These days, checking twitter feeds, listening to news updates, reading online articles can be depressing. There are so many crises facing the world at the moment, with new information and action happening moment by moment. As a pastor, the prayers I write and pray for things going on in the world is getting as long as it has ever been in my memory.
Ferguson, Missouri is boiling over with tensions between the white police and african american community after the shooting and murder of an unarmed Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is committing atrocities with the hopes of drawing more to their cause.
Syria continues to be a mess with millions of refugees spilling into neighbouring states.
Skirmishes in Ukraine have brought down planes and resulted in death.
And these are just events from the past week.
It is exhausting keeping up with it all.
It is harder to invest what little energy we all have to care about all these things. I am sure many are getting tired of it all.
As Christians, called to pray for our world and to serve our neighbour it is hard to know where to begin. What articles should we read? How much do I need to educate myself about each issue? What does it look like to get involved?
What difference can I make?
As with most big, complex issues that we face, the prevailing wisdom is to start with small steps.
Pray for our neighbours, help our children develop healthier attitudes towards those of different ethnicity, religion, socio-economic class. Getting involved locally is a logical step. Volunteer, help educate others, support active charities and organizations that are working in the midst of crisis to alleviate suffering.
Last fall, Canadian Lutheran World Relief, managed to collect nearly 80,000 sweaters for Syrian refugees living in camps. Our small national Lutheran NGO managed to do this amazing thing and response was overwhelming when the initial goal was 10,000! Yet, the UN estimates that there at least 2.5 million refugees. That means we collected sweaters for 0.032% of them…
Our achievement feels hopeless in the face of so much need.
And that was one small piece of the Syrian refugee issue? What about the war? What about medicine and food? And what about all the other crises?
Now, I am not trying to say that this is all hopeless… but I think there are a few things we need to admit to ourselves before we can figure out how to respond as people of faith.
Firstly, our political leaders are in over their heads. I often hear that politicians don’t care or are only interested in re-election. Some might be that way, but I think there is good news and bad news. I think most politicians would make the world a better place if they could. However, it is becoming clear that our modern political systems are failing us. At the end of day, most politicians – from top to bottom – probably feel as powerless as we do. The systems that they serve value the status quo. Governments, electorates and human beings are not good at accepting sweeping change, despite our clamour for it. Politicians realize that daycare credits, cheaper cell phone bills, and lower taxes buy votes in elections. Not social reform.
I wish these crises are left unresolved because of political apathy… because then we could elect un-apathetic leaders. But it is worse than we thought, those whom we trust to fix these problems are not capable of fixing them.
Secondly, we need to admit that we contribute to these problems. I need to admit that I am complicit in the poverty and lack of development that is allowing Ebola to spread. My prejudices contribute to tensions in Ferguson. People are dying at the hands of ISIS because of my lifestyle. Russia is breaking apart Ukraine because of the people my grandparents, my parents and I have elected to power. Israel and Hamas are constantly at each other’s throats because of the freedoms I enjoy. Syria is at war because of my attitudes about Islam and the Middle East. I am a part of the problem.
Thirdly, these problems are really just symptoms of a larger issue.
The crises that we are facing today are not entirely caused by one problem, but there is one issue more than any other that fuels their fires:
I recently watched Robert Reich’s documentary Inequality for All (you should all watch it on Netflix). The movie clearly lays out, over and over again, the relationship between an unequal society and social problems. The last time inequality was as high as it is today was during the 1930s. The world was starving, unemployment was sky high and wealth was concentrated in the hands of very few.
I have no doubt that a large reason the world fell into World War II was because inequality had pushed people to edge, allowing them to find reasons to justify racism, intolerance, and eventually global war. Germany was putting Jews in concentration camp. The United States and Canada were putting Japanese in internment camps. Racism and intolerance was on both sides, the world was recovering from economic crisis. People needed someone to blame.
I also have no doubt that during the period of the highest level of equality, the 1950s and 1960s, civil rights issues and the liberation of women gained momentum and achieved change in leaps and bounds.
When people are not worried about paying bills, buying groceries or affording a home, they are able to open themselves to new ideas and different people.
We are in a time of high inequality today. Extreme global Inequality. In fact, this year 85 people are more wealthy than the bottom 3.5 billion.
Yes, I wrote billion.
The number of people that can fit in a public swimming pool have more wealth than half of the people on the planet.
What chance does peace, tolerance, development, open-mindedness, or social change for the better have in a world that is so unequal?
What chance does Ferguson have at bridging the racial divide when it is based on a 400 year old economic one?
What chance do under developed African nations have at fighting off a deadly disease like Ebola when hospitals are tents and sanitation is nearly non-existent?
What chance does peace in Gaza when both sides are fighting over the scraps of the western world?
What chance does democracy have for the people or Iraq or Syria have when the fighting is just as much about control of resources and wealth than it is issues of religion?
What chance does Ukraine have at bettering its quality of life when Russia desires to keep Ukraine under its thumb to prop up its own power and wealth?
We treat wealth and equality like a zero-sum game. For you to have more, I need to have less. But it is not zero sum. We can all become more prosperous together.
In the Bible nearly 2000 verses deal with money or wealth, more than prayer, faith, and hope combines. Jesus talks about money in 1 of every 7 verses. Over 1/4 of his parables were on wealth. And let’s not forget that when Jesus talked about keeping the law, clean and unclean, or making sacrifices in the temple, he was talking about inequality. Those who could afford access to God, and those who couldn’t.
In a very unequal world, Jesus declared the abundance of God’s grace. God’s love is not a commodity to be hoarded or controlled by a few at the exclusion of the many. Wealth and prosperity are, likewise, not to be hoarded. God’s creation, wealth included, is not to be hoarded or controlled by a few at the exclusion of the many.
As one christian, one pastor, one blogger sitting in relatively calm Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, it can feel overwhelming to hear about every crisis that seems to be popping up this week, and wondering what I can do about it. It is like trying to play Whack-a-Mole with one mallet on a game the size of a football field. There isn’t even time to see all the moles popping up, let alone choose which one to think about whacking.
But if there is something that can be done to address all these issues at once, even in some small way, it would be to work towards greater economic equality. Elect leaders who will introduce policies that help level the playing field. Support programs that encourage education, which is the greatest tool to help us all become more prosperous. Look for ways to stand for political change that will distribute wealth more equally. Teach our kids that everyone deserves the same access to education and opportunity, and they will see past the racial, religious and political divides on their own. And lastly, find others who are talking about this issue. Join with them. Educate yourself.
And if you are a Christian, remember that Jesus thought this issue was important too. He talked about it more than heaven or hell, he preached against the extremities of wealth and poverty more clearly and definitively than just about anything else.
And when you pray for peace, for tolerance and understanding, for help for those who are suffering, remember to pray for a more equal world too – because equality will help bring about the rest.