Friday, March 18, 2011

Weight of the World

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. (Matthew 5.4)

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. (Galatians 6.2-3)


We’ve witnessed an astonishing range of conflict and grief in our lifetimes: wars, famines, genocide, natural disasters, depressions—you name it, we’ve seen it. Yet I don’t recall anything like what we’ve felt this past week, when sorrow overtakes us before looking at the news. Helpless is the headline. In the wake of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami—devastation unlike any we’ve ever seen—we sit on pins and needles, dreading meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. With the death toll already expected to top 14,000, we’re grateful for time to guard against further loss of life. Yet, God forbid, should a Chernobyl-like event turn the region into a “Dead Zone,” the outcome will prove nonetheless tragic by keeping those who’ve lost relatives, friends, homes, and businesses from ever being fully restored. We agonize with parents who may never recover their children’s remains, or children who may never lay their parents to rest.

If there’s a bright side to Japan’s travails, it’s found in the global response effort. Though we feel helpless, we’re doing what we can. Meanwhile, holocaust looms in Libya and we don’t know what to do. For weeks, we’ve wrung our hands, trying to come up with something to derail its head-on collision with a madman. One would think unseating Gaddafi to be quick work. Yet history teaches defeating tyranny is an arduous, expensive process. This crisis finds defenders of freedom tapped out. So we talk about no-fly zones and sanctions, all the while dreading the moment when Gaddafi unleashes his wrath on entire cities and regions.

The Japanese tragedy and Libyan threat, complemented by ongoing violence in Bahrain, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, crush us with the world’s weight. For reasons we can’t explain, objectivity and distance intensify our grief. Remove from daily realities in these places causes us to feel helpless. Yet similar frustrations haunt us when the horrors are closer to home. Since September, our church has tracked Chicago youths felled to gun violence. The number reached 50 last Sunday. Fifty futures ruined. Fifty families shattered. Fifty communities robbed. Surely blossoms of grace spring up in these wildernesses. We know they do, as we’ve found them in our own tragedies and losses. Since they make lousy news copy, however, we’re shielded from them—whether across the oceans or down the street. Thus every setback and cruelty increases the weight of the world. Every day’s news compounds our grief. We mourn our helplessness as much as our losses.

The Disciple’s Burden

Grief on the scale we’re experiencing engenders emotions like those expressed in Psalm 6.2-3: “Have mercy on me, LORD, for I am faint; heal me, LORD, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in deep anguish. How long, LORD, how long?” We just want it to stop. Yet, in Matthew 24, Jesus tells us as long as the world survives, we will be plagued by disasters: “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places.” Though we resist admitting our finest efforts and smartest innovations can never eliminate tragedy, we must come to terms with the fact that human slaughter and natural disasters are permanent fixtures in earthly life. And because of this, we’re wise to outgrow questioning why these horrors occur, so we can ask a more pertinent question: what is our duty in the wake of tragedy—be it epic or intimate in size and nature?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer sets forth an illuminating take on this. In his quest to define discipleship’s traits, he locates many in The Beatitudes, each of which, he says, “deepens the breach between the disciples and the people. The disciples’ call becomes more and more visible. Those who mourn are those who are prepared to renounce and live without everything the world calls happiness and peace. They are those who cannot be brought into accord with the world, who cannot conform to the world. They mourn over the world, its guilt, its fate, and its happiness… They bear what is laid upon them and what happens to them in discipleship for the sake of Jesus Christ.” (40-Day Journey with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, p36)

This radically alters how we view The Beatitudes and many other texts we typically read with detached objectivity. When Jesus says, “Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted,” He isn’t speaking of a vaguely identified group of mourners. He’s instructing us to grieve. The weight of the world—its sorrow, helplessness, and despair—is the disciple’s burden. We bear it for the sake of Jesus Christ, Who bore it in human form as our Surrogate and Sacrifice and bears it still as our Savior and Intercessor. When Bonhoeffer says we “cannot conform to the world,” we’re reminded we don’t cope with grief as others do. While they crave closure and strive to move on, we seek comfort because we don’t move on. As long as human suffering exists, we suffer by choice.

In This Way

Paul expands on this in Galatians 6.2: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Our grief is real because burdens we carry for others are real. What we feel surpasses empathy and sorrow. It’s the agony of undue weight we assume in obedience to Christ’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves. We care, not because it’s the “right thing” to do. (Though it is that.) We care because it’s what we do. And we do it without hope of praise for our moral character and strength. Nor do we carry others’ burdens only as long as “something can be done.” These are the sorts of attitudes Paul refers to by saying, “If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves.” (v3) We are disciples—more than friends, less than saviors. We don’t “feel sorry” for people; we bear their sorrow. We don’t “rescue” them; we help them. So we grieve today. We will grieve tomorrow and as long as we live. We seek no closure, only comfort that comes as we carry each other’s burdens. In this way, we fulfill Christ’s law.

We grieve not for our neighbors, but as one of them, fulfilling Christ’s command to love them as ourselves.

Postscript: “He Ain’t Heavy”

This recording has become so pervasive in pop culture it teeters on cliché—until we listen to it with fresh ears, as disciples who bear the world’s burdens because that’s what we do. Take four minutes to reacquaint yourself with The Hollies’ “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.”

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