Social Retreatism

My primary developmental years took place in that weird time between the end of the Cold War and the 9/11 attacks. I looked with childlike eyes on the revelry of the 80’s. I cut my adolescent teeth wallowing the angst of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Smashing Pumpkins. I became a legal adult just 6 days before 9/11. I grew up in the calm between storms.

I didn’t know about racism or injustice. I had no idea that the United States ran internment camps for Japanese Americans. I hadn’t heard of human trafficking and was pretty confident that slavery ended with the Civil War. I didn’t realize that Indians were actually Native Americans.

I was the picture of naive. I was a middle class white kid, growing up in middle class white towns, learning middle class white lessons. I saw the world through the lens of privilege and innocence. I never thought that people who looked at believed different than me were bad. I just didn’t know that they really existed because I never really saw them.

A vivid memory for me is learning about the nonviolence of the Civil Rights Movement. I was fascinated by the stories of sit-ins and marches. I wondered why the people in those pictures decided to protest. I thought there had to be a better way. I had been in situations where I felt powerless, and those situations have left deep scars that shape my life. I had no idea what it meant to be born into a situation in life that assigned you to the permanent position of powerless.

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These photos are painfully recognizable to anyone who paid the least bit of attention over the last year. They have each made me sad. They have each led me to ask difficult questions. Probably the most difficult question I’ve asked is whether or not I really even care.

I know I’m not alone in this questioning. We wonder who we can trust and how we can become informed without being misinformed. The complexity of the struggle we’ve witnessed coupled with the information saturation that surrounds us has led to something that I would call “social retreatism”.

Nope, it’s not scientific, and neither is my evidence to support it.

This act of social retreatism looks like well-educated, well-resourced, well-informed people becoming aware of human suffering and brokenness by consuming copious doses of social and big media, then retreating into conversations with people who look, think, and behave similarly.

When I read about the Dakota Access Pipeline, I feel bad for what’s going on. I wonder what would have happened if they proposed a route that took the pipeline within 500 feet of a youth soccer complex, let alone a cemetery. I talk to my white, middle-class, well-educated friends about it, profess the silliness of it all, tell some politically incorrect joke to break the tension, then go back to staring at my screen.

I watch the Black Lives Matter protests. I think, “Yeah, that’s really heartbreaking that an entire race of people who call America home feel like (and have historical evidence to support) the idea that within American history, their lives haven’t mattered.” Then I scroll on to the video of the dogs trying to catch tennis balls and landing on their heads.

I don’t even have words for the little Syrian boy found lifeless on the beach.

I know about a lot of “issues,” but I don’t know a lot of the people that live behind these issues. Honestly, if it wasn’t for my Christian community (a.k.a. church) then I’d be completely disengaged from anything other than my own personal happiness…and maybe the PTA fundraisers for my kid’s school.

I, like so many of my peers, live my life disconnected from the vast array of human suffering. I have the freedom of choice. I can choose to live in a good neighborhood, send my kids to a great school, and complain about how expensive my health insurance is.

I live above the fray, retreating behind my screen to observe the carnage of the human experience. My professional life affords me the opportunity to sit and have conversations with refugees, ex-cons, incarcerated individuals, and a variety of people of color and means. My professional life also affords me the burden of knowing that the way we’ve lived is socially acceptable wrong-doing. I believe it’s wrong precisely because of what I believe about God.

Because I believe in Jesus, I believe that all people are born with an inherent worth that cannot be quantified (no, I don’t believe this because of the Constitution, but props to the Founding Fathers for getting that bit in there). Because I believe in Jesus, I know that it’s not my problem to fix – it’s God’s. Because I believe in Jesus, I know that God’s plan for fixing the problem is for the people who believe in him to challenge, confront, confound, and reject both the practices and the systems that perpetuate human suffering.

Call your congressperson, go to a protest, sponsor a hungry kid, volunteer at a refugee center, volunteer at an underprivileged school, wear a dress to raise awareness, go to your City Council meetings, partner with a non-profit organizations or missionary efforts to go visit a developing location, do something, do anything! Helping people is the most equal opportunity scenario in our world. The great irony of contemporary America is that we are better equipped to help people than so many generations that have come before us, but we have to cultivate the basic human value of loving our neighbor.

The hard part will not be finding a way to help. The hard part is finding the mental, emotional, and relational courage to engage with our world in a genuine way.

I live in a glass house of self-interest, so I’m not gonna throw stones. I’m not an altruistic person, and I’m really not even a very good person. But I found that when I started meeting the people behind the screen, I felt a rawness of emotion and demand for action that I had never known before. I don’t expect any of us to actually be responsible for fixing anything. I’m hopeful that we’ll do something better than that. I’m hopeful that we’ll get better at loving real people so they can see the world is bigger and more beautiful than whatever injustice, discrimination, heartache, or devastation they’ve experienced.

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