Friday, May 23, 2008

Head, Heart and Hypocrisy?

Is it preferable that 1000 people die in an earthquake, or that one person hurts their finger?

It's a no-brainer, isn't it? One person in a bit of pain is almost nothing when compared to the agony and loss of even ten people in an earthquake, let alone 1000.

Now imagine two scenarios:

1. You see on the news that 1000 more people have perished in an earthquake on the other side of the globe

2. Someone accidentally closes a door on your little finger, almost crushing it completely

Which one causes you more physical pain? Obviously the second.

And a more tricky question: which one causes you more emotional pain?

If we're honest, it's probably the second one, too. I am much angrier with the person who was so careless with the door than I am with God for causing an earthquake. I suspect most people react similarly out of proportion.

I hadn't really thought about this until it was mentioned - almost in passing - during a sermon I heard last Sunday. I don't remember what the rest of the talk was about, but I was very much struck by the throwaway question as to which of these two situations caused me the more pain.

Perhaps I wouldn't have thought much more about it, but in one of those non-coincidences that God seems to delight in sometimes, I'm currently reading Philip Yancey's 'I Was Just Wondering' which basically attempts to answer - or at least ponder on - some frequently asked questions about God and the Christian life.

In his chapter 'Scorpions, Worms and Missiles', Yancey makes exactly the same point: when he was working in a refugee camp in Somalia, he found himself a lot more worried about the possibility of being stung by a scorpion than by the knowledge that 10,000 of the refugees were likely to die within months.

He goes on to quote the book of Jonah, where God made a similar point in a dramatic way. Jonah really didn't care about the thousands of people in Ninevah who were destined to destruction if they didn't change their ways. But he got very angry when God sent a worm to destroy the tree that was shading him from the sun.

I suppose it's human nature that we are most emotionally involved in things that affect us or our loved ones directly. It's basically rather selfish - or, at least, self-centred - but perhaps it's a mechanism to protect us. It would be impossible to give vast emotional energy towards caring deeply about every world disaster - or, indeed, every finger shut in a door.

But sometimes there's so much bad news around the world that we seem immune to it. Another shooting incident in the USA, another riot in the Middle East, another drought in Africa, another earthquake in Asia... do we care at all? Do we pray - even briefly - for those dying in agony, and those who have been bereaved? Or do we just shrug it off as yet more evidence of the depravity of the human race, or the End Times?

1 comment:

Steve Hayes said...

A quote from one of my favourite books, which may be relevant:

"I have before me the current issue of the New Christian in which the General Secretary of the British Council of Churches, Dr Kenneth Sansbury, reported on the Crete meeting of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches. One paragraph runs as follows: 'The Central Committee reiterated what it had already said about Viet Nam, called for full religious liberty in Spain, and offered the services of a mediator in Nigeria. It expressed serious concern over the world's food gap and protested against racial discrimination.' It is little wonder that the Church has almost ceased to be the target of satirical comedians. Not even the sharpest wit amongst them can parody us as effectively as we parody ourselves. But the image conjured up by that extraordinary paragraph ought to have been worth five minutes of the 'Frost Report' -- this august body of men, trotting metaphorically around the world expressing concern at this, grave concern at that, and very grave concern at something else.

Their sentiments were, I am sure, genuine. But it was that old word game again. We are vitally concerned about human suffering because we keep on and on and on saying so. But as a bed-rock Christian operation, it is all phoney, and the world knows it is phoney by simple logic. No human beings, even princes of the Church, have got that much compassion in them to pour out. They might look Nigeria in the face, glance at Viet Nam and shudder, but long before they reached the problem of world hunger they would be drained, voiceless and broken. And those good men would have adjourned that meeting greyer at the temples, utterly aghast at the enormity of what they had seen.

But so long as we need only wrestle with issues, our range is unlimited. We can tut-tut our way into, through and out of every problem on the entire globe, demands of the Agenda and tea breaks permitting.

I wrote not in anger but in contrition, for I too have played that particular word game. I have been responsible for more than my fair share of pious resolutions, only one of which, demanding majority rule in what was then Northern Rhodesia, really cost me anything personally. For the rest, like Hans Anderson's little tailor, I have killed as many as seven or eight political issues with one blow in a single session of the Methodist Conference, merely by raising my hand dutifully at the appropriate moment" (Morris 1968:22 ).

It's nearly 40 years since, faced with a doctrine exam the next day, I decided to read that, instead of the magic textbook that would make me pass. I passed anyway.