What is wrong with the world? That's what my wife and I often say whenever we hear of the latest outrage on the news. But actually that is one of the key questions that is at the root of most religious and political movements. Despite the fact that the world is not perfect and that no one has ever experienced a perfect society, most people have a deep sense that something is wrong with the world. We see how in some parts of the world things almost but don't quite work right. In other parts of the world it is evident that very little works right. And we wonder why. Because maybe if we could figure why things go wrong, we could fix the world.
There are lots of answers to the question of what is wrong with the world. The most common among highly educated people is that--surprise!--not enough people are highly educated. Ignorance is the problem, they reason. If we just got everyone enough schooling, the world would be a much better place. Indeed it would, but the problem is that while education may make you smarter, it does not necessarily make you a better person. Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS and the person most directly responsible for the Holocaust, graduated from university. Ted Bundy was an honor student at the University of Washington and went on to law school. Osama Bin Ladan had a degree in civil engineering and 3 of his 5 wives were highly educated university lecturers. Education is good but it is no panacea for what's wrong with the world.
A popular answer to what is wrong with the world is “them” as in “us against them.” “Us” is the good guys and “them” is any group of people whom you think is most responsible for the terrible state of the world. Historically “them” has been blacks, Jews, communists, the Irish, the Germans, Asians, immigrants, Muslims, fundamentalists, atheists, gun nuts, welfare queens, bleeding heart liberals, conservatives--in short, anyone who is not “us.” And lest you think this way of seeing the world is not pervasive, let me point out that most of our big budget movies, which now make most of their money overseas, are all about “us versus them,” even if the enemy is portrayed as aliens, robots, zombies or Jedi of the Dark side. It is so satisfying to say “the whole problem is those people.” It makes the solution so easy: get rid of them. Although no one today would dare to call it “the Final Solution.”
The old comic strip Pogo famously said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Jesus would agree with this misquote of Caesar. He said the problem is not external but internal. In Mark 7:21-23, Jesus says, “For from within, from the human heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immoralities, thefts, murders, marital unfaithfulness, greed, malice, deceit, promiscuity, envy, insults, arrogance and recklessness.” Our problem isn't so much ignorance or evil people as it is our own sins.
We all do what we shouldn't, what we wouldn't approve of in others, what we wouldn't want done to us. We think things that are hateful, say things that are hurtful, do things that are harmful...to others and even to ourselves. Our problem is not that we don't have the smarts to work out our problems, it's more often that it conflicts with what we want. For instance, 3.5 million children die every year from starvation. Yet experts say we make more than enough food to feed everyone. Why don't we? It often has more to do with politics and corruption than logistics.
I am reading a book called The Locust Effect by Gary Haugen of the International Justice Mission and federal prosecutor Victor Boutros. It documents the many ways in which the poor are victims of violence. And why is that? Because they are weak and desperate and in most countries law enforcement does not protect them, even if the laws say it should. And you really can't call what those who prey on the poor do as anything other than evil—intentionally harming someone for selfish reasons. “Recruiters” lie to poor women in the third world about job opportunities in cities or other countries and once they separated them from their families and communities, they put them in brothels, using violence to keep them in line. Business owners give new employees an advance and then use the “debt” to keep them working as slaves, paying them poorly and charging them for food and board to keep them from ever paying it back and using violence to keep them from running away, working other jobs, going to school or even seeking medical treatment. You know the biggest reason why girls from poor families don't go to school? The very real threat of being raped either on the way to or from school or at the school itself. Haugan and Boutros show that if we are going to end poverty we must also do something about the violence that most poor people deal with everyday.
Here in the US, a female soldier is more likely to be raped by another soldier than to be killed in combat. In our armed forces, there are an estimated 19,000 sexual assaults yearly. But superior officers frequently retaliate against accusers, discharging 90% of them and often overturning decisions that go against the accused. In fighting a lawsuit over this, the Department of Defense argued that the “alleged harms are incident to the plaintiff's military service...” That is, rape is an occupational hazard. The federal judge agreed.
Banks that crashed the economy by offering bad mortgage loans are now doing the same with car loans. Tobacco companies who are seeing their sales in the US plummet are suing third world countries over legislation aimed at reducing smoking. For a decade a car manufacturer knew about a ignition switch problem that caused engines to shut off while the car was in motion, also cutting off deployment of the airbags, and yet did not recall the cars with that switch until it was sued. A Reuters report linked 153 deaths with this problem. A company which markets a pendant that will signal for help if one falls and can't get up also offers free phones, though they lack the GPS feature other phones have. That feature allows 911 operators to locate people who are in trouble but can't tell the operator where they are, a crucial element in a world where few still have land lines.
It's easy to find examples of how human arrogance, laziness, lust, greed, rage, envy and overindulgence make the world far from perfect. How do we fix it?
Once again people propose education. And certainly some problems can be handled by simply teaching and training people about hazards and the right and wrong way to do things. But no amount of education will stop someone from doing what they shouldn't if they don't want to stop. I remember the reaction to the Columbine High School shooting. Some people actually said that we should put up copies of the Ten Commandments in schools to prevent future shootings. But I don't think the problem with the shooters was that they had forgotten the commandment against killing. They didn't care. In fact they knew they would not be able to kill everyone in their school but said in a recording they made that they knew they would traumatize those who survived. That shows a shrewd awareness of other ways of harming humans and a chilling desire to use that knowledge. That is not ignorance. That is evil.
Deciding who is “us” and who is “them” and then doing something drastic to “them” won't work. For one thing, there is no one group from which all evil flows. Think most suicide bombers are Muslims? If so, you'd be wrong. The largest number of suicide bombers belonged to the Tamil Tigers, a Marxist group in Sri Lanka. Think all terrorists are poor people with nothing to lose? Actually most are educated and middle class young people who get radicalized. This week's This American Life podcast tells how making assumptions about “them” almost got a cop killed. Called to a largely black neighborhood about a random shooting, he expected the perp to be black. Witnesses pointed him in the direction the shooter ran and the cop gave chase. He came upon a Walmart from which people were fleeing in a panic. He knew that the overwhelming majority of mass shootings are caused by white men and changed assumptions about who he was hunting. He entered the store. He spotted a man with a gun in the automotive department and was creeping up on the guy when he came across a woman. Temporarily confused at her presence, he almost got shot. He returned fire, winged her and retreated. He assumed that there was one shooter and that, of course, he was a man. He never considered that the mayhem was caused by a husband and wife. “Them” is an elusive group to pin down. And it is a red herring. Evil is much closer to home.
Sin is an individual thing, even if someone is egging you on or tempting you. It is a choice, even if you are influenced by external factors. And because, as Jesus pointed out, the impulse and intention comes from within, no external fix will do. We must be changed from the inside out. But how?
Bill W., one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, wrestled with the same problem. He knew from experience that his drinking was out of control and that he was powerless to stop it. He was only able to do so after he let God take control of his life. God created us. He can fix us. But like a surgeon, he needs us to consent and comply before he can open us up and fix what has gone wrong inside us.
To change the metaphor, if your computer is malfunctioning, you don't attach more peripherals or just keep entering the same commands; you call an expert. You even let him take control of your computer remotely. And he will probably install software to clean up your PC. He will also give you instructions to periodically run the software to keep malware, viruses and the like from messing up your computer in the future.
That's what Christianity is like. It is not about simply trying to do the commandments you haven't been able to follow anyway. It is about letting the expert, your creator, inside. It is letting him take control and install his Holy Spirit to patiently track down and uninstall the things that are causing you to malfunction. It is periodically running a scan of your spiritual self to see if you need to be cleaned again.
C.S. Lewis used the metaphor of an orchestra to explain the 3 areas in which humans mess up. The musicians have to first keep their instruments tuned if they are to make music and not just noise. But then they must make sure that they are in harmony with the other instruments and that they keep the same tempo and are literally in the same page. And finally they must be playing what the conductor has chosen and is directing. It won't do any good if he is trying to get them to play Beethoven's “Ode to Joy” and they are trying to play “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”
In the same way, there are 3 components to morality. We must make sure our own instrument, our self, is in good repair and in tune. We need to practice working in harmony with our fellow human beings. And finally we must be working for the right goal. Nazi society worked harmoniously but the person they were following was a monster and their goal would have been hell on earth. We Christians should be following Jesus and working to realize his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
But it starts with becoming a Christlike person. Obviously this will not take place all at once. We are works in progress but as we open ourselves to the Spirit and let him work in us and as we grow through the process, we will find that slowly but surely we are taking on his characteristics. We will become more faithful, more hopeful, more loving people. We will see him in others and serve him by serving them. We will work for their well-being and see to it that they have justice. We will tell them the good news of Jesus Christ and invite them to join us in following him.
The problem with most systemic reforms is that they focus on the system. But even the best system in the world will not function correctly if the people running it are untrustworthy, self-serving, or out of control. Whereas a not-so-great system might perform well beyond expectations if the people running it are conscientious, compassionate and have common sense. Character matters. And ultimately that's what salvation is: not merely moving us from the bad side of the ledger to the good but recreating us as God's children, so we grow up to be just like our heavenly Father.