Isaiah 40:21-31 † Psalm 147:1-11, 20c † 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 † Mark 1:29-39
It was a shot of darkness that I encountered this week. A blog referenced by an old friend, a single voice attempting to name what we have lost. It began with a familiar refrain, noting that in the past 23 days the United States has seen 11 school shootings.[i] According to Everytown for Gun Safety, which seems to be the source of these numbers, we would need to add nine days to the total and only one more shooting for 12 shooting in about 32 days, which lowers the frequency a bit, but frankly doesn’t feel much like good news.
The point of the blog, though, wasn’t the frequency of shootings or even gun violence in general, but what has happened to us as events like this continue to occur. Umair Haque, the blogs author, is suggesting that American culture is in decline, that this American experiment and with it, our notion of American exceptionalism, seems to be on the way out.
Haque’s diagnosis is sobering. He names five destructive tendencies, five social pathologies he observes in American culture that signal this decline. The first is signaled by this statistic about school shootings—that our kids are killing each other. Haque puts the number of shootings and its frequency in perspective in order to make his point. 11 school shootings in 23 days, or 12 shootings in 32 days, if you wish. It is more than anywhere else in the world, even Afghanistan, even Iraq. In fact, this just doesn’t happen in any other country in the world. It is, he suggests, a “new, bizarre, terrible disease striking society.”[ii]
Haque looks elsewhere to help him name other social pathologies arising in our American culture. He notes the stunning opioid epidemic as an example of the way in which we are using drugs at an alarming rate to numb away the pain of our lives. And here too, the United States stands out. In most of Asia and Africa, the author notes, opioids can be purchased at any local pharmacy without a prescription, but the patterns of abuse we see in America are not repeated in Asia or Africa or anywhere like it is in the US, despite easier access. This mass self-medication with the hardest of drugs is unique to American life.
The third American social pathology Haque identifies has to do with the rise of what he calls “nomadic retirees.” Older people who live in their cars and go from place to place, season after season, chasing after whatever low-wage work they can find. To be clear, he’s not talking about farm workers who have long chased after seasonal work, but the increasing number of retirees who simply cannot afford to retire, who should have been able to save up enough to live on, but couldn’t, so it’s spring at an Amazon warehouse and Christmas at Walmart so that they can go on eating before they die—the elderly cheated of their dignity.
It used to be, Haque suggests, that even desperately poor people used to have families they could rely on, communities that shared resources and cared for one another, and believed they had some community responsibility to practice kindness. This is his fourth pathology—the loss of informal social support systems otherwise known as families and communities. “Social bonds,” he says, “relationships themselves, have become unaffordable luxuries, more so than even in poor countries” like Pakistan and Nigeria which have, in contrast, begun to make strides.
And Haque’s last pathology is perhaps the most unnerving, because, he says, it is one of the soul, not the limbs. Perhaps it is the key to the others: Americans appear to be quite happy simply watching one another die, in all the ways he mentions. We just don’t seem to be too disturbed or moved or affected by these four pathologies—our kids killing each other, our social bonds collapsing, our people and particularly our elderly being powerless to live with dignity, and having to numb the pain of it all away.
Were these pathologies to occur in any other rich country, much less a poor one, the shock would be palpable, but here it seems to be met not just with resignation, but indifference. And to make it worse, this predatory behavior isn’t just isolated among oligarchs who rip people off financially and are often the object of our anger, it isn’t just the super-rich. It is a malady common to us all as these pathologies that once would have been unthinkable now seem normal or routine.
But let’s take a breath for a moment. Let’s take a step back and look this over. Is Haque right in his assessment?
It certainly does seem that something has changed. And these pathologies he names have certainly been noticed and named by others, if not in such stark terms.
Yet, we are wise to remember a few things. First of all, there is this, and it isn’t encouraging. If anything, Haque is naming something that isn’t new. It is just becoming more apparent to those of us who have been able to skate by in our relative wealth and privilege for a long time. We know enough of the stories of the people who populated these lands long before Europeans arrived to know that our social bonds have always been defined more narrowly than they should have been. We know from our bleak story of ruthless immigration policies toward Chinese immigrants, of black and brown people, of slavery and Jim Crow and unrelenting racism that we have always been a predatory society by some measure. The #MeToo movement and our long history of unequal pay for equal work, our easy tolerance for the long-suffering of others affirms that there has always been a brutality that has bloodied the so-called American dream. It’s not that this is new, but simply that it is being uncovered in ways that we in the mainstream are less able to deny and ignore. If anything, Haque has on blinders of privilege that keep him from seeing the cruelty that has always been there in American life.
And yet, this too is not the complete story. Alongside this, indeed, mixed up within it, there has always been a heart of generosity and self-giving and kindness and resistance whose beat has not wavered. There has always been a spirit of deep connection, of mutual concern, of compassion. There has always been Gospel—this good news of transformation, of possibility and new life—in and out of season, through all the advances and regressions of human societies. There has always been Jesus and his reign.
It is so profoundly obvious as we find new ways not only to care for one another, as we prove ourselves exceptions to the pathologies that are so readily apparent in our culture, but even more as our love expands to those beyond our gatherings and our narrow definitions of belonging.
It is waiting to burst forward with a speed and a force as rapid and irresistible as Jesus seems to tear through the pages of Mark’s gospel. In 10 short verses, Mark offers us three separate scenes in which Jesus proclaims and heals and prays and urgently moves on to what is next as if there is no time to waste. And even as his disciples catch up to him, inclined to cash in on the success he seems to be having in creating a movement and a following, Jesus is undistracted, mindful of his mission of healing and transformation, driven by his vocation, determined to do what he came out to do and invite others to join him in doing it.
And this same spirit has always been present in the people. It is nothing less than the Spirit of God of which the prophet Isaiah sings:
Have you not known?
Have you not heart?
The Lord is the everlasting God.
He gives power to the faint.
He increases the strength of those with no might.
There is something unusual, surprising even, about the way Isaiah paints this picture of God’s strength in our lives. You can see it in the poetry of verse 31 of the Isaiah text:
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
You see, this is backwards. It should move from fainting to running to flying, but it doesn’t. It should soar. Rather than speeding up as Jesus seems to be doing in Mark, the poetry slows us down. We might expect that the next line has us crawling, but yet, somehow continuing on. And I suppose many of us may feel that that’s about all we’ve got at this point in our story. And even if that is the case, the power of this is not that it is an end, but a beginning. The power in this is that God’s Spirit renews our strength no matter where we are. It is an unquenchable force. It enables us to do what we need to do as repairers of the breech, menders of the world, followers of this one who brings good news of healing and belonging and wholeness.
You see, I believe that we may just be at a beginning of something new. That in our walking and not fainting, even our crawling and not stopping, we are finding the time to envision something new. I take hope, for example, in the news I heard recently that since the last election, some 15,000 women have approached Emily’s list for the campaign training the organization offers. What I am seeing is greater awareness, more engagement, the belief that my choices, my life can make a difference, the rise of new hope that speaks of God’s Spirit.
Do not forget this, beloved of God. This work and this way makes a difference in the transformation of the world and of our own lives. Believe this gospel. Believe in God’s power in you and in us. Believe in the goodness that exists in all times and all places and in those we might normally dismiss or doubt. This is not a time to give up. This is the time to double-down.
[i] Umair Haque. “Why We’re Underestimating American Collapse,” January 25, 2018 on Eudaimonia & Co. Accessed February 2, 2018 at https://eand.co/why-were-underestimating-american-collapse-be04d9e55235.
[ii] Umair Haque. “Why We’re Underestimating American Collapse,” January 25, 2018 on Eudaimonia & Co. Accessed February 2, 2018 at https://eand.co/why-were-underestimating-american-collapse-be04d9e55235.
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