How to have Bold Public Joy when the World is Pulling Itself to its own Doom

This Month in Killing

If you are a person that likes to watch US news the last few weeks have been anything but cheery. Let’s Review. (for the year in Terrorist attacks see Wikipedia)

  • Oct 31: ISIS downs a Russian jetliner over the Sinia killing 224 people
  • Nov 9: 14 year old girl (Boko Haram?) blows herself up in Camaroon killing 4 others
  • Nov 12: ISIS suicide bombers kill 43 in Beirut
  • Nov 13: 130 people killed in Paris in ISIS attacks
  • Nov 17: Boko Haram bomb kills 34+ in Nigeria wounding 80
  • Nov 18: Boko Haram, two girls ages 11 and 18 detonate suicide bombs killing 17 and wounding 123 others in Nigera
  • Nov 20: Gunmen in Mali attack a hotel killing 23
  • Nov 22: female suicide bomber from Boko Haram kills 8 refugees fleeing attacks from the same group
  • Nov 24: Suicide attack in Tunisia kills 24
  • Nov 26: Boko Haram attacks a village in Nigeria killing 18 wounding 10 and burning 100 homes
  • Nov 27: Robert Dear kills three and injures 4 in attack of a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs
  • Nov 27: Boko Haram kills 21 in a suicide attack against Shia Muslims in the Nigerian city of Kano
  • Dec 2: Boko Haram kills 3 to 6 civilians in Cameroon
  • Dec 2: Mass shooting in San Bernadino killing 14 injuring 21

The Regularly Scheduled Program This Interrupted 

Of this list (and this is already culled by me) most of us via the news mostly paid attention to Paris, Robert Dear and now San Bernardino. Before that we were fixed on the Presidential debates, the war against ISIS and the upcoming Paris Climate Change meetings. These things of course continue. We view the world through a very small information window whose focus is mostly determined by figuring out the American attention market so that news programs can sell advertising spots. Not necessarily the best filter for determining importance.

Why We Believe in Politics

The reason “if it bleeds it leads” is that we are all born with what scientists call “mirror neurons”. When we see a sad person we feel sadness. When we see a person in distress our “fight/flight” autonomic nervous system ramps up. This is why the TV news often emphasizes interviews with people who have seen the trauma or taken phone video of it over information. This drives viewership.

People can only take so much of this until it really disturbs us. We have a love/hate relationship with this virtual discontent. On one hand as a culture we think this discontent is “healthy” because it will motivate us to take action to fix things that have been neglecting. This is the corollary to our cultural creed that it is up to us to save the world.

Politics is of course the practice of world-saving. If there are evil people we want them wiped out. If there is a problem we want it resolved. In a democracy this is why we pay taxes and elect officials. They are supposed to fix things and keep us safe. This is why we give them fame, power, importance, and honor. If they fail us we will scorn them and even kill them.

But if we live in the “safe” part of the world…

Now the reason that we pay attention to the attacks in Paris, Colorado Springs and San Bernardino is because we have an implicit and convenient belief that places like Nigeria and Iraq are “bad” or “dangerous”, like other people we label, but places in the developed west are supposed to be “safe”. We have smaller narratives about this too of course. We have cities an neighborhoods that are not “safe”, but we hold these on a different scale.

So as Americans watch these things we start to feel upset, as the unsafe comes closer to what we thought was safe and we need to find ways to console ourselves.

This tweet from Mary Beth Williams at caught my attention.

Here are the 15 things.

It’s a really nice list full of good and nice things to do to help others and help yourself feel better about the world.

Mary Beth Williams had a second tweet a few minutes later.

Again, a nice sentiment and as advice goes it isn’t bad. What it concedes, however, is pretty alarming. This world is toast, so the best thing that small people can do is just love a little and be a little nice. It’s kind of like saying “As the Titanic goes down make your bed before you leave your room and don’t forget to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.”

The Implicit Contradiction We are Blind To

Notice the two different messages we receive?

  • We believe in politics because if anyone is going to save this world it has to be us.
  • We can’t save this world so the best we can do is be nice as it all goes to hell.

What About the Normal Evil?

Ta-Nesisis Coates in his new book Between the World and Me writes to his son in a redux of James’s Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time”. Michelle Alexander initially excited to see Coates’ considerable talent brought to bear on this subject was disappointed by what she found.

But here we reach a fork in the road. Baldwin, in writing to his nephew, does not deny the pain and horror of American notions of justice — far from it — but he repeatedly emphasizes the young man’s power and potential and urges him to believe that revolutionary change is possible against all odds, because we, as black people, continue to defy the odds and defeat the expectations of those who seek to control and exploit us.

Coates’s letter to his son seems to be written on the opposite side of the same coin. Rather than urging his son to awaken to his own power, Coates emphasizes over and over the apparent permanence of racial injustice in America, the foolishness of believing that one person can make a change, and the dangers of believing in the American Dream. “Historians conjured the Dream,” Coates writes. “Hollywood fortified the Dream. The Dream was gilded by novels and adventure stories”; Dreamers are the ones who continue to believe the lie, at black people’s expense. In what will almost certainly be the most widely quoted passage, Coates tells his son: “Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage.”

Little hope is offered that freedom or equality will ever be a reality for black people in America. “We are captured, brother, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of America. And this has happened here, in our only home, and the terrible truth is that we cannot will ourselves to an escape on our own.” If his son held out any hope that the emerging racial justice movement on the streets of Ferguson, New York City or Baltimore or beyond might change hearts and minds, Coates seems determined to quash it. “Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: To awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white . . . has done to the world. But you cannot arrange your life around them and the small chance of the Dreamers coming into consciousness.”


What has changed from 1963 to 2015? We might imagine that Baldwin would be more pessimistic. 1963 was the height of the Cold War which still had another 25 years to go.

Why should Coates complain? He’s the beneficiary generations of activism to address systemic American racism. He received an Ivy League education, has a prestigious post writing for one of the nation’s most important magazines and has now won the National book award. Why was Baldwin so optimistic and Coates so pessimistic?

A Voice in the Wilderness

The Advent text for today is Luke 3 verses 1 through 6. It’s a strange selection. The lectionary is telling the story of Jesus’ coming in reverse and for this week it wants to keep us from what John will have to say.

The first verses gives us the geopolitical context of John and Jesus’ ministry and it is grim.

Tiberius is to the Roman world the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and he spends his time seeking sexual gratification from children. Pilate is a petty functionary trying to make his way as a Roman middle man. Herod, never earning the title of “Great” like his father gets a mention. Annas and Caiphus who sit in Aaron’s seat are corrupt politicians always trying to chart a course that insures the future of their family’s reign.

Into this world the Word of the LORD comes to John who is living in the desert.

Deserts and Barren Women

Any reader of the Bible will catch the signals. God breaks in when we are forced by the cruelty of this world to abandon hope in ourselves. “God’s people” at the time of John are hopelessly divided, many of them are corrupt, and they are marginalized. If the Romans had CNN Judea and the area would have been known as the place of constant political turmoil and rebellious intrigue if not for the heavy boot of Roman military might.

A generation later with the region in full revolt rumors would fly around the Empire that the new “king of the world” would emerge from Judea. Vespasian an ambitious Roman soldier would imagine himself to be it as he made his way to the Imperial thrown. Today when I mention is name you might marvel at my grasp of trivia but if I said “Jesus is Lord” you’d all recognize the name.

God was coming to Israel but this revelation would not be known by many until centuries even millenia later.

Advent comes in the middle of hopelessness.

Misery: Coates on Racism

The Atlantic did a conference on racism and justice and invited African American pastor Thabiti Anyabwile “Pastor T” to speak. Coates interviewed him. Coates’ question was “how can you have hope?” The pastor declared the hope that he had in the Gospel. Coates was frustrated.

“Those who don’t necessarily embrace the same religious belief are left without a firm hope.” (6:20)

The answer seems clear. All the smartest, best informed, most rational elites see the future and can’t help but imagine humanity is Barren, backed into a corner. The best we can do is retire to our private spaces if we are affluent and fortunate to have them, and then at least as much to make us feel good about our own moral qualities do small kind things to others. I think about the quartet who played music while the Titanic sank. They, however, had a tune to play that neither Williams nor Coates want to sing.

His answer reveals our cultural disdain and skepticism about what we categorize as religious. Coates implicitly embraces the profession that any hope must be a hope within our control and he would rather live without one than stoop to consider one offered. He is like Naaman scoffing to wash in the Jordan. 


Advent is the season when the Christian church focuses its attention upon the coming hope. The word of God came to John in the desert and set into motion events that promise to liberate us not simply from our anxieties, but this world from the futility of the age of decay.

This hope will come not in the way Coates, Jesus’ disciples before Pentecost, and everyone else naturally assumes, in a form of power that we can lay hold of to our own ends, but rather a power that asks us to give up that control and embrace a gift that is only attractive to those who have no other option.

In that sense the gospel wins in this dark world when we do realize that we are in a corner but God has entered in to rescue us from our own corners. That comes as we take hold of Jesus to kill him and in the process realize that he takes our puny attempts at self-rescue and turns them to his glory.

Coates’ objection is reasonable. If you cannot believe that Jesus rose from the dead you have little reason to believe that him becoming a sacrifice had any efficacious value for us at all. The choice of belief comes clear. You can tell your son to give up the dream and try to carve for himself some private comfort before the gaping darkness of death takes him, or you can embrace the hope of a life towards which even the grimness of our dead ends points us through a cross into glory.


If we believe that in fact God has again and again taken us from our corners and brought us into light, how might this change us?

The 15 things  pose as generosity but are at heart motivated by selfishness. Such benevolence usually runs dry quickly and is only supported by prosperity.

What if in fact the world is saved and you are free to love and to serve from joy and gratitude rather than attempting to construct some private feel-good benevolence? Wouldn’t such a thing enable us to be generous not just to this we imagine worthy but even to the unworthy? Isn’t this the shape itself of the work of Jesus who forgives his mockers and redeems us while we are yet sinners? Isn’t such a vision in fact more glorious?

What if in Les Miserables the priest’s motivation of kindness to Valjean was just to make him feel better about himself? Would such a shallow motive enable him to not only endure the rewarding of his generosity towards Valjean with betrayal? Would such a motive move him to resist the temptation to have the police do justice in this case and instead double the betrayal by offering the candlesticks as well?

You may be reasonable if you wish about this world, holding onto your pride in the community of the reasonable not wishing to embrace a hope that is not within our control, or you may give into joy.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in On the way to Sunday's sermon and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to How to have Bold Public Joy when the World is Pulling Itself to its own Doom

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