On Beauty & Brokenness (and Dementors!)

Once again, I’ve found myself working my way through J.K. Rowling’s world-famous Harry Potter series. As a strong believer of re-reading books, including (especially??) children’s books, I feel no shame here. Strip away the movie franchise, the amusement park, the vast amounts of memorabilia, and the general hubbub of pop culture, and we’re left with a genuinely compelling and thought-provoking story, filled with interesting themes and characters.

This time around, I’m thinking about dementors, a species that we’re introduced to in the series’ third installment. These dark, cloaked creatures feed on human happiness. Their mere presence causes a place to go cold, and people who encounter them instantly recall their worst memories, losing all hope and joy. Dementors were traditionally used to guard the wizard prison, which is fitting, as physical restraints would be useless against magical criminals. Instead, they’re bound by their own despair, thus greatly limiting their physical abilities. Rowling has said that dementors were inspired by her struggle with depression – they are a physical manifestation of the kind of suffering and anguish that can only come from within the human mind. Continue reading →

Pigs, Demons, and the Problem of Evil

I had the honor of being featured in Liberti Church’s Lent & Easter Prayerbook again – the reflection I wrote accompanied this past Sunday’s reading (Mark 5:1-16). Here’s an excerpt:  

The demon possessed man was destroyed by evil.

His body, his mind, his relationships – utterly and tangibly ravished by the second-most powerful force in the universe. We learn in today’s reading that this is the kind of evil with the strength of an army – it cannot be bound. And yet when it meets the Son of God, it is feeble and desperate.

The evil we see here is real and mighty. And even though our lives may look a lot different than that of the man we meet in this story, we’ve all encountered the same kind of evil. It alienates us from our God, our community, even ourselves. Every aspect of creation is affected by it. It has overtaken our lives.

For the rest, head over to Restoration Living, or check out the Prayerbook itself.

Viral Justice

STJfvaeEIf you’ve been pretty much anywhere on the internet in the past week or two, then you’ve probably seen something about the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, or the similarly significant #RealMenDontBuyGirls. Maybe you’ve read about how Ann Coulter tried to troll the former hashtag but failed, or how the latter was really a campaign started by Ashton Kutcher years ago. Maybe you’ve even read a little bit about the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls, or learned something new about human trafficking.

What I haven’t seen out there is anything questioning whether or not this is the best way to go about bringing back these girls or preventing men from buying them. I don’t mean to suggest that it’s wrong to use these hashtags or that people shouldn’t do it – I’m just kind of amazed how everyone seems to be using them, without question (except Ann Coulter, but that’s different). And yeah, I’m a little skeptical. If you visit my Twitter page, you’ll see that I haven’t used either of these hashtags, even though I fully support everything they stand for.

I guess I’m processing this a little bit – that is, the role that social media plays in solving deeply nuanced problems of justice. I like to call what’s taken place over the past couple over the past couple of weeks “viral justice.” Here, a significant social problem has gone viral the same way that a meme or a video of a funny cat might. This isn’t the first time that this has happened, and I think the assumption is that taking to social media to write about (or, hashtag about – is hashtag even a verb? Did I just make it one?) social justice will raise awareness of issues and ultimately help in solving them. Last year I attended The Justice Conference here in Philly, and there were multiple seminars about how nonprofits and activists can use Twitter in their efforts. So this is serious business, and now is as good a time as any for me to think through this a little bit, and what it means for us as individuals and a society. For the sake of organization, I’ve made a pro-con list (classic).

Things that are great about this kind of viral justice:

It’s raising awareness of huge social problems. Through this crisis in Nigeria and the resurfacing of the #RealMenDontBuyGirls campaign, I hope that tens of thousands of people now know a little more about human trafficking – namely, that it exists, and it exists everywhere. I don’t think I knew about this issue until I got to college, and even then it was only because I attended a school that cares a ton about justice issues. For those that aren’t in the loop about such problems, I hope Twitter and all this media hype is shedding some light on one of the world’s darkest secrets.

It’s bringing people together in an unprecedented way. Leave it to social media to shrink our big, diverse world. It seems like every decent person with access to a smartphone is demanding that Boko Haram #BringBackOurGirls, regardless of where they’re from, who they pray to, and how much power they have. I can’t think of another time – a natural disaster, a terrorist attack, a global crisis – where this many people have united so smoothly, with hardly any controversy or debate. I love that celebrities, politicians, and normal people all over the world have a way to come together during this sad and scary time. It demonstrates that at the end of the day, we’re all ontologically good and want good things for our world.

Things that make me second guess this kind of viral justice:

Is it really activism? Maybe this is what justice-work looks like in 2014, but I’m not convinced that using a particular hashtag will convince terrorists to release their victims, or world leaders to go after those terrorists (but if it does – wonderful!). And – here’s a predictable critique – it’s really easy to press “send” on a tweet when the people who are really suffering here are on the other side of the world. I don’t know what better or more tangible activism would look like here – I’m not about to go after Boko Haram myself, so maybe tweeting is better than nothing.

What about all those other justice issues that don’t go viral? To be sure, 276 kidnapped children is a really big deal, and this justice issue should probably get a little bit more media attention than others, at least for now. But aside from this, it seems like certain issues of justice have a fad-like appeal to them – they become trendy, or in season. When they’re no longer trendy, it’s rarely because the issue just went away. And in the meantime, what about all of the other problems that are happening in this broken world?

Is social media distracting us from empathy? 276 kidnaped children are in the hands of terrorists – some, if not all of them (God forbid), have probably been sold as sex slaves. How should one react to this chilling fact, and the kind of evil underlying it? It’s really easy to post a (public) tweet or status rallying folks to #BringBackOurGirls and then move on with our days, without much thought or empathy. But 276 children are missing, and we should be mourning, praying, and feebly trying to imagine what they and their families are going through. We can’t fight terrorists, but we can empathize with victims and try to recognize evil for what it really is. And we should let this – the brokenness of our world – affect us deeply, in a way that a hashtag doesn’t satisfy.

So, I’m leaning towards thinking that tweeting about social justice issues might not be the best way to solve them. But if everyone’s going to do it anyway, then I sincerely hope that something good becomes of it. Maybe I’ll even join them. Whatever it takes to #BringBackOurGirls.

Sin is a Gray Area

This post started out as a four-years-to-late ode to my favorite television show, Lost. It was going to be about how what makes that story both so confusing and so compelling is its moral ambiguity. Perhaps someday I’ll revisit that post, but what I have here now is broader and more fitting for Lent.

I’m neither a neurologist nor ethicist, so take this paragraph with an extra grain of salt. Our brains really like to categorizing stuff. Bombarded with information from the second we’re born, we’re constantly interacting with and organizing data and concepts. I don’t know what it would be like to try to function without categories – if that’s even possible. Of course, two of the most helpful categories that we form early on (or maybe are born with – that’s a can of worms to open some other time) are good and not-good/bad/evil. It’s really nice when a person, thing, event, action, or idea falls into one of these categories, and a lot of times this is a fairly simple distinction. It’s good to help an old lady across the street; it’s bad to push her into traffic. Simple.

But sometimes these categories fail us, or at least, are just not sufficient enough. It’s convenient when a person, thing, event, action or idea is (metaphorically) black or white, but more often than not, we encounter a gray area.

Some of us like to take a situation, analyze it quickly, and form an opinion about it, but for many of this world’s most significant points of conflict, this is really tricky. When things go wrong, we want to blame people – usually one person or a group of people that is not like us (e.g. “the Tea Party” or “Russians”). This is in part because we need to point our anger somewhere, but also in part because we want to ensure that whatever bad thing has happened won’t happen again. We want to fix evil. However, when it comes to stuff like natural disasters, mental illness, or even crimes committed by someone dealing with extenuating circumstances, the scapegoat is unclear. Finding a solution to gray-area evils might be impossible, or at least, far more challenging than when dealing with evil that is more clear-cut.

The best example of how I’ve seen this manifested recently is a little strong, so bear with me. I was intrigued last year by our nation’s reaction to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Our society was appropriately horrified and angry. We needed to direct those feelings somewhere, and take steps to ensure that something like that would never happen again. But the shooter had a mental illness, so blaming him and his family was complicated, much more so than if he had been, say, a terrorist with an agenda. So a lot of people channeled their anger against gun-rights groups and petitioned for tighter regulations. Whether or not they were correct in doing that is neither here nor there. What intrigued – and on some level deeply saddened – me was that our large and powerful society was forced to collectively deal with the fact that this world is fallen and sometimes evil stuff just happens, without clear cause, explanation, or solution.

Moving away from this large-scale example, it’s kind of an understatement to say that sin is everywhere. The fall affects every element of our lives and every aspect of this world. While there is that which is clearly good and that which is clearly evil, a lot of conflict is somewhere in between. Good people will always do bad things. Our societies will always fail us. And evil stuff will, sometimes, just happen.

And that sucks. It’s so sad, and so frustrating, especially for a people obsessed with solutions, answers, and progress. But what can we do? Nothing – and that might be the point. We can’t do anything to fix this messy, fallen world, except hope that everything tarnished by sin will someday be restored by grace. That’s the promise of Easter, and sometimes it’s all we have.