There’s a certain amount of psychosis that’s to be expected when everything around you is on fire and everyone around you is pretending things are fine. Imagine being a teenager when most of the adults in your community are thrilled that life is getting “back to normal” after COVID, but you didn’t think things were normal before COVID. In fact, things haven’t been “normal” for a long time, and things have gotten so crazy that the artist behind the “This is Fine” meme has re-created the image to depict how “not fine” things actually are. Let’s look at a few of these abnormalities, some of there possible causes, and how our society has been processing them, in the hope that we might gain a better understanding of how deeply broken things are.
Keep in mind, teenagers are going back to school, church, and work, and their teachers, their pastors, and their managers have all been expressing gratitude for things getting back to the way they were before COVID, but before the pandemic depression, substance abuse, and suicide rates were already sky rocketing. According to Trust for America’s Health, a non-profit health advocacy organization, “Deaths associated with alcohol, drugs, and suicide took the lives of 186,763 Americans in 2020, a 20 percent one year increase in the combined death rate and the highest number of substance misuse deaths ever recorded for a single year.” Drug induced deaths were up 30 percent, alcohol induced deaths were up 27 percent, and while overall suicides were down, suicide deaths among young people were up as well.
Even more shocking are the number of mass shootings that have occurred over the past decade. With two deadly attacks in the past two weeks there is no shortage of news articles with headlines like, “Why can’t America do anything to stop mass shootings?” from the Guardian, and “It’s easy to feel hopeless, but mass shootings aren’t inevitable” from Vice. These articles and the dozens more just like them offer well reasoned discussions of why these shootings are happening and methods for reducing there frequency. The problem, however, is that everyone seems to know the answers, we know that we know, and we know that despite this knowledge nothing is changing. The futility generated by this inability to change has itself become additional fuel for more violence, but what, if any, are the alternatives?
Before we look at the possibility of specific changes, it’s worth remembering that the futility just mentioned above can be compounded by the realization that our society did make drastic changes in response to COVID, and if the pandemic showed us anything at all it certainly proved that we can survive drastic changes to our day to day routines. It was incredibly difficult but we made it. None-the-less, the question still remains, does our society have the collective will to make drastic changes in response to deaths from depression and desperation, like we did for COVID, and what would that look like? Some small changes could be something as simple as showing up to church on Sunday and your normally non-political pastor or Sunday School teacher talks about the urgent need to take action for political changes, or conversely your normally political, but very partisan pastor, repents of his or her partisanship, and expresses the need for political change but in a non-partisan way.
To be clear, non-partisan means ceasing to appeal to the Republican or Democratic party, or to Trump or Biden or any politician, as the answer to our nation’s problems. Even more importantly, to gently confront those in our congregations who have fallen prey to the sin of partisanship in the same way we would confront someone for adultery. And for those who think this is too extreme, remember that this partisanship we’ve been flirting with for the past few decades is a uniquely dangerous form of idolatry and has greatly contributed to the current state of our nation’s despair. One pastor who has faithfully taken this stand over the past several years is Brian Zahnd from Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri. Ironically, he has recently written a book titled When Everything’s on Fire and preached a sermon series on the same topic last fall. His book Farewell to Mars is a triumph of truth telling in regards to our supposedly Christian nation’s obsession with violence.
These things may seem insignificant for some but despite declining church attendance throughout the United States, religious leaders still have a major influence on large groups of people, and churches are one of the few places people are still choosing to meet voluntarily with people outside of their immediate family and close friends. Religious people also have deeply rooted stories within their traditions that can be called upon to initiate change. Two of those stories reflect how differently the future can unfold for empires that embrace or reject God’s word. In the Christian scriptures Nineveh repents and turns towards God, and is spared the catastrophe that seemed imminent. Egypt, on the other hand, stubbornly refuses to change, and they experience tremendous suffering because of the hardness of their hearts. Apart from there religious contexts these stories reveal the truth of how traumatic life can be when a person or a group refuses to make good and necessary changes in their lives.