The thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy… but I have come that they might have life! – Jesus the Christ
Some weeks feel darker than others, exposing the confusion, despair, and unanswered questions that are always there. Usually we can distract ourselves with a good IPA, maybe a little recreation, or a cheer for our team. But when Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade both commit suicide, our surface pursuits are stripped away, for a few moments at least, and we’re reminded that no amount of travel, wealth, fame, or physical comfort, can assure us of a sense that life’s worth living.
Each untimely loss is tragic, but the fame of these two not only creates a breadth of grief, it highlights the untidy reality that suicide rates are on the rise, dramatically. 45,000 take their own lives each year, twice the number as deaths by homicide. It’s the 2nd leading cause of death among the 15-34 demographic. As a pastor I know the devastation it leaves behind and can tell you its like no other.
We’re fools if we don’t pause, at least for a moment, to acknowledge that the world we’ve created isn’t working very well. When you add gun violence, death as the byproduct of addiction, and untimely death as the byproduct of our inability to access medical treatments into the mix, the picture becomes even darker.
It’s at this point in my writing that I get frustrated these days. I know that if I talk about the systemic problems of our culture’s obsession with personal freedom, some on the right will label me a liberal anti-Christian. When I offer the truth that, no matter how unjust one’s circumstances, no matter how bleak one’s situation, there’s a hope and healing, in Christ, available to every person, without cost, I’ll be labelled a religious fanatic by some on the left. The need for systemic change and the call to individual responsibility/opportunity have somehow become adversaries in this highly polarized world. We’re polarized, shooting each other over either/or straw men erected by ministries and political parties desperately in need of the “other” to be vilified.
But meanwhile, a world class chef, whose travel and friendships seemed exemplary to most of us, commits suicide. A couple stuck in poverty and wracked with health challenges poison themselves by lighting their BBQ in their bedroom letting their cats out while they choke on carbon monoxide. Another young gay man commits suicide. To the theological left, who believe these problems are systemic, and to the right, who believe the problems are personal, I offer the same answer: yes.
In a world of death, Christ makes the audacious claim that he has come to give “life for the ages” to anyone who’ll turn to him. This is the promise of a personal transformation, whereby our spirits are united with the resurrected Christ, so that we’re empowered with wisdom, grace, strength, joy, and peace that is beyond our capacity to realize on our own. “Jesus is the answer” has powerful truth in it. There are people, around the world, whose faith in Christ fills them with a vibrancy and joy that can only be described as otherworldly. I’ve seen this with my own eyes on every continent: Tibetan refugees filled with joy in spite of losing their homeland, survivors of the Rwandan genocide with broad smiles speaking of the power of Christ to reconcile, families trapped in systemic poverty finding strength in worship and generosity – in each case, people whose lives have been transformed by Christ radiated a joy that was beyond comprehension. Yes, the people on the theological right are on to something. A personal relationship with Jesus makes a difference, which should come as no surprise, since Jesus spoke of it himself.
On the other hand, Rwandans do work for systemic change. Victims of the #metoo movement who’ve found power in Christ also work to change the culture so that sexual predation doesn’t continue to steal childhoods, and livelihoods, and dignity. Brian Stevenson’s book, “Just Mercy,” powerfully articulates the reality that the fulness of God’s vision for humanity includes not only inward renewal, but systemic change – that lynching is not OK, nor restricting voting rights for certain classes, nor any of a host of other oppressive tactics that scar our national story. It’s no good calling the oppressed “other” to simply be born again while closing our hearts to their needs for justice right here – right now. Jesus didn’t say, “I was hungry and you gave me a sermon…” Yes – the people on the theological left are also on to something: Systems need changing, and they need changing in Jesus’ name.
So why, in God’s name, are we shooting each other, hating each other, arguing with each other, and defending our limited understanding of issues? Meanwhile, the world continues to reel as the systemic principalities and powers, and the personal sins of each human conspire to create a world that is so dark, so hopeless, so disturbing, that the number of people choosing to exit early is rising rapidly enough that suicide is now officially declared a public health crisis.
Would to God that this becomes a wake up call to churches everywhere. There’s a meaning crisis behind the health crisis that is suicide – and the church would do well to demonstrate the power of Christ to fill human hearts with meaning, hope, and contentment – while at the same time prophetically investing its voice and strength in addressing systemic issues of poverty, lack of access to health care, school shootings, racism, and sexism that are choking our vitality.
We need the Jesus who says “come unto me all you who labor and are weighed down…and I will give you rest” as much as we need the Jesus who said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind” all because God’s good reign has arrived through Jesus.
Kierkegaard wrote “Either-Or” in 1843. Maybe my next book should be “Both-And” because one thing I know for certain. Shooting each other, and over-identifying our faith with particular political parties is simply not working.