Summary: A Christian cannot remain unmoved by the pain in the world.
We’re all familiar with the term compassion fatigue. Do you suppose there’s a related phenomenon called disaster fatigue? We hadn’t even recovered from Katrina when Rita showed up on her heels. I have to confess that I’m tired of watching. But I, at least, have the luxury of being able to turn it off and get on with my life. I don’t have a personal connection. I may shake my head, say a prayer, write a check. But I cannot say I mourn - not beyond the moment when I am actually watching.
Those who were actually in the path of the storms, those who have friends or family touched and wounded by the destruction, don’t find it so easy to turn away to other things. You can’t get on with your life when your life has been turned upside down and stripped of all the familiar, comforting things that gave it shape and meaning. You can’t get on with your life when there isn’t much of it left, if anything.
This is a time for mourning. But it is also a time for courage, and hope, for striving and triumph. Much of what has been lost can be rebuilt. Many will turn to God during these times, and then turn their backs on him when the crisis has past. You may recall that after 9/11 churches saw a significant upsurge in attendance, and books on spirituality and prayer disappeared from bookstores as fast as the owners could stock their shelves. But within a year or so that heightened spiritual awareness had subsided to pre-attack levels. Because people don’t like being confronted with their own mortality.
The kind of mourning that produces a lasting change of direction comes when your eyes are opened, when your heart is opened, to something so manifestly wrong with your world that you can neither bear it, fix it, or ignore it.
Two starkly opposite reactions follow disasters of this magnitude. These days the most common, unfortunately, is to blame God for whatever has gone wrong. On August 31, senior news analyst Daniel Schorr linked the devastation of Hurricane Katrina with the concept of intelligent design: ”if this was the result of intelligent design, then the designer has something to answer for." (World, September 17, 2005) Responding to Schorr’s dismissal of God, author Joel Belz countered, “Rather let us put our hands on our mouths and weep both for the perishing and for ourselves who will soon follow. Whatever judgment has fallen, it is we who deserve it—all of us. And whatever mercy is mingled with judgment in New Orleans neither we nor they deserve.” He points us to Job’s response when he lost everything was, in the end, to fall flat on his face before God and say, ”I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes." [Job 42:5-6]
I recently listened to a very interesting conversation about the popularity of horror movies in modern society. The author being interviewed suggested that it was the secular world’s attempt to deal with the reality of evil in the world without admitting that there really is such a thing as evil. It’s an attempt to have an intense feeling without real pain. And that makes sense to me. I don’t like horror movies because I don’t think fear is fun. As a child abuse survivor, I’ve spent too much of my life with fear. When it’s not fiction, it’s not fun.
The popularity of tabloid journalism, with last year’s celebrity trials feeding the public’s desire for sex and violence, and this year’s wall-to-wall coverage of disasters stoking our appetite for intense vicarious experience, comes, I think, from much the same place - from the desire to experience life intensely but without real risk - and yet it is the risk of being hurt that gives meaning both to courage and to commitment.
In somewhat the same way, most people want the joy that the gospel promises - but they don’t want to pay the price. That desire for a short cut to eternity is at the root of much of what is wrong with today’s mainline churches, and why most are having so much trouble reaching the world.
The Christian as mourner isn’t very much seen nowadays. There are several reasons for this. It’s partly a reaction against a kind of 19th c. false puritanism that wasn’t natural, didn’t come from within, and almost gave the impression that to be religious was to be miserable. There was a violent reaction against this unattractive picture, and in some places things have gone to the other extreme, with the idea that if Christians are to attract non- Christians we must always appear upbeat and cheerful. Another reason that a mournful Christian has become almost an oxymoron is that a lot of Christians, on being told that joy is one of the fruits of the spirit, try to paint it on the outside for fear of being branded unspiritual.