Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Good News About Bad News

Everyone likes to hear good news. “Uncle Bob is getting better.” “My daughter finally had her baby.” “Our team is in the Super Bowl.” The odd thing is that often good news is predicated on the existence of bad news. Things weren't looking too good for Uncle Bob for a while. It's his turnaround that is good news. The expectant daughter was way overdue. We were worried about her and the baby. Now we're relieved and happy. Our team has sucked in recent seasons. The fact that they are back on top makes us proud of them once more.

Sometimes the good news is that there's a solution to a bad problem. Alzheimer's is a cruel disease that slowly strips away a person's memory and thus themselves, leaving a living body where a whole person used to be. Recent studies in Australia and Japan seem to hold hope that this disease can not only be halted but reversed. If the human trials work out, it will be very good news.

The weird thing is that we often prefer bad news. It's more dramatic. I personally thought the TV series Gotham was going to be canceled after one season. After all the series begins with the death of Bruce Wayne's parents when he was a kid. Although the focus would also be on the rise of Jim Gordon from detective to police commissioner, neither the man nor his police force could make much headway against crime and corruption or there would be no reason for Batman. So why would anyone want to watch a good man fail for seven seasons? But apparently people do. They like watching the origin of the super-villains. Maybe it's the same impulse that fuels endless sequels to horror films or that keeps people watching reality shows about obnoxious people. It is the equivalent of slowing down to gawk at a car accident.

Scientists have noticed this bias towards bad news and think it is a survival mechanism. Being able to spot threats is vital. So we are attuned to look for signs of predators, for potential accidents and their probable causes, and for illness, as well as for people who make things worse: bullies, gossips, thieves, liars, and fools. A lot of the troubles in the world are due to people, not natural causes. We can be our own worst enemies. For instance the top preventable causes of death in the United States, from most to least, are tobacco use, high blood pressure and overweight, alcohol use, infectious diseases, toxins, motor vehicle collisions, firearms, sexually transmitted diseases and drug abuse. If you add in medical errors in hospitals and preventable colorectal cancers, they account for 61% of preventable deaths. These things don't always kill, at least immediately; they also cause disability and decline. Changing our personal habits and being more sensible would not only save lives but make them more enjoyable.

People not only cause problems for themselves but for others. 6 of the 10 commandments are about how we treat others. Leviticus 19 also prohibits lying, deceiving, defrauding, robbing, slandering, or endangering the life of your neighbor, as well as hating, seeking revenge, bearing a grudge, pimping your daughter, abusing the disabled, disrespecting the elderly, and mistreating resident aliens. It is the chapter from which Jesus gets the commandment to love your neighbor. The thing is, like warning labels on products, the fact that it had to be spelled out reveals that people were engaging in these harmful practices.

And they do so today. Companies are constantly being fined for deceptive practices, such as those of Wells Fargo, who opened bogus accounts for its customers without letting them know.

Companies have endangered public health through air, water and land pollution. Mines often engage in industrial practices that endanger their workers. Takata, the Japanese manufacturer, has just reached a $1 billion settlement with the Justice Department over defective air bags that have caused at least 16 deaths, 11 in the US alone. Executives knew about the defect and submitted false test reports to automakers rather than, you know, fix the lethal problem.

Our social media is rife with people expressing hate, bearing grudges and seeking revenge on others. It makes it easy to bully children, harass women and destroy careers.

As many as 300,000 children in the US are at risk of being commercially sexually exploited. One third of runaways are lured into prostitution within 48 hours of hitting the streets.

About 25% of vulnerable elderly people report abuse each month. It can be physical, emotional, sexual or financial abuse or it can be neglect. The exact numbers are hard to determine because it is hidden in the privacy of home and family or in institutional settings. Another problem in determining the amount of abuse is that the elderly may have physical or cognitive problems that impair their reporting it. The same difficulties mask the scope of the abuse of the disabled.

Immigrants are easy targets for mistreatment because they often stick out in our society. And illegal immigrants are easily exploited by those who employ them because they are afraid to go to authorities. By the way, Leviticus 19, the same chapter that tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves also tells us to love immigrants as ourselves. God is on the side of the underdog.

No one is as vulnerable as the poor. And so more than 300 verses in the Bible spell out our duty to the poor. Civil rights lawyer Gary Haugen of International Justice Mission says one hidden reason for poverty is violence. It can be political violence and organized crime, but it can also be the fact that people can pick on the poor with impunity. The poor have little power in society and so they are vulnerable to all who would prey upon them. They are easy to rob of property and land. They are easy to enslave (and there are more slaves today—35 million—than ever before). Poor girls in third world countries often do not go to school because of the danger of being grabbed and raped on the way. And in much of the world the police are underpaid, corrupt, and work for the rich and powerful. In much of the world, there is no right to an attorney without cost. In much of the world the poor have no recourse against those who victimize them.

Disability and chronic illness often cause poverty. Mental illness also impoverishes families. Societies that do not provide adequate healthcare to the poor simply perpetuate poverty and increase the cost to us all. As one doctor pointed out, the ER primarily treats 3 kinds of people: the really old, the really sick and the really poor. And if they don't have health insurance, the hospital passes on the cost to everyone else.

Global warming will also impact the poor disproportionately. Widespread drought will cause water and food shortages, which will increase migrations and food riots. The US military sees global warming as a significant threat, because it will cause greater instability and more terrorism in the world.

There are other consequences to mistreating the vulnerable. Ezekiel 16:49 says, “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” Isaiah 10:1-2 says, “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making the widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.” In Jeremiah 5:28, 29 God decries those who “'do not defend the rights of the poor. Should I not punish them for this?' declares the Lord. 'Should I not avenge myself on such a nation as this?'”

Ah, but I am neither rich nor a person who takes advantage of the vulnerable,” you may say. Very good. But do you actively work to counteract the exploitation of the poor, the sick, the elderly, children living in poverty and the like, or do you just go along with society as it is? Do you agree with the common criticism of the morals and choices of the poor as a way of justifying their poverty and ignore the same behavior when it is displayed by the rich and famous? In other words, do you condemn poor people who have children out of wedlock and children from many partners without doing the same when celebrities have many spouses or partners and children with several of them? Do you come down more vehemently on welfare cheats than on corporations that manipulate laws and lobby elected officials to get government subsidies in the form of huge tax breaks and write-offs? If you are complacent about the way things are, then you are complicit in the injustices committed everyday.

Compounding our personal problems is our partisanship, which Paul addresses in today's passage from 1 Corinthians (1:10-18). We are blind to the major faults of the groups with which we identify: factions, political parties, denominations. We cut ourselves and the people we care about a lot of slack while we hold others to higher standards. We judge ourselves and those we care about by our motivations while we judge others by the results of what they do or say. Because of our tribalism, we are loathe to admit the other side has a point in their arguments and we bristle at any criticism of our side. We view our differences as a zero sum game where if one side is a winner the other must therefore be a loser. Hence even when both sides realize they have a mutual problem, we cannot come together to solve it. I remember hearing on the news about how a bill in Congress to fight cancer in kids died in committee because one party didn't want a member of the other party to get credit for it. That's evil.

As Paul says in Romans 3:10, “None is righteous, no, not one.” The world is messed up. And people are the cause of much of it. That's the bad news.

The word gospel means “good news.” The Greek word underlying it, from which we get the word “evangelism,” originally referred to a proclamation made by heralds announcing the king's arrival. That was good news because it meant everything would be put right. The good news of Christianity is that God knows that all is not right with the world and that he has sent his son to put things right.

The people of Jesus' day thought he would do so with military action by ousting the oppressive Romans from the Holy Land and setting up a political kingdom of God. Jesus knew that such a coercive act would solve nothing, just setting up further violent conflicts. The problem isn't an external one but an internal one.

Jesus lived in a society that treated problems externally. It was obsessed with ceremonial laws that could not possibly fix internal problems. Jesus said, “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:21-23)

If the problem is internal, then the solution must be as well. If you are limping because you shattered the bones in your leg, then changing to more comfortable shoes won't work. You will need to be opened up and have the problem fixed surgically. The problem with this world is the people in it. And more specifically the problem is in the hearts of people. As it says in Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” Because of it, we act selfishly, irrationally and ultimately self-destructively. We need the source of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faith, gentleness and self-control dwelling within us. We need the Spirit of Jesus in the hearts of the people in this world.

The good news is that can happen. We can have the Spirit of God within us. But since we are talking about love, consent is needed. God cannot simply override people's wills and enter their hearts. That's like rape. People must welcome his Spirit into their hearts.

But before that people must make room in their hearts for God. Our lives are full of things that just do not go along with having God within us. Our sins, of course, but also our resentments. Our grudges and rage and envy. Our arrogance and self-indulgences and inordinate love of things above God. We need to repent, which means rethink, our attitudes, priorities, and choices. Thoughts, words and deeds that harm rather than help are not compatible with a life lived in the Spirit.

That's not a popular message. People don't want to make sacrifices to follow Jesus, even though he said that those who want to follow him need to disown themselves and take up their crosses. Folks want to be able to follow Jesus and somehow keep their pet sins—their arrogance, their adulteries, their hatreds, their greed, their indifference to the plight of others. It's like people who want to be cured of cancer but keep smoking, or people who want to be cured of STDs but still sleep around. You can't become healthy if you persist in unhealthy behaviors.

The good news is there is a solution to our severely messed up world. The bad news is that we will have to make changes in the way we think, speak and act. It's like the good news I received when I woke up from a coma a year ago. Though I had broken both legs and both wrists, among other things, I would be able to regain use of my hands and legs. But I was going to have to do a lot of painful, difficult work to get there. However, I had seen what happened to patients who refused or dropped out of therapy because it was hard: nothing. No change to their inability to stand, or walk, or leave the nursing home and go back to a normal life. No getting better. For the promise of being whole again, I was willing, if need be, to go through hell.

As students of Jesus, we need to understand and pass on the good news. First we must acknowledge the bad news: this world and the people in it are messed up. There is no aspect of life that is not messed up. The good news is that God is love and his son Jesus is the embodiment of that love and through Jesus we can restore our lives to health and wholeness. All it requires is rethinking your life and choices and trusting Jesus to do what he says. This also means trusting him enough to do what he tells us to do, the way you would follow a doctor's orders if you really trusted him and wanted to get well.

The good news is that Jesus can make folks better. But perhaps one reason why people are less willing to take him up on his offer is this: what exactly does “better” mean?

We'll tackle that next week.

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