When asked by a reporter “What’s wrong with the world,” Chesterton offered this famous reply:
In the most concise sense, this is the beginning of the Gospel, this is the 1st step of the 12 steps, this is the truth of our condition. I am what’s broken and I can’t fix that.
My first question is: do we agree? I suspect the interviewer wanted Chesterton to go off about fascism or communism or the gross excesses of the rich or the laziness of the poor, but Chesterton took a much more fundamental and personal approach to the question.
I commented in a post on marriage that most Christians will readily acknowledge that we are sinners, but have a much harder time hearing, “you are wrong.” On one level, that’s just poor logic, because if you are a sinner, you are also, by definition, wrong. But I think it also points to a deeper issue.
We want to see the world get better. I’m so incredibly sick of reading and hearing more and more bad news. I have seen some horrible things reported, but just yesterday I read that George Zimmerman was auctioning off the gun with which he murdered Trayvon Martin. I was just glancing at headlines, my 8-year-old son started talking to me, and suddenly this caught my eye–and I had to close my eyes tight and breathe. It made me nauseous.
Trayvon Martin’s death is not about disrespecting our police force–George Zimmerman is not, and never was, a police officer. It’s not about respecting the law–when Zimmerman called 911, the operator told him not to approach. Had Zimmerman respected law enforcement and obeyed, there is every reason to believe Trayvon Martin would be alive today. And Trayvon Martin’s death is not about “a good guy with a gun,” at least not from the perspective that George Zimmerman has subsequently been charged with aggravated assault with a weapon, domestic violence and battery. In fact, he’s been charged several times for various crimes, including another charge of domestic violence, since he was found not guilty of second-degree murder.
So this is the man seeking to make money not by the sale of a gun, but by the notoriety of his having used this gun to kill a 17-year-old black young man. The selling point is that he used it to take a life, he claims in self-defense. Zimmerman had his Kel-Tec PF-9, Martin had a pack of Skittles, yet we’re to believe that Martin attacked Zimmerman. And now, having been found not guilty, Zimmerman seeks to profit from this, writing in his description of his item for auction:
“I am honored and humbled to announce the sale of an American Firearm Icon.” “The firearm for sale is the firearm that was used to defend my life and end the brutal attack from Trayvon Martin on 2/26/2012 … Many have expressed interest in owning and displaying the firearm including The Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. This is a piece of American History,” Zimmerman wrote, a claim that was later refuted by the museum.*
My son saw me blanch and asked, “What’s wrong, Daddy?”
The world we live in is a horrible hell hole? People are sick and twisted and I can’t fix that for you? I’m discouraged that trying to make the world a better place seems hopeless in the face of this?
“I’m okay, Buddy. I just read some bad news.”
I guess that was true, in the sense that after vomiting for twelve hours straight, I might say, “I’m okay, Buddy, I just ate some bad mayo.”
So I’m posing this question: Do we agree with Chesterton? Do we believe that we are what is wrong with the world, or do we point to others as the actual problem?
Here’s where I think we get burned. I don’t know what is wrong with George Zimmerman–I could give you some theories, but I don’t know the man–and yet it’s very easy to blame him, and the court in Florida that acquitted him, and the Stand Your Ground law, and the pervasive racism still thriving in the United States. They are the problem.
I wouldn’t be wrong. Neither would Chesterton have been wrong to detail the problems plaguing his world in 1910. They were many. It’s fairly easy to find people worse than us, especially if we are making even a decent effort to help others and make the world better.
Do you hear the “but” coming?
But…this is the problem with the world: it’s too inconvenient for us to make it better. Changing things would cost us our comfort. Never mind global warming for a moment, I know people want to debate over the science involved, so let’s just take pollution.
In 1997 a study by the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies found that life expectancy for people living in poor communities in the United States was markedly lower than life expectancy for people living in wealthier communities, sometimes by as much as fifteen years. While many factors contribute to this alarming discrepancy, it has become clearer since the 1980s that poor communities, which are also predominantly non-white, bear the brunt of adverse pollution affects.**
Cars and trucks with internal combustion engines pollute the air. Air pollution hurts people. I mean, air pollution causes cancer, childhood asthma, it poisons water supplies. It’s nasty. How would we improve air quality? By supporting legislation that requires lower emission vehicles, or by driving cars with lower emissions, or by buying local instead of from large chain stores that ship good across the world and add massive pollution to the atmosphere, or by buying an electric car or a hybrid. All of the above?
But air pollution isn’t bothering us that much. Always, people living in poverty will suffer the effects of pollution at a far higher rate than those in the middle and upper classes. Why? Because the homes and apartments in lower income areas suffer more pollution, there is little political clout to prevent businesses from polluting there, and the areas that are already badly polluted have lower property values and rental rates–so that’s where poor people end up living. It isn’t hurting you and me. (Well, I’m living in a poor barrio, so it may be hurting me. It wasn’t when I lived in the States.)
Now, just in case this sounds like a political argument to you, I would like to make this simple point: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
The crucial requirement of this teaching, this commandment, is that we exercise first empathy and then compassion. If you cannot–or will not–put yourself in someone else’s shoes, you can’t obey Jesus on this point…and most consider it a pretty point.
Do you live near a landfill or waste transfer station? Is there lead paint in your building or school or does lead contaminate your water supply? Are oil companies fracking in or near your neighborhood or seeking permission to? Is your air quality where you live poor enough to shorten your lifespan?
If your answers to these questions are “no,” then that is good and fortunate for you. I think our next set of questions, as followers of Jesus, must be, “How would I want someone else to behave toward me if they were?” What if it were your kids getting poisoned? What if your husband or wife had asthma and suffered daily from toxins in the air?
As I read the Gospels, there is little Scriptural warrant for “that’s not my problem.” Jesus said to treat others the way you want to be treated. If my children went to a school that elevated their likelihood of getting sick and dying, I would want your help.
If this conversation still sounds political, then I must suggest that we have become so politicized and polarized in our thinking that our factions have started to outshout the Gospel in our ears. Children suffering or dying should not be first a political issue; it’s a Jesus issue, as in, how does Jesus want me to respond to the cries of his children?
If you are “pro-life” and oppose abortion because you see that as murder of children but do not oppose pollution when that, too, is murder and abuse of children, most frequently impoverished children, then I don’t understand what “pro-life” means. The issue for a Christian does not become more complex because a multi-national with billions a year in proceeds is causing the pollution, nor because the children in question do not share my ethnicity or pigmentation. The command to do unto others is not subject to whether you or I think that a poor nine-year-old’s father has acted irresponsibly or her mother receives food stamps. It’s this: 1)If my child were suffering, I would want you to act, 2)that child is suffering, 3)I will do as I would want done to me.
So I come back now to inconvenience, comfort, and the what’s wrong with the world. I see so many easy targets. But most of them simply allow me to blameshift and create clouds of smokescreen. I am what is wrong with the world when I can look at a child who is not mine and ignore his or her suffering. I am what’s wrong with the world when I can know about a child’s suffering and realize that I am contributing to the cause, yet make no change because I like my comforts. I am what’s wrong with the world when that child is not my problem, because I have stopped taking Jesus seriously regarding what he says about children–he really likes ’em–and what he says about loving other people–he wants us to do it like he did.
My blog is called “Grace Is Greater.” How is grace greater in this? First, I think God’s choice to have mercy on us when we have conspired to place our lifestyle above others’ lives is a grace beyond fathoming. It’s certainly not that we in our selfishness deserve for God to extend that mercy. Grace.
Second, I think God gently calls us to change. Compassion, for most of us, works better close up than from a distance. When it’s personal, we are more likely to respond. So God brings people into our lives to open our eyes and help us to see them as he does. I really believe that. Look around. How is God showing you through the people you know that you could be more just, more “do unto others” in your lifestyle?
Third, I see grace in so many people who call us, lovingly and prophetically, to repent. Yes, there are some angry folks out there screaming at us about what we’ve done wrong (and it’s possible we really have done things wrong and they are just reasonably pissed off) and that can be very difficult to take seriously. But I am constantly amazed at how many humble, compassionate, truly beautiful individuals I see speaking truth to power without condemning or demeaning or dehumanizing. If all you hear is screaming, then you might be watching only news outlets trying to sell airtime who prefer the most hysterical version of the message…or you might be choosing sources who want to make any of these arguments out to be patently stupid and nonsensical and “the reason America is no longer great.”
Prophets still walk and talk among us. They aren’t getting much play on Fox. You’re unlikely to catch them on CNN. Few of them are household names (except Bono; a lot of folks have heard of him).
I’m not a prophet, but I am trying to be a faithful follower of Jesus. I don’t want to complain about Christians or the church or what we’ve become. I want to look at myself honestly and ask God:
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
Finally, I see grace underlying our small efforts, our tiny steps to be more faithful to Jesus. God is patient with us. When we make any movement in the right direction, God’s Spirit encourages us and leads us deeper in. What are small things we can do to repent of our priorities, to live out “doing unto others,” to becoming advocates for God’s justice for the children who live so differently than ours?
There are horrible people in the world committing atrocities. I don’t think I can stop them. I can’t make the world better by making our problems all about them.
It’s an amazing thing to think that ours is the first generation in history that really can end extreme poverty, the kind that means a child dies for lack of food in its belly. That should be seen as the most incredible, historic opportunity but instead it’s become a millstone around our necks. We let our own pathetic excuses about how it’s “difficult” justify our own inaction. Be honest. We have the science, the technology, and the wealth. What we don’t have is the will, and that’s not a reason that history will accept.***
Is it a reason God will accept? I believe in Grace and I believe in Justice.
I pray we can seek both, and not have to find out.
*** Bono, interview to the World Association of Newspapers for World Press Freedom Day (3 May 2004).