A few days ago a friend of mine observed that things are bad and getting worse, and what on earth is going on around here? He reminded me of a front porch conversation with some Witnesses who proclaimed that the end times are imminent because things have never been so bad.
The fear mongering that characterizes so much of talk radio and twenty-four hour television news would certainly lead one to believe that. At its worst it is racist and xenophobic slathered in jingoistic patriotism. At its best it tries to maintain a high state of anxiety so you won’t change the channel. Social media contributes through comment threads that reinforce each others’ worst prejudices.
Local conditions can add more muck to the swamp. For instance, we’ve had a rotten summer of drought, high temperatures, mediocre harvests, and way too many wild-land fires. Throw in problems with gangs and shootings that are fairly new to us, and it can look bad. But wait, there’s more. Thanks to television, talk radio, and the internet, we have instantaneous but superficial knowledge of what’s going on in other localities, and so it looks like a huge spider web or grand conspiracy of a bad news tsunami sweeping over all of us good, peaceable, gentle folk.
On the other hand, and there is one, it might be a good idea to take a look at some historical moments. Are we in the worst of times? That would seem a ridiculous question to the victims of The Black Death that swept across 14th century Europe. The horrific slaughters of our own Civil War signaled a new kind of Black Death that reached even greater heights in WWI and WWII. In between, Americans, and especially Americans in the Dust Bowl, suffered through the Great Depression in ways that are hardly imaginable today. Blacks who faced the very real danger of lynching, the likelihood of beatings, and the certainty of oppressive persecution during most of the 20th century might not have much sympathy for those who are anxious about today’s problems.
It would be foolish to go to the other extreme and claim with Dr. Pangloss that we now live in the best of all possible worlds. Clearly we don’t, but we are not without hope on at least two levels. The first is the hope that we have provided for ourselves through technologies, programs, laws and changing social mores that have given us longer, healthier lives; better education; greater opportunities for a greater diversity of peoples; and broader, deeper commitments to human and civil rights.
The second, and to my mind more important, is that this is not our world. It is God’s world. We are a part of God’s world, and made responsible for tending it as a sacred trust. In the scheme of things, the time each of us has to do our share is brief, a mere blink of the eyes. We do not live in the worst of times or the best of times. We live in our time, a broken time, a violent time, but perhaps not quite as broken or violent as it once was. Maybe we could see that if we weren’t so egocentric, or so easily affected by unreliable, deliberately misleading sources of communication.
I take solace in Jesus’ words as John recorded them: “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”
To put it another way, as God said through the pen of Isaiah:
Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.