Not My Problem: Apathetic Suburbia and the Call of Jesus
Most of my students are white, suburban kids, and I have no idea what to do or tell them about the horrible events of the last few weeks.
That’s the truth for me, and it’s probably true for many of you reading this article.
What I’m dealing with (mostly) is not kids who are scared for their lives, but kids who are mostly just scared summer is ending. The atrocities of recent weeks might weigh heavily on the hearts of their fearful parents but, as a whole, my kids are oblivious.
Isn’t that the disturbing thing about white suburbia? Or maybe it’s a problem with teenagers in general, who tend to stare at their own navels more than most.
In the movie Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, there’s a scene where the two main characters drive through a suburban neighborhood and, despite the impending end of the world, they see a man mowing his lawn. Everything else in the world is chaos, but this guy just goes on mowing the lawn.
I’m really quick to see suburbia as a problem, to shudder at the false sense of security offered by manicured lawns and backyard pools. It’s really easy for me to look at my students and be frustrated at their lack of caring as a byproduct of this cushy lifestyle. But the problem isn’t really with them. It’s with me.
You see, if I’m being honest, I prefer to retreat to the suburbia of my own heart, to not face the pain in the world, the pain in the lives of others, or the pain of my own story. I want to run and hide and pretend that if I just close my eyes, I’ll wake up tomorrow and it’ll all be okay. I want to stop listening to the news and instead tune out to Netflix, to focus my anger on the long grocery store lines rather than investing in real social change.
When I am finally forced to engage in issues of heartache, when the news is so loud I can’t ignore it and cultural crisis is right there on my doorstep, I quickly run to the coping mechanism of God’s sovereign control over all things (you read that right, I said coping mechanism). While God is absolutely sovereign, I often use this truth as a way to detach from pain and excuse my own inaction. I flippantly throw out this theology as if God is just standing back with a cool, detached ambivalence. Can you imagine? “Oh, I’m sovereign, didn’tcha know? I’m in control of all things. None of this…eh, well, it’s not outside my plan. Cool your jets,” He says, arms crossed as He rolls His eyes at us. How offensive is this idea? Yet that’s the picture of God I unwittingly hold out to my students and the world when I refuse to get my white, middle-upper class hands dirty. That’s the picture I give when I lean on platitudes and quick fixes instead of really listening and engaging. This cool and unemotional picture of God is one we simply do not see in scripture, and yet I so frequently employ it.
The Creator King revealed in the Bible, from beginning to end, is moved by the hurt, injustice, and pain of His people. Yes, He knows He is going to fix the sin problem. Yes, He knows He is going to restore earth to its Eden-like perfection. But still – but still – He is with humans in their suffering. When Hagar, the rejected and abused minority is oppressed by her earthly mistress, God comes to her and shows her that He saw her in that state (Genesis 16.13). As the people of Israel are enslaved in Exodus 2 and crying out to their God, He hears and sees their cries (Exodus 2.25). Psalm 9.12 gives one of the clearest descriptions of God’s heart for the oppressed: “For he who avenges blood remembers; he does not ignore the cries of the afflicted.”
He remembers. God remembers. When the names of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling are gone from our memories, even when we selfishly and sinfully want their lives (and deaths) to be a small footnote, God will remember them. Any innocent blood will be avenged. He will bring justice.
After all, isn’t that the point of the cross? – That the God who created a world in which suffering exists also actively participates in that suffering?¹ The cross wasn’t merely a display of God’s love, it was a once-and-for-all-time declaration of how He intimately shares in our suffering. Jesus enters into the ash heap of humanity. He was oppressed and afflicted (Isaiah 53). Jesus goes all in on the cross, so He can identify with those who suffer and bring justice to a world that constantly refuses the shalom – the peace – He offers.
Let me be frank with you and with myself. Our refusal to engage in the suffering and pain in the world is not simply a byproduct of not knowing what to do – whether that suffering seems as far away as North Korea or as close as our African-American neighbors and law enforcement being shot at and attacked. Ignorance is just that: ignoring, refusing to deny ourselves, to take up our cross, and to follow the God of all love and peace. It is nothing more than disobedience to the call of Jesus in John 20:21: “as the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” God the Father sent Jesus into the mess of human sin and brokenness; who am I to think I have any right to avoid or escape that sin and brokenness, to put my headphones in and go back to mowing the lawn?
So what do we do? How do we enter into the mess of a broken situation as white, upper-middle class Christians? And perhaps more difficult, how do we do that with our students?
I don’t know where God will call us in the end, but I do know where He asks us to begin: by weeping. Like Jesus standing at the tomb of Lazarus, we weep. We weep with those who weep – with our African-American countrymen, and with other friends and neighbors who look different than us. We weep with the Dallas law enforcement community. With the gay community. With refugees from ISIS-torn countries. With women caught in prostitution. We weep with the oppressed, the poor, the needy. We lament like Jeremiah, question boldly like Habakkuk, and cry like Jesus. Weeping and lament are both personal and communal endeavors. We answer the call of God, say yes to Jesus, and boldly declare with righteous anger to an on-looking world that the Lord loves justice (Psalm 37.28). We teach our students to do the same. We ask them to really hear, think about, and wrestle with the problems of prejudice, injustice, and suffering that is all around them and us.
Let’s stop locking ourselves into our houses with the curtains drawn. Let’s stop shutting the doors of our hearts, and tuning out the Holy Spirit. Instead, let us enter into the ash heap, weep with those who weep, and answer the call of God: the call to actively love our neighbors.
For today, I’m asking the Lord to give me the strength to stop running from the weight of it all and instead run to Him – the One who intimately shares in this pain, confusion, and suffering.
He is good. Let’s trust Him enough to begin weeping today.
Join us for Rooted 2016, an intimate youth ministry conference, where we will explore the good news that God’s grace is sufficient for our relationships: with ourselves, with others, with the world, and with God. Jesus is our reconciliation yesterday, today, and forever.
¹ I believe that this sentence loosely comes from the New Dictionary of Theology, edited by Sinclair Ferguson. I read it years ago and it stuck in my mind, but the source has been lost.