Tuesday, June 09, 2020

Unhelpful Friends and Uneasy Times

When Job’s three friends came to show him sympathy in his time of distress, they wept, tore their robes and sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him because they saw that his suffering was very great.

The week of silence was a genuine gesture of solidarity and goodwill, but everything Job’s friends did from that point on was a bit of a bust. Why? Because they opened their mouths and started talking — and arguing at great length — about something they weren’t going through and clearly didn’t understand.

We Christians may be at risk of doing much the same thing with respect to the current racial tensions in the U.S.

Now, I would much rather write about what we can learn from examining a few verses of 2 Peter in context, but it is awfully difficult to keep my mind on such things when we are being bombarded non-stop with race race race, not just in the media, but as major part of almost every conversation we find ourselves engaging in.

Two Quick Stories and Related Thoughts

Story One: One of my son’s friends was harangued online by his white Muslim girlfriend because he declined to offer a dogmatic social media opinion about the ongoing and historic injustices that are alleged to lie behind the U.S. riots. He rightly replied that he didn’t have enough information to go off half-cocked, and would prefer to let events play out before saying anything at all, whereupon his girlfriend advised him — and the rest of the world at the same time — that she was deeply disappointed in his callous indifference to other people’s pain. She threw in a few choice adjectives to spice things up, on the way to arriving at the conclusion that she might not want to be involved with him anymore.

But she’s not the only one rushing to judgment. It is increasingly difficult to avoid being pulled into arguments you’d rather not have by people who want you to confirm their own uninformed opinions, and want it right now.

Story Two: This morning’s offering by one of my favorite regular bloggers is a magnum opus on racial tensions in the U.S. He is only one of many Christians out there on the Web opining about the riots and their causes at great length on the basis of very limited information. I read it through, but was struck by the thought that many of these same Christian bromides about racial reconciliation were thrown around when Michael Brown was killed in 2014, when Trayvon Martin was shot in 2012 and even way back when Rodney King was beaten on video by police in 1991. Nothing has changed in some respects. Of course the answer is Christ; it always is. But even Christ cannot truly and fully heal broken relationships between those he does not indwell or those who refuse to listen to his words. In one sense, Christians running on about the answers to long-standing questions of social injustice and racial disharmony are talking past their audience. We do indeed have something useful to say on the subject of reconciliation to individuals who happen to live in multicultural empires, but nothing with which to address the structures, systems and institutions of the empires themselves.

We know where the empires are going. They will be broken in pieces and become like the chaff of the summer threshing floors.

Dodging a Bullet

So I will not attempt to weigh in on the much-ballyhooed “400 years” of racial inequity. I haven’t lived it, I’ve never felt it, and I can’t pretend to. So I will try not to make the mistake Job’s three friends made and pontificate about things I don’t understand. I’ll leave that to the Minneapolis mayor. I live 1,000 miles away in a different country where blacks make up slightly less than 3% of the population (though, rather oddly, about 70% of my local church), and the vast majority of these are relatively recent arrivals from the Caribbean or directly from Africa. To make a long story short, we have plenty of our own local problems without importing tensions from elsewhere.

We may also be allowing ourselves to become distracted by a single, very obvious aspect of the current craziness at the expense of the big picture. This situation seems different somehow. There are factors at work here that were not in play during any of these earlier trigger events. Despite appearances, there is more going on here than the usual venting of long-standing racial animus. And despite the media narrative, the events of the last two weeks are not entirely about race. The provocation is alleged to be, and the initial grassroots response from the local community seemed genuine. Since then, national (and maybe even international) forces have shamelessly hijacked the narrative for their own benefit. Given how quickly they mobilized, I suspect if the race question had not triggered major riots in U.S. cities, then some other hot-button issue would have ... most likely gun control.

#WhiteLivesMatter?

In the videos and photos I have seen, thousands upon thousands of people are going crazy and burning things. Some are certainly black, but large numbers of these “protesters” are visibly pasty-looking, or of some other ethnicity or combination of ethnicities. The present massive social overreaction is not entirely related to the original provocation: protest-related deaths are currently into double figures and climbing, most of them black, a questionable tribute to George Floyd. We are, I think, seeing something more corrosive and potentially dangerous than the usual spontaneous reaction to a race-related incident. #BlackLivesMatter is on the ground pushing its agenda, sure, but so is Antifa, fanning the flames and attempting to turn an existing crisis into a reason to tear down the system and rebuild it as something else entirely. Many disparate interests seem to be at work, not all of them identifiable, and not all of them are doing the obvious.

Meanwhile, in major U.S. cities, people very much like our own co-workers, friends and neighbors are sitting at home hoping the crazies will not head their way. Nothing good ever happens in a mob. But even for those not directly affected by what is going on, today’s 24/7 news coverage and up-to-the-second Twitter info-barrages make many things which are truly not relevant to our own day-to-day experience feel surprisingly urgent and personal. So when we see people around us melting down over things that appear to have little connection to their own daily lives, we have to remember that they have been locked down with their cable TV and internet for more than two months. Record numbers are unemployed, and many of those who are still working are doing so in highly stressful situations. Nobody knows when the COVID scare will wind down, and nobody is sure our elected officials are up to the job of making the right moves at the right time. Our kids don’t know if and when they will ever go back to school, and whether there will be jobs for them if and when they graduate. There is a level of generalized insecurity in the air that I have never seen before.

Two Different Ways of Processing Events

Christians experience the same things those around us do, but one thing that is becoming increasingly apparent to me is that we do not process these experiences the same way most unbelievers process them. Men and women who do not know Christ are uniformitarians by default. As Peter puts it, their underlying assumption is that “all things are continuing as they were from the beginning”. And up until recently their beliefs were confirmed by the largely uninterrupted and relatively peaceful passage of time.

Even when they saw shocking things on their TV screens, most of our unsaved friends and neighbors unconsciously expected their own lives to be mostly undisrupted by major world events. They governed themselves accordingly, with IRAs and RSPs and pension accounts, plans for a new home or more vacation time. Even those who had little financial success in the world got by with lots of binge-watching of Netflix and their weekly investment in the office lottery pool. There was always some vague hope for a better future, even if hitting the million was a bit of a long shot.

The events of the last two and half months have blown up their misplaced confidence in a major way. I have been surprised to see so many apparently stable, ordinary people coming unglued so fast.

Meanwhile, the Christians I know are peacefully waiting to be allowed to go back to church and chatting to one another on Zoom. There may be a few who are quietly freaking out, but I haven’t encountered any. Those of us who keep our heads in our Bibles have always known things could get bad in a hurry. The whole Old Testament is a story of societies being repeatedly built and destroyed, rebuilt and destroyed again. So our hopes are not uniformitarian hopes. We are waiting for and expecting a world record series of cataclysms followed by our Lord’s return. That’s where our great hope lies, and that’s where many of us have made our real emotional investment. It is not in the success of the current world order, even if that order has had great practical benefits for some of us. In a situation like this, serious Christians have a stabilizing ethos in our lives that enables us to put fears aside and quietly plug away at whatever the moment requires.

Most people simply ... don’t. Times like this make that more obvious.

Talk is Cheap

Among Christians, curiosity and verbal speculation about what’s going on and how it may all end are perfectly fine if they help you blow off steam, but we need to remember there is little value in arguing with one another over specific details we have read about in the news, seen on TV, or picked up on Twitter. In the end, what we think is going on may not be what is happening at all. The only thing we can be sure of is that the popular narrative is probably being spun in a major way. It is best not to put too much stock in the latest round of internet rumors, or waste too much time passing them around. We really do have better things to do.

Where my unsaved friends and neighbors are concerned, I am slowly learning to talk less and trying to love more. There are kinds of suffering that are not characterized by head-to-toe boils.

That, and we don’t want to make the same mistake Job’s friends made.

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