The burden of knowledge

I remember reading The Diary of Anne Frank in school. I remember reading Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place and fictional stories set during the Holocaust like Number the Stars. I remember reading those things with the not-quite-fully-realized idea that the Holocaust was a real thing that happened to real people.

I distinctly remember Number the Stars and the Jewish girl staying with the non-Jewish family and, when the Nazis come, the family pulling out a photo album where they had photos of their older daughter as a child with dark hair like the Jewish girl’s.

I remember reading The Diary of Anne Frank and being fascinated by the secret annex. I remember reading The Hiding Place and being stung when the Ten Booms were betrayed to the Nazis.

I haven’t read any of these books in more than ten years, but I remember them better than many of the books I’ve read since. They’re stories that simultaneously horrify and inspire. They leave readers both bewildered at the horrors carried out by humanity and empowered to stand in the way of such horrors should they ever come around again.

We’re living in a perplexing and, yes, bewildering time.

To only scratch the surface:

The city of Aleppo, Syria, has been the key battleground of the Syrian civil war for four years. President Assad’s Syrian regime is backed by Russia, which has routinely bombarded the city with no concern for civilian safety. November 19, it was reported that all hospitals had been destroyed. The civil war, which has been further complicated by Western involvement and ISIS, spawned the current refugee crisis, with hundreds of thousands of Syrians fleeing for their lives. It’s impossible to know how many civilians have been killed in Aleppo alone, but in April a special UN envoy estimated 400,000 Syrians have been killed during the civil war. That’s men, women, and children, not just rebel fighters.

To be clear: killing civilians is a war crime. It’s not war as usual (as if that should even be a thing).

In the meantime, the United States had a bizarre presidential election with results that, while they may not have been entirely surprising, have left many fearful. This was no normal Donkey-versus-Elephant election cycle. The republican candidate, now president-elect, neither holds conservative values (in terms of government, morals, or ethics), nor does he consistently stand on anything except his own ego. He harnessed the anger and frustration of a demographic that feels unheard and, even after winning, continues spewing baseless vitriol at anyone who dares challenge or disagree with him on his favorite of all social media platforms: Twitter. (Not to mention the regular untruths published by his team, like that he won the election by the greatest number of electoral votes ever. In case you were wondering: that’s not what happened.)

I won’t bother touching his despicable treatment of women, his sexual assault allegations, or his crooked business practices. Google exists for a reason.

Then, there’s all the racial tension, which has existed under the surface for decades but is now out in the open — both a good thing and a bad thing. Good because you can’t clean an infection if you don’t acknowledge it first. Bad because a certain president-elect has emboldened racist thought, speech, and action.

In college, I became a person who reads the news — or at least keeps up with it by following journalists and news organizations on Twitter.

This past year, I’ve found myself avoiding not just the news, but even longform stories about current events. Longform stories which I love reading, which I aspire to write, which I shared regularly on this blog on an almost biweekly basis not too long ago.

When the Syrian refugee crisis came to more mainstream attention last year, I felt personally connected to the issue because I had already read so much in-depth reporting on the people in those situations. Over the past year, as things escalated internationally and domestically (particularly with the election), I started feeling overwhelmed so I made an unconscious effort to be less informed. In other words, I started avoiding the news.

I don’t think that was right. It’s one thing to put down a book of history, like The Diary of Anne Frank or The Hiding Place, or a fictional story like Number the Stars, and move on with your life. It’s entirely different to decide to close yourself off to what real people are enduring in this world right now.

No, I can’t carry the weight of the world on my shoulders. No, I can’t solve the Syrian conflict or give a home to every refugee. No, I can’t keep the racists of America from abusing fellow image-bearers. No, I can’t make the president-elect a less despicable human being.

But I’m in this world right now. I was created for such a time as this. The reason may remain a mystery until my time here ends, but I know for a fact that I’m not on earth to cover my eyes when the wretchedness of this world spills over.

To him who knows to do good and does it not, to him it is sin. (James 4:17)

This is a verse I don’t think I’ll ever get past. It’s one that preaches to me about cleaning the recyclables and putting them in the bin instead of the trash. It’s one that gets me pushing the wandering grocery carts into the parking lot corral. It’s one that challenges me to stop avoiding certain people at church and work and in the gym.

Recently, this verse has been prodding me to stop closing the browser windows that are open to real things. Navigate away from the YouTube CrossFit tutorials. Don’t scroll past that article. Don’t just add it to your list. Stop. Click. Read.

In His first coming, Jesus announced His kingdom on earth:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord. (Luke 4:18-19)

Christian theologians refer to the period we’re now in as the already-not-yet of God’s kingdom on earth. The Gospel is here, actively transforming lives, but justice and righteousness are not yet flowing as a mighty stream (Amos 5:24).

Before Jesus went to the cross, He prayed for His disciples:

I pray not that you should take them out of the world, but that you should keep them from the evil. (John 17:15)

Evil in this verse could be defined a number of ways. The “be careful little eyes what you see” interpretation might call it evil to seek out information about the world’s atrocities. There’s no argument that the atrocities themselves — governments slaying their own citizens, for example — are evil, but it is good to know what is happening in the world. Especially when it’s ugly. In fact, if anyone should know what’s going on in the world, it should be people whose hope is found elsewhere.

We’re not on earth to hold our breath waiting for life to get better. I wasn’t saved to live a comfortable life in a razor-free bubble of my own design. “With great power comes great responsibility,” and if I truly have God on my side, I have great power.

It’s a burden, knowing what’s happening on the other side of the world, feeling powerless to do anything about it.

A hundred years ago, our knowledge was limited by technology. One newspaper, maybe two. Radio programs. Television hadn’t been invented yet, much less computers. Now we’re carrying the world’s collective knowledge in our back pockets.

We could turn it off. I’m a staunch supporter of social media fasts. I grew up in a household without Internet that had regular no-screen weeks (usually as disciplinary measures). But if we’re turning it off to avoid discomfort, if we’re stepping back so we can get on with life as usual while people are being slaughtered in their hometown for no reason, while reporters are receiving death threats for asking challenging questions, while parents have no viable options for keeping their children safe from their own government, then our “fast” is just another exercise in selfishness.

To him who knows to do good and does it not, to him it is sin.

If I just hear about the ugliness in the world and shrug my shoulders, I am sinning. If I’m turning away from the news because it will awaken me to a responsibility — to pray, to give, to act — that I wouldn’t otherwise be aware of, then I am sinning.

To turn away from the ugliness of this world is to shirk my responsibility — not just as a citizen of this country and this earth, but also as a citizen of heaven. To hide my face from the brokenness that surrounds me is to fail to take up my cross and follow Christ, who left His heavenly home to be broken for me. And if I hide my face from the horrors of a land far away, what will I do when similar things come to the place I live?

 

Photo credit: NASA Goddard Photo and Video via photopin (license)

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