“There is so much right with the world."
Russ Dean - Humanity: “There is so much good”
In this week’s pastors’ column for our church newsletter, I opened with these words:
“It’s been a terrible week, another terrible week, in our country. Our democratic dysfunction is at an all-time high. Our divisions have never been more apparent, our anger never more destructive. There are bombs in the mail, shooters in the synagogue, death in the local high school. It’s hard to imagine that we could sink any lower.”
Then I quoted some good words from Brian McLaren’s recent book, The Great Spiritual Migration. McLaren writes to remind us:
“There is so much right with the world. The sun faithfully does its work, bathing us in life-sustaining energy. The moon faithfully does its work … Creatures do their work as well… Your body, a civilization of cells more sophisticated than any megacity, works amazingly well… There is so much right in humanity. Children play. Adolescents fall in love. Young couples marry… Farmers grow… and meals of unimaginable variety and delight are prepared and eaten. Entrepreneurs… launch new ventures. Colleagues work side by side… Researchers seek cures… Teachers teach and children catch the gift of curiosity. People… make promises they keep… Grandparents and elders watch all this, their eyes brimming with tears of joy. There is so much right in the church, in the world, in humanity. There is so much good…”
I wanted to remind my congregation that in a world of so much pain, there is so much good to be celebrated. Despite the message, a former church member, now reading his newsletters from a new city, wrote to quietly challenge that opening lament (“…that we could sink any lower.”) My friend said, “I would strongly suggest you read Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature… The media does a masterful job of flooding us with all of the bad things that happen in the world while never reporting on the amazing positive things that have happened.”
I spend a decent amount of my pastoral time in email dialogues such as this, so I replied: “Thanks… I have the Pinker book, and I’m aware that in the big picture things are better now than they’ve ever been, but despite the broad scheme, in a week when we’ve seen a dozen bombs mailed for political hatred, Jews murdered in their own synagogue, black folks killed in a grocery store just for being black, and a teenager shot dead in a local high school… It is hard to imagine it being much worse. Pinker’s insight is helpful, but it’s also worth asking, what makes things ‘bad.’ No, we’re not suffering with the bubonic plague any more, but are we really any ‘better off,’ just because we’re now just killing each other, willfully, out of hatred and xenophobia and fear?”
Yes, we need the “big picture” – but none of us lives there. Our lives, the joys and all of the very real pains are experienced right here, in my little life in my little world. It seems to me that we ought to regard that picture as just as important as the broader vision – maybe even more important – because it is only in the “little picture” that the real struggles are faced, and that any change (if we are to make any change) actually comes.
Another friend joined in to the conversation to say: “Yes ... in many respects the world is less violent… more tolerant, more global in perspective, but by which standard do we wish to measure ourselves – by what was acceptable in the year 400? 1166? 1776? 1950? I would argue that being ‘better’ than 1950 is faint praise, indeed. And little cause for celebration. In 2018 we should hold ourselves accountable to a higher, better, more aspirational standard than our grandparents and great-grandparents. The world is evolving. Our standards need to evolve in like manner.”
I guess I can imagine sinking lower as a nation than where we are right now, but I’d rather not imagine that (much less stick around to see it), so while being reminded of all the good around us is important, bad-news-fatigue and the understandable temptation to turn a blind eye to all the chaos and evil can also lead to a kind of “rose-colored blindness.” Some would have us believe the bad news is exaggerated, mostly for political gain. It is not. What we are seeing and hearing is not fake news, it is the reality we have chosen by the decisions we are making, the leaders we are following, the truths we are choosing not to believe.
Truth and integrity, decency and respect, care for the world and love for one another are all that can matter in our lives – so let’s not worry about the big picture. As Jesus said, “Today has enough worries of its own.”
(Dr. Russ Dean is a graduate of Clinton High School. He and his wife, Rev. Amy Jacks Dean, also a CHS graduate, are co-pastors of Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte.)