I am a reader. I don’t mean that each year I can check a large number of books off my laundry list of literary titles, but rather that I deeply connect with what I read. Words are deeply powerful. It is with words that God spoke the very world into existence. The right combination of words can evoke emotion, bring healing, convey knowledge, and so much more. I have been known to get sucked into a book and find myself involved with the characters of novels, traveling the world with a pair of denim jeans as it passes from one friend to another. On more than one occasion I have stepped into an art museum, hopeful I will see “The Brooklyn Crucifixion” so vividly described by Chaim Potak in My Name is Asher Lev, a book I read over 20 years ago. I momentarily forget its existence is merely fiction. Non-fiction works are no different, be it a biography or a book designed to grow me in my faith. I will ponder its words when I drive or cook or go about my day. It is not uncommon for me to think back on a poignant passage from a book for years, meditating on its implications. Such is the case with Blue Like Jazz.
Donald Miller’s 2003 book has been one of the most influential books in my Christian walk. One part in particular has changed my entire view on humanity, my own sinful self included. Donald recounts a conversation he had with a friend regarding a news report on the war crimes being committed throughout the Congo. As he shares with his friend about the rapes and genocide, he questions how people could do such awful things; his friend answers his musing with more questions.
“Do you think you could do something like that, Don? Tony looked at me pretty seriously. I honestly couldn’t believe he was asking the question.
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“Are you capable of murder or rape or any of the stuff that is taking place over there?”
“So you are not capable of any of those things?” he asked again. He packed his pipe and looked at me to confirm my answer.
“No, I couldn’t,” I told him. “What are you getting at?”
“I just want to know what makes those guys over there any different from you and me. They are human. We are human. Why are we any better than them, you know?”
Tony had me on this one. If I answered his question by saying yes, I could commit those atrocities, that would make me evil, but if I answered no, it would suggest I believed I am better evolved than some of the men in the Congo. And then I would have some explaining to do.
Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller c.2003
Honestly, Donald could have just dropped the mic right there on page 17 and not written another word, and my heart would have been forever changed. I come back to these words again and again.
Who am I that I should have been born into the richest nation in the world? That I should have grown up in a loving, intact family? That I should be born white and healthy and whole in a world that practically idolizes all of those things? That my nation would be at peace, my hometown safe, my family Christian? That I should have been able to attend a well-rated public school, spend summer days in the beauty of nature, and go off to college? But more importantly, who am I that I should have been chosen by God to receive His forgiveness?
This is beyond white-privilege. This is divine grace. The fact that my life was “easier” than many is something I had absolutely no control over. The worldview I have was, in part, instilled in me by the lot chosen for me in the divine lottery. I am not entirely made up by the hand dealt me, but I cannot pretend that who I am would not be vastly different if it wasn’t for the time and place of my birth. There but for the grace of God, go I.
Like I said before, I am a reader. I read the news, and I am heart-broken, angry, and numb. I read stories like those that Donald Miller mentions. The atrocities in the Congo are still going on more than a decade later. Despite international cry that a genocide, like that seen in Rwanda, would never be allowed to happen again, “not on our watch”, still they continue. In recent history alone we have seen atrocities in Rwanda, Bosnia, Sudan, Burma, Iraq, and Syria just to name a few. While racial and/or religious discrimination is at the heart of these genocidal attacks, no one race or religion has a monopoly on the killings. The truth is that inside each of us lies a sinful soul that feeds off hate, selfishness, and fear. It is all too easy to see some other group of people as “the other” and want to separate ourselves from that which we perceive as distinctly different from ourselves. Sometimes we commit murder with guns, but more often than not we commit those murders in the secrecy of our hearts. We hate our brothers; we call them fools. We make them “the other.”
So what do we do when we are confronted with these issues?
First: We must heed Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:5. “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Jesus didn’t mince words. I am a hypocrite, and I need to do some soul searching. These people I see on the news are not the other; they are the same. The world got a taste of that idea in April of 2014 when 230 girls were kidnapped from their school in Nigeria. The world rallied around them with #bringbackourgirls. We must see these people as our people. And even more, we must see the perpetrators as our people, or in the very least, people for whom Christ died.
Second: Don’t be paralyzed by a fear that tells you there is nothing you can do about such huge problems so far away. We live in a democracy, and that means that you have direct access to your US Congressional Representatives, and those Representatives have direct access to international leaders and the United Nations, along with the power to make and pass laws that can have a direct impact on helping stop these atrocities. That means you are only 3 degrees of separation from a Yadizi girl in Iraq that is being systematically raped and enslaved by ISIS or a South Sudanese child suffering as a result genocidal attacks and looming famine. You have more power than you realize, so use it wisely.
Third: Endure. Believe that small changes make big impacts. It takes time to change ourselves and even longer to change a culture. Endure. The ripple effect of the things we do today may be just the thing that makes the world a better place for our children and grandchildren. Challenging people’s thinking about a prejudice they have, donating monthly to an organization helping with direct aid, educating yourself before you vote, or raising up the next generation with a greater social conscious are all important things we can do often. Endure. Don’t make one phone call to your senator and stop. Make one phone call a month about a different cause or even the same one. You wouldn’t tell you kids once to use good manners and then never address the issue again. It is with patient persistence that change happens. Be the change and endure.