This world we are living can be a heart-breaking place. As I write this, thousands are dead after an earthquake in Nepal and many, many more face health and housing crises in the aftermath. Just last week, 28 Ethiopian Christians were cruelly murdered for no reason other than their faith. According to the UN, there are now 4 million registered Syrian refugees who have fled from the persecution and destruction wreaked by ISIS.
Like many other Australians, I was horrified this morning to hear of the brutal executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. There are people I know personally who knew them personally and my heart is heavy for them – I can’t even begin to imagine what their families are feeling.
But I was also horrified that I only learned the plight of Mary Jane Veloso the day before she was to be executed. Why have I not been hearing her story for months?
Similarly, while I rejoiced this morning with the news that 293 women and girls have been rescued by the Nigerian military from their appalling captivity to Boko Haram, the fact that none of these are the girls kidnapped from Chibok over a year ago reminds me that there are many more stories of suffering happening in that place than the one I have heard about.
Which leads me to these questions: How do we decide what to care about? In a world with so much suffering and injustice, how and why do some situations become known and provoke massive outpourings of response, while others go unheeded? Who decides, and is it okay to let someone else decide for us?
I’m not sure I have answers to these questions, but that’s okay. My goal here is simply to do some thinking out loud.
Certainly the media can be an easy target, as “they” appear to choose which stories we hear and which we don’t and we can’t always be sure what their motives are. I do wonder, however, if a big part of their agenda is presenting us with the stories they think we want to hear. Which puts the question back on us and our self-interest .
Social media can be seen as playing a helpful role in allowing people to have more of a voice and to probe beyond what those with seemingly big corporate agendas are telling us. Certainly the fact that I have a handful of friends on facebook who live in Nepal has helped me feel like I have slightly more insight into the realities of what is happening on the ground there.
And yet it is often difficult to understand why some stories go viral and so many others don’t. Why do we collectively choose to care about some things more than others?
Social media also seems to feed into a kind of “Compassion Fatigue” – where we are so overwhelmed by the sheer amount of suffering in the world that we just want to crawl under the covers and watch videos of cats. It also seems to lead us towards setting up Compassion as a Zero Sum Game – where we assume that by caring about one thing someone is by default not caring about something else, and we then attack them for that perceived lack of compassion.
Two passages from the Bible are challenging me about these questions today.
The first is in Deuteronomy 15, where Moses is explaining to the people of Israel how they are to put into practice the call to respond to the poor and needy. One of the things I love about biblical Hebrew is how abstract concepts are often spoken about by grounding them in physical, concrete, realities. So when he speaks about being compassionate and generous, he literally talks about what you “see with your eyes” and what you can “reach with your hand.” To me, this suggests that the call to respond to the poor and needy is in some way contingent upon us and our situation. If we see injustice, if we can reach out to suffering, then we are called to do so. Once we have become aware, and we know that it is in our ability to act, to turn away is in and of itself an act of injustice.
The challenge we face in our global, interconnected world is that we have the ability to see injustice and need in so many places, and we have the ability in our hands to make a difference in so many ways. We have readily accepted the privilege of knowledge and information and connection that technology has brought us, but I’m not sure we have so readily accepted the challenge.
The second passage is the very well known story Jesus tells in Luke 10. The parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus tells the story in response to a man asking a question not that dissimilar from the ones I am asking today. “Who is my neighbour?” “Who am I to care about?” And Jesus’ answer is quite confronting. Your neighbour might just be the last person you expect, the person so unlike you, the person who hates you, the person who has no connection to you at all and no ability to repay you for your kindness.
As I continue to scroll through my facebook or twitter feed, as I click on the links people send me, as I engage with the stories of what is happening in our world, what does it look like for me to respond to these my neighbours, whether their story is viral or hardly known? What can I do today with the images I have seen with my own eyes and the resources I have in my own hand to show compassion and justice?