[Originally written for a Good Friday reflection in 2007, unknowingly done one week before the Virginia Tech shooting. It remains upsettingly current. It is also the first of a two part series; don’t worry, the title of the second one is “On Hope.”]
The statistic is that roughly 18,000 children die each day from hunger and malnutrition alone. This does not include those who die from preventable diseases like rotavirus (which causes severe diarrhea and kills approximately 600,000 children a year even though it is vaccinatable and preventable), or the treatable ones like malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV. This does not include the children who are caught in the genocide of Sudan or the vicious military crossfire of civil conflicts as in Iraq and Afghanistan, or those whose limbs have been blown off by landmines designed to look like toys, or those who have been conscripted into military service in Uganda or the Congo. It does not include those who are pressed into the sex trafficking industry, like the 100,000 or so children in Cambodia. It does not include those who die alone, cold, and friendless in the streets of Calcutta or New York City or those who are shot to death in the gang fights of Newark. It does not include the upper-middle class teenager or celebrity that died from a drug overdose or drunk driving or any other death we might consider a tragic consequence of wealth.
Some people have called me cynical for saying these things. They say that I am being bitter or despondent or a sourpuss and that it’s just “not natural” to look at the world that way. But the frightening truth is that it is natural because it gives us a piercingly accurate look at our human nature . . . perhaps more accurate than we would like to admit.
Cynicism has an interesting origin. It came from a group of Greek philosophers whose purpose in life was the pursuit of virtue. They took their calling so seriously that the ancient cynics neglected personal hygiene and scorned the norms of society, often congregating in the streets to insult and condemn those who were pretentious, self-important, materialistic, or evil. One ancient cynic described himself in this way: “I am Diogenes the dog: I nuzzle the kind, bark at the greedy, and bite scoundrels.”
We live in a society that is so cynical that it has become a form of entertainment. Stephen Colbert’s deadpan comedic style won him four Emmys. The television shows South Park and The Family Guy continue on air despite their numerous offensive vulgarities because of the huge audience demand for their acidic wit and social commentary. Modern cynics have exchanged the pursuit of virtue and bad personal hygiene for something a little more practical: biting sarcasm, an unshakeable belief in human selfishness, and a tired frustration with our collective inability to change.
When I was in college, a friend of mine started a humanitarian organization that dealt with a lot of the darker issues of poverty and war that I mentioned earlier. One day we decided to show a documentary on the genocide in Sudan in the student campus center. We reserved the main television and when I arrived to plug in the tape, I was relieved to see that the only thing people were watching were a few clips on SportsCenter from the previous night’s games. But when I changed the channel and announced what we were showing, a student angrily got up and stormed off, saying, “Who cares about all this stuff? This stuff happens all the time!” He did not use the word “stuff.”
And he was right. This stuff happens all the time, and our media saturated society is sick of hearing about it. We are tired of counting bodies in Iraq. We are tired of CIA leaks and government scandals. We are tired of empty campaign promises and embezzled funds. We are tired of FEMA and mismanaged bureaucracy in the Gulf Coast. We are tired of hurricanes and earthquakes and falling stock market prices. We are tired of HIV, AIDS, TB, and other acronymed diseases. We are tired of starving children and anorexic celebrities. We are tired of school shootings and inner city crime. We are tired of debating evolution in schools and abortion in the courts. We are tired of HMOs and insurance companies and a broken healthcare system. We are tired of divorces in our homes and grappling for grades in our schools. We are tired of griping bosses and sniping co-workers. We are tired of searching for someone who will like us for who we are and not who we pretend to be. We are tired of hypocrisy and judgment in the church from whom we had expected to receive grace. We are tired of the disappointments that happen all the time.
What option is there left for us? We aren’t revolutionaries; we know the world too well to expect it to change. We aren’t saints; we know ourselves too well to expect change there either. The only truth we are sure of is a humanity and an identity that is so disgustingly and predictably selfish that we might as well poke fun at it. We’ll do anything except hope for change, because hope requires vulnerability. Hope demands that we have an expectation that can be disappointed and unfulfilled. Hope means that we must be certain of something we cannot see, that we must trust in something we do not understand.
This is a frightening prospect for a cynic.
This is a frightening prospect for me.
I would much rather describe the world than have hope for it. There is nothing to fear from a description: nothing to be surprised or disappointed by. And so I will stand here and tell you that 18,000 children die each day from hunger, that you can’t trust anyone else or even yourself which means that you certainly should never trust a politician, that you can’t get something for nothing, that you can’t find a good church or even good people these days, that justice is a joke and peace is a sham, that everything is broken, and that nothing is sacred or perfect or even mildly decent.
As a cynic, I can tell you what the world is, but I cannot tell you what to do with it.
All that has changed in the past six years since writing those words is that we are at even greater risk of cynicism. A technologically-powered explosion of information has given us near-infinite access to the range and dynamism of human nature, and what we find most troubling is how toxic and yet accessible human nature can truly be. In our attempts to cope, we either saturate and displace those sentiments with catharsis (videos of cats come to mind), or we overestimate our capacity for human empathy, kindness, and sorrow.
How can we begin to comprehend the collective cruelty of humanity without resorting to the blunting despair of cynicism? We can only do so through Good Friday, that moment in time in which the sheer revulsion, mortification, and magnitude of the human condition is understood in the unjust suffering of a single man, Jesus Christ. By this I mean we feel the weight of our guilt in the heft of his cross. We feel the sting of our mockery in his crown of thorns. We feel our dismembering violence in the piercing of his hands and side. In one man, we finally have a gruesome spectacle that does justice to the portrayal of the injustice in our world.
At the foot of the cross, all our deep transgressions find their full expression.
Alas! and did my Savior bleed
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?
Was it for crimes that I had done
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!
Well might the sun in darkness hide
And shut his glories in,
When Christ, the mighty Maker died,
For man the creature’s sin.
Thus might I hide my blushing face
While His dear cross appears,
Dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
And melt my eyes to tears.
But drops of grief can ne’er repay
The debt of love I owe:
Here, Lord, I give my self away
’Tis all that I can do.
– Isaac Watts