WHAT DO WE DO WITH BAD NEWS ABOUT OTHERS?
If we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by so much mediated human suffering, we may become less alert to the social needs we can do something about.
Official news of victory in the Battle of Waterloo took three days to reach England. The instantaneous news feed has somewhat altered the picture since and it is a mixed blessing. Feeling my phone vibrate during one endless meeting, I checked it to find Le Monde reporting the resignation of a junior French finance minister. Perhaps you can know too much about the lives of others. The prevalence of awful news about the violence and misery inflicted on others, however, is an assault on our consciences that we need to think through.
What effect does bad news have on us? In Luke 13, the people surrounding Jesus brought him news of the murder of Galileans by Pilate, with the kind of sickening twist worthy of northern Syria. It seems to be human nature to share bad news intrusively with others. We put it out there, compelling a response from them. Why do we do this? Perhaps random violence or misfortune speaks to the insecurity and precariousness we each feel, demanding we rationalise it.
The unspoken question presented to Jesus is whether those who suffered and died got what they deserved or not. This might sound callous to us, but these people were versed in the traditions of Deuteronomy where it teaches that those who obey God will receive his blessing while those who disobey him will endure a curse. In his answer, Jesus references the collapse of a tower in Siloam which killed eighteen people. To human evil Jesus adds the experience of man-made disaster. Were they guilty too?
We think we know the answer to this kind of question – that no blame is attached to those who randomly die – but we often put a modern slant on it. We do not ask if they sinned but whether they brought it on themselves. Were they walking alone down a dark street late at night? Were they holidaying in a risky Mediterranean resort? Did they buy a property near a flood plain or on a fault line? It is our way of distinguishing ourselves from the misfortune of others. As long as we can find a reason why they did something we would not, we feel safer. A similar dynamic happens when we intrusively ask how someone perished. When a child dies, parents are often quickly and insensitively asked about the cause, as other families make unspoken calculations about the risks to their own.
In a culture today where laziness is the worst failing, we make further distinctions. We tend to perceive our own success as a product of hard work and ingenuity. The era of individualism lulls us into thinking we did it all without help, which couldn’t be further from the truth. The flip side is that the failure of others must be due to their fecklessness or risk aversion; all the time we are making judgments about outcomes where we each deserve what we get. This makes us less likely to care about others. Suddenly the pre-modern world view of those who surrounded Jesus looks less remote.
There are more excusable reasons why we struggle with the suffering of others. Where those caught up in a tragedy may ask ‘why me?’, those who are spared misfortune may be asking ‘why not me?’. The notion of survivor guilt is well documented, though we often forget to focus our prayers on those who just missed a disaster or who scraped through it. The anger and despair they can feel at the ease with which others around them suddenly die is palpable. And in the digital global era it is spreading.
Most of us have identified with this as we watch bloodied survivors of a suicide bombing being treated, cold and shaken passengers on a refugee boat swim for shore or crying teenagers emerge from a gun massacre. How on earth can we respond to these kinds of trauma as we sit passively on a sofa drinking tea? The risk in the moral anaesthetic we use to dull our consciences and prevent them from being overwhelmed by so much human need is that we become less alert to the social needs we can do something about.
The response that Jesus makes to his questioners is typically robust and takes no prisoners. ‘Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did’, he says. He is quick to assert that those murdered by Pilate and killed by the falling tower were not guilty of unique sin or cursed by their ancestry. Jesus knew the scriptures better than his peers. Job showed the futility of trying to pin suffering on personal failing and Jeremiah had long since developed the theology of Deuteronomy. No longer would people suffer for the sins of previous generations; they would answer for their own sin alone.
It is what lies unspoken here which is so meaningful. Jesus could have begun a long debate on the ageless question of why innocent people suffer and what we might do to avoid this fate. There is no answer to this that can satisfy us. If we offer one, it will feel inauthentic. Worse, it will give us a reason to blame others for what happens to them and an excuse not to help them. Instead he draws us into the heart of God.
The act of personal repentance leads to deep trust in God. This trust is no insurance policy. It will not indemnify us against accidents; as Jesus said elsewhere, God sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If faith were purely talismanic, a force field to keep misfortune at bay, we would be worshipping a very different sort of God who called for superstition rather than trust. Life in all its fullness is built on a different kind of faith. When God sends his rain, we are assured of his everlasting love and a covenant of grace which cannot be broken. The search to explain why it is raining on some rather than others at any particular time is likely to be fruitless. Sustaining an active and loving trust in the one who holds the power of life and death is what remains.
The conversation Jesus held at this moment must have felt like the early tremor before the earthquake. By mixing the blood of Galileans with their sacrifices as they worshipped in Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate gave early warning to Jesus of a fate that awaited him in the near future. The death he suffered buried once and for all the idea that good people would always be protected from harm. The kingdom Jesus initiated in his resurrection would provide the space where the poor would be blessed and the mournful comforted; a place where the humble and those fleeing persecution would find a home.
We do not know what Jesus felt as he heard the news about these poor Galileans, but he certainly did not try to distinguish his own life from theirs. His deep trust in God led him to make a choice over his own fate that was wise and redeeming. In the hearing of bad news, we should resist paralysis, despair and the drawing of shameless distinctions and dive deeply into the mercy of God. What happens next is up to him.
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