By James E. Copple
John F. Kennedy and the new frontier defined my view of politics and why we should be concerned for the poor. I was 14 when Kennedy was assassinated and completely drawn by media coverage of his funeral. Watching endless commentary about his life and listening to his recorded speeches, I was mesmerized by the cadence of his oratory and quickly embraced the behest to “ask not what my country can do for me, but what I can do for my country.”
This privileged statesman from Boston, with his Irish-Catholic roots, set a tone that challenged my generation to join the Peace Corps, to volunteer and come alongside the dispossessed and broken. For the first time since missionaries to Africa arrived at the beginning of the last century, this forgotten and diverse continent caught our imagination. Suddenly, we thought there was something we could do that mattered.
I was prepared to leave behind my self-absorbed inclinations to be the richest kid on the block; to marry actress Haley Mills or another cinematic heartthrob from my Saturday-matinee movie screen. Now, I felt empowered to do something that mattered. Kennedy gave me that vision; he gave me a voice.
Not even a year later, I heard Kennedy’s speeches proclaimed as the gospel in the revival-service preaching of a missionary from Haiti, and it was a vision I was eager to share. This Jesus wasn’t only about avoiding hell and damnation, but about serving the poor, marginalized and disenfranchised of the world. I liked this Jesus, and he somehow became an eternal manifestation of the vision John Kennedy proclaimed in just three years of presidency. A strange synthesis began to form in my life – Kennedy idealism and Jesus’ prophetic compassion.
It has taken years of self-analysis to realize that, indeed, this is what shaped and defined so many of my choices. I am still bullish on America’s potential, and I am still in love with that man from Galilee who healed the leper and gave sight to the blind. However (and perhaps it is age and experience), I find myself sipping from the cup of cynicism that asks: Has anything you’ve done made one bit of difference in the lives of the people you think you serve? It is a bitter drink, and one that I would rather put down, punctuated by the constant exposure to suffering that comes with instant media and omnipresent communication.
Every night in my living room, celebrities and talking-heads take me to worlds far and near to see the hurt and suffering of all God’s children. It’s difficult, because what I often see is someone dressed in privilege and largely removed from the stories they tell, fearlessly facing a camera to deliver the violence, hurt and despair … of the war-torn; the afflicted; a bereaved parent whose son has been beheaded by ISIS; another child shot dead on the streets of America.
After ten years of working with the poorest-of-the-poor in east and southern Africa, it is no wonder I have my own issues with post-traumatic stress disorder and resent shallow celebrity voices calling for us to do more. I ask: What more can I do and how will “more” matter to those I seek to serve?
Bob Geldof and the Band Aid gang of musical celebrities are on my, well, I will simply say, “displeased” list for their recent production called, “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” a weak attempt to raise awareness around the Ebola crisis in West Africa. I joined a chorus of critics who take issue with condescending lyrics and the integrity of the project. The drama behind the production is so removed from the world where I live and work 10 months out of the year that the term hypocrisy just doesn’t cut it. And then, I looked into the mirror and questions began to emerge.
What makes me different? What makes any of us who seek to serve with compassion and a pursuit for justice any different? I board airplanes and travel great distances, I put on my work boots and my cargo pants, complete with Swiss Army Knife, and hike into villages bringing water, medicine and good news. What makes the missionary with his graduate work in “missional” outreach any better than Bob Geldof?
We are all carpetbaggers to some extent. We all must raise money, whether by begging, beseeching or sharing one more picture of a starving child. We do it pretending no one cares about our approach, only that we are there beside the African to help. It’s a slight twist on a favorite Washington quip, “I am from Washington and I am here to help.” In this case, “I am a Christian, and I am here to make your life better.” Of course, that is why we go and why we serve – it is the belief our presence will make a difference.
I walk through the slums of Nairobi, and on every corner is a church or preaching point. On Sundays, you can hear competing voices demanding obedience and insisting theirs is the truth to salvation and relief from misery. At about 1 p.m., there’s a parade of mostly women, dressed in their Sunday best and clutching Bibles, making their way home and believing the gospel they just heard will bring joy to their suffering. Yet, not much will change in their lives during that week. Sunday services are like a coping pill that will get them through Saturday.
All this is the reality of where we work and serve. Kennedy didn’t tell me there would be days like this. I think, however, Jesus knew there would be days like this. And so I still return, despite the PTSD moments and that cup of cynicism on my bedside table. The highest compliment ever paid me was from a retired nurse in Swaziland who, after my third visit said, “You came back.”
The hope in me clings to the promise of Isaiah 42:3 that “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.”
With the outrage that is Ferguson, Mo., and the horror of 28 mostly teachers slaughtered by Al Shabaab in Kenya, and another 36 laborers a week later, I confess to feeling like the bruised reed or the burning wick. Many of us face compassion fatigue and wonder what we can do to stop this madness.
I fall back on a platitude I often share with staff or my friends: “God didn’t call us to succeed – he called us to be obedient.” Or, the quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the cost of discipleship: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” (Cost of Discipleship) We rise from our mats, and we carry on. We bare the labels of carpetbaggers, philanthropists, do-gooders, missionaries, colonialists and perhaps much worse – rock stars.
The condescending Band Aid 30 question, “Do They Know it’s Christmas?” is really one that should resonate with all of us. Do any of us know it’s Christmas? Do we know what Christmas means? Christmas is about a journey that began when God enfleshed himself into humanity, and it would continue through the resurrection. He did this because He loved us and with little confidence that we deserved His sacrifice.
Christmas begins the narrative that says “No” to death and “Yes” to life. It will come in a child’s prayer for a family in Ferguson – the black family and the white family. It will come in the stories of teachers massacred and their commitment to students. It will come when we lay down our guns in the Middle East, and we pick up a plow. And it will come when men stand with women to say “no” to sexual assault and violence.
It will come, and it must come, because God in His heaven, whatever that means, is depending on us to know that it is Christmas.
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