or in magazines. We rarely saw them clearly or closely enough to internalize them, so—with the one big exception of 9/11—they didn’t shape what we expected of the world.

Now, though, most of my peers are wading through endless feeds of up-close videos of mass violence, political strife and dying bodies day after day after day. The great gift of living a majority-culture, middle-class life in the developed world is that, when I see these things, I’m not accustomed to them. I feel the tragedy of them acutely. I don’t accept them with weary resignation. I think everyone should live a flourishing life.

“We aren’t living in a moment of unprecedented chaos and disorder.”

But the great weakness of living a majority-culture, middle-class life in the developed world is that, on an instinctual level, I take my kind of life for granted. The fact that the Psalms, the prophets, history books and newspapers all chronicle societies dealing with manifestations of the same problems at every point in history should be enough to convince me that the world isn’t just good—it’s also fallen, and people everywhere have always suffered because of that. The Old Testament gives me words from my spiritual forebearers to describe, lament and indict systemic oppression, corruption, violence, terrorism, national ruin, war and rumors of war. Yet I still forget that most people around the world and throughout history have never been insulated from these quotidian tragedies the way my peers and I have. And when we are finally confronted with them, we may be too overwhelmed to know how to respond.

When we are confronted with the brokenness and injustices of the world, one of the first ways we often try to respond is through our government. “Can you believe this? There ought to be a law!” “We should go over there and help those people—the XVIII Airborne would set that guy straight.” “How do our laws protect people who do that?” That’s not an entirely misguided instinct: In a representative democracy, where every citizen holds a portion of the responsibility of government, our laws can be an expression of our collective values. Re-ordering our society so that we can give people a glimpse of the Kingdom that is to come, or so that we can create the kinds of environments we think will honor our neighbors’ dignity and be conducive to their flourishing, is a worthy goal.

But, of course, the governmental is only one dimension of our lives, and any attempt to solve these problems exclusively through governmental action will never penetrate completely to the heart of the problem. Christians know that good laws alone won’t solve our problems, any more than one meal or a one-time gift can lift a person out of homelessness. Our social problems are complex, and the Bible tells us that we are only seeing the world around us as through a dim piece of glass—that is to say, even our best perspectives on our problems are fuzzy and incomplete. And even if we all agreed on a problem that needed to be addressed and then worked together to understand it and pass the right laws, re-structure our relationships and institutions in the right ways, and managed to reach the goals we had set, sin would be waiting, pulling us off-course in areas we’d been neglecting or in ways unforeseen.

Until Christ returns, we can never rest satisfied with what we’ve done. Social or cultural problems don’t just get “solved” with one-time solutions. Yes, we should seek the peace and well-being of the cities and country into which God has called us. But as we do, we should resist the temptation to believe that we can bring about that peace with fast fixes that don’t require ongoing commitments of time, discomfort and sacrifice from us. Our model is Christ, who gave up his glory, his wealth, his status, his comfort and his dignity for the sake of lifting us out of despair. If God, who could have justly dismissed us as his inferiors and wiped us away, instead abased himself to call us his friends and his bride, how much more patience, sympathy and partnership do we owe to our fellow creations, who are just as good and just as fallen as we are ourselves?

So what can we do?

Who in your community, your neighborhood, your family or your church do you consider to be “part of the problem?” Maybe they refuse to admit something that seems so obvious to you, or support a candidate you’ve despised for your entire voting life. Maybe they didn’t join you at a Right to Life rally, or they only go to rallies without letting pregnant teens or unwed mothers into their lives. The Christian model for promoting healing and flourishing in the world is not for you to defeat them, but for you to abase yourself and begin to seek reconciliation with them. Legislating them away is the path to authoritarianism, to putting the state in the place of God.

I spoke last week with pastor Mark Meynell, and he offered a challenge that I think is a good one to end this article on: Who do you suspect distances themselves from you because of your politics? How do you think they expect you to behave? Ask God to show you how the promises and assurances of the gospel can empower you to defy their expectations–then make the sacrifice of time, patience and comfort necessary to demonstrate the fruit of those promises and assurances.

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  • Rick Barry is Executive Director of Center for Christian Civics, where he helps ministry leaders and faith communities develop missional approaches to their local public squares. He has worked on campaigns for local, state and federal office, is a former writer and editor for Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and oversaw communications for the Grace DC church network. He and his wife live in Washington, DC.

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