Staying Engaged in a World of Tragedy: 3 Issues to Consider

This particular post is very, very delayed (which is why it is a two parter).

At first, this delay was because I wanted to write about the horrific deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the officers in Dallas and I had to work out how I felt about all of it, and the best way to respond as a white male. I wanted to write the post not because I feel like I have some expert opinion, but because I needed to work through it all myself and writing is how I do that.

I laid awake at nights worried about it. I grieved with my brothers and sisters of color as I listened and watched them process the week’s events. I felt angry, confused, guilty, and most of all: hopeless. When will things change, and how does my own little part in any of this really matter?

Then I came down with some sort of demonic strep throat strain.

I laid in bed for a week and during that time there was yet another terrorist attack in France and another senseless killing of police officers.

And I can I be honest about what happened?

I moved on. I lost the passion and the fire and the emotion. #blacklivesmatter was often replaced with Pokemon Go on my social media feed, so it was no longer in my face and my passion waned.

I wanted to feel the sting of these latest tragedies, but I just couldn’t. I had been inundated with pain and horror and tragedy and it felt like I couldn’t take any more.

shutterstock_57165010-660x350After our podcast on Orlando, I had someone ask me: Can we really be expected to grieve with all these people who are grieving? We live in a 24 hour news cycle and most of it is tragedy and violence. The human person does not have the emotional capacity to grieve with every single thing we hear about and connect engage in every single issue plaguing our world.

How do we stay engaged? How do we know where to act and where to mourn? How do we not slip into apathy about the horrible things in our world? How can we engage the problems of the world without expecting to solve the whole thing? Or as Stephen Garber puts it: How can we truly know the world, and still decide to love it?

So I want to attempt to address these questions in these two posts, especially as we lead into a new series on “vocation.” We were supposed to start our vocation series this week, but I wanted to address what’s going on in the world, and hopefully make some connections for us to hold in tension alongside those discussions.

Today, I want to talk about three things it is important to consider as we think about our response to all that has happened in the last week.

PrivFirst, privilege is real.

As I introduced this post, you might have wondered: How could you lose interest? How could you not be actively engaged in the issues? And the answer is privilege.

I have written about privilege before so I won’t re-hash everything here (and it might be helpful to read what I mean by privilege), but there are a few important points I want to make today.

I am a white male and as a white male there are many obstacles and struggles that I will never face that others have to deal with every single day. If I am not constantly aware of this fact, it is easy to think that all people experience the world the same way I do. Which is absolutely not true. Our society privileges the white male dominant culture which creates a whole realm of problems for those who aren’t white males.

Part of the privileging of what Western, white, male society is that we also think very individualistically. So unless I personally am affected by a tragedy, or am actively involved in the marginalization and oppression of others, it is not my problem.

“Not my problem” is privileged thinking. In our country right now, black folks have to think about what it means to be black in society, every single day. The people who have lost loved ones in Baton Rouge, Minnesota, Dallas, France, and other places have to think about those tragedies every single day. They do not have the privilege and choice of turning that off.

We only have the “privilege” of turning it off when we distance ourselves from the suffering of others or find ourselves in privileged life circumstances which keep us from having to engage with the real problems of the world.

As a person of privilege, I have the choice about whether I am going to be attuned to the struggles and difficulties of the marginalized. I have blindspots and taken for granted assumptions about the way the world works. Unless I am actively cultivating the kind of heart that cares and engages, I will just move on to the next thing. We have to learn that we are responsible for the way the world is, and that “not my problem” is not a Christian response.

 

Which leads to the second point: As the people of God, we prioritize the love and care for those who are oppressed, marginalized, underrepresented, and ignored.

The narrative of Scripture reveals a God who hears the cry of the oppressed and liberates them. After their liberation, God asks them to remember when they were slaves, foreigners, and strangers and consistently calls them to care for the orphan, the widow, and the immigrant (the most vulnerable in their society).

Then Jesus shows up and continues to announce his mission to the poor, the blind, the captive, and the oppressed. Every act in Jesus’ ministry is a revolt against the evil and injustice in the world and the people Jesus spends most of his time with are the underbelly of society: the rejected, the enemy, the forgotten, the oppressed.

We often miss this because the Bible is not written from a place of privilege. Yet we approach it with the eyes of the privileged.

Theologically, we call this the “preferential option for the poor.” When certain lives are treated as if they do not matter in dominant society, the people of God start with those lives and give preference to those lives.

Picture1This idea is not new to #blacklivesmatter. It is as old as the Exodus for the people of God.

So when we are trying to decide where to give our energies too, where our limited resources of grief, time, money, effort, etc. we need to learn to start with the people who are the most vulnerable and overlooked in society.

This can take lots of different forms, but the call to care for the vulnerable has never been optional for the people of God.

Finally: we need to address issues of otherness, fear, and violence.

As I look over the reactions of the tragedies of the last few weeks, it seems they have only served to deepen the ever-widening divides we see in our world. We live in a world which doesn’t know what to do with people who are “other” or different. So we just did our heels in and assume we are on the right side.

Which causes a really ugly spiral.

The reason we don’t know what to do with people who are different is because we have been taught to fear those who are different. When I am afraid, my brain shuts down some of the more complex thinking mechanisms, and I begin to see life much more dualistically. When we see things in dualistic terms, there is a right side and a wrong side. So we must choose, and choosing means we need to also make sure the wrong side is really, really wrong. So we create these us vs. them narratives which deepen our fear of those who are different. The more fear there is swirling in the air, the more dualistically we think.

downloadWhen we buy into us vs. them, the eventual logical conclusion is that it is better to eliminate those who are different than suffer their otherness. Us vs. them not only increases fear, but it legitimizes violence. I am now free to do violence to “them” because they are on the wrong side.

When we use tragedies as ways to further increase the deep cultural, religious, racial, and political divides in our world we are not helping solve the problem.

When we demonize the people who think differently than we do, when we do not listen to those who have been oppressed or marginalized and write them off with pithy comments, when we continue the polarization of us and them we are participating in creating the atmosphere that has led to the hate and violence we have watched in the news the last few weeks.

Perhaps none of this is new. But I am amazed at how these issues are not discussed more often by Christians trying to process the events that have happened over the last few weeks and how we should respond.

Thursday, I will post some thoughts on what these three things mean as we begin to think about how to respond and what it might mean for our discussion on vocation.

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