How to Respond to Tragedy

aylankurdifatherWe live in an amazing age where people anywhere in the world can get up close and personal perspectives on tragedy happening in other parts of the world. The effects of the war in Syria, the actions of groups like Boko Haram, labor and sex slavery, and many, many others show up in our twitter and facebook feeds.

So how should a person who wants their faith to inform and affect their daily life respond to the ability to learn about the heart breaking realities in our world?

Let's start with what not to do. A to-don't list, if you will.

First, don't respond by ignoring them. These stories are upsetting. They hurt to learn about. We must follow the example of our creator, who, even when we hurt him, refused to ignore us. We are part of this world and when we refuse to allow anything to interrupt our starbucks-work-gym routine, we're going to miss out on a large chunk of our makeup - with is an individual called to be in community with other humans who are also made in God's image.

Second, don't respond with guilt. You have a computer or smartphone that you can use to surf the internet. Endless entertainment and distraction is available for your leisure time. That doesn't make you a terrible person for relaxing or enjoying life while others are in hellish circumstances.

Lastly, don't respond with pity. I know this may seem strange, but pity is shaking your head, saying 'that's terrible' and wishing you could do something about it - but knowing you can't and giving up. Pity helps no one.

So what is the right way to respond?

Respond with compassion.

Compassion seeks to care about the pain others are experiencing and asks 'what can I do to help?' Here's three things you can do in order to have a compassionate response.

1.Learn the stories.

2.Weep with those who weep.


Discovering the humanity in tragedy helps us to have compassion. Hearing that refugees are fleeing is a news story. Seeing the body of a toddler washed ashore and hearing his father talk about watching him perish is a human story. I have a three year old son. I wept when I saw that picture and read the story. I hate crying. I'd rather ignore or gloss over these painful stories, but I'm not called to avoid caring about others in this life. The story of the good Samaritan says I'm supposed to keep my eyes open for people who are beat up and laying on the side of the road so I can offer help. Helping starts with knowing and caring. Jesus wept when he arrived at the tomb of Lazarus - and Jesus knew he was going to resurrection the guy. Luke 7:12 and Matthew 14:14 both talk about Jesus being moved with compassion into action. You probably can't walk away from your current life and invest yourself into personally resolving one of these issues. Even if you could, you can't do it alone and there are many different problems. So what are the practical things you and I can start doing today which can contribute to a better future?

1.Pray unceasingly

Prayer is a limitless resource available to you. God is very clear in the scriptures that he wants us to ask him for his help and involvement. After learning about a tragic situation, you can spend as much or as little time as you like asking our loving Father to bring life and healing into situations of despair and death.

2.Donate generously

Find worthy organizations that can and are helping. World Vision is a great one, Salvation Army does wonderful things. Do your research and sacrifice some of what God has given you to help others.

3.Invite others to join you.

Most people would be happy to help others, but they need some encouragement and direction. Guilt or information overload may have them frozen in place. Ask some friends to join you in praying for Syria this week. Tell facebook how you’re donating $20 a month to help the refugee crisis and ask everyone to join you.

You can’t solve any crisis on your own, but the thing is: you aren’t supposed to. This whole ‘Body of Christ’ thing that God has given us is about each of us contributing and all of us together as a whole making huge differences. It’s why Jesus said in John 14:12 that his followers would do even greater things than him. If the 1-2 billion people who follow the teachings of Jesus each do something, together we’ll be an unstoppable force.

So don’t try to boil the ocean. And don’t get discouraged that you can only do a little. Do it, and invite others to join you, because that’s the mission of the church.

Humanizing Monsters

human_fragility_by_djoeI'm reading a book called Radical by Maajid Nawaz. He grew up in the UK to a Pakistani family and became an Islamic Radical, but eventually came to disagree with the viewpoints he once embraced. He said one of the things he had to do in his journey back from a place of great hate was to learn to humanize everyone, even (especially?) those who dehumanize others. He describes how he went from celebrating 9/11 to mourning the London attacks in 2005.

As I read about what happened in Charleston, my reaction is to want to dehumanize the man who murdered 9 people in Emanuel AME Church.

He's a monster. Or a demon. Or something else that allows me to pretend that he's not a fellow human.

But that's not true.

He was born. He has a mother and a father. He eats. He drinks. He breathes. His heart beats.

He's human. And if I take the narrative of the bible to be true, he's a fellow child of God. Loved by God.

I want to be very clear: I'm not supporting or accepting of what he did.

As I read that he spent an hour sitting in a worship service with these people before murdering them, I can't fathom how after that time, he pulled out a gun and started shooting them.

I remember that at Columbine, in the original modern day mass shooting, crosses were erected for all the victims. Someone erected two smaller crosses for the shooters, which were angrily torn down. It's painful to recognize that someone who has caused so much harm may also deserve some measure of compassion.

We like to live in a binary, black and white world. Someone is 'good' or 'bad'. But life isn't so cut and dried. Someone can be guilty of terrible things and still deserve compassion.

The Colorado movie shooter suffered from mental illness. Instead of having to choose whether this affects his guilt or innocence as the legal system must do, can I not see it as a place where I should have compassion?

I'm not seeking to humanize the Charleston shooter because he deserves it or because I am ignoring what he did.

I'm seeking to humanize him because it's true.

It is also the only way we can hope to stem the tide of shootings at schools and malls and workplaces and houses of worship.

Because if these actions are the work of monsters and demons, I am powerless to stop them. I can only shake my head and feel sad that such beings cannot be stopped.

But if I'm dealing with humans, I can have hope. Hope that messages of love and acceptance and peace can be heard.

When I see an Islamic Radical come to the conclusion that 'an eye for an eye' simply doesn't work; and when I learn about the US Civil Rights movement through a film like Selma, I see clearly that only when we treat our adversaries as humans - no matter how flawed - can we hope to prevail in our cause.

In this case, the cause is that all humans are valuable. All people need dignity and acceptance.

That doesn't mean approval of all their actions, but that leads us into conflict resolution, which is not the point of this post.

So as you continue to hear about Charleston, mourn with those who mourn. These were also fellow humans who were killed.

I'm so saddened to hear of the death of my brothers and sisters in Christ. But I also have hope in a God of resurrection who says that He has the final word.

So in the meantime, I will hope that the shooter may get a glimpse of the loving God worshiped at Emanuel AME.

Because every human needs to know that God loves us, even as we must accept consequences for our actions.

35@35 #23: Criticism

ask-for-criticismTC's guidelines and principles of life #23: "When you criticize, you may be getting in the way of the Holy Spirit working in that person." As a pastor, I am never critical of any human being on the planet. Ever.

...but I know a guy named "CT" who can totally be critical of people. All the time. He's a terrible person.

See, what CT does (the terrible guy, totally not me) is he thinks he has the right to tell people the right and wrong way to do stuff.

What he keeps forgetting a couple things.

Here's what he forgets:

1. We can only keep people accountable to the level of relationship with them.

If I don't know you, I can't care about you more than just a general 'I love you as a person' or 'I love you as a fellow believer in Christ' kind of way. Until you know that I care about you as a person, you have no idea whether I have your best interest at heart when I start doling out 'advice'.

And CT has no idea what would help you grow closer to Jesus without having a relationship with you. Trying to keep people accountable cannot outstrip your personal relationship, because that's just being controlling, in a blind and ignorant way.

2. We can't keep somebody accountable without knowing their story.

What right do I...I mean does CT have to tell somebody what they should do if he doesn't even know their story? C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, talks about how foolish it is to judge people on the same set of rules. He talks about the principle that for me not to get high on heroin is not overly commendable, because I don't any kind of addiction or attraction toward that drug. But for somebody who spent years of their life getting high off it, not getting high is a huge deal, and God must be incredibly proud of them for their willingness to fight such a huge battle. Or if they got high once this week instead of 4 times, that would be awesome. Yet CT, in his foolishness, may think he has a right to say 'tsk, tsk' to the person who got high once instead of four times.

So when I start telling somebody what they should and shouldn't do without knowing their life story, I'm doing it out of a place of ignorance and uncaring. God interacts with us out of full knowledge and full love.

I want to be crazy enough to love people, and believe that the Holy Spirit can show people what God wants for them.

Jesus didn't generally around scolding or threatening people whose lives were a mess. He basically showed them what they were missing out on and invited them to stop missing out on it.

Do you know how many times Peter screwed up? And yet, at the end, Jesus is calling Peter to spread God's good news and care for his followers.

If Jesus is more interested in restoring and giving grace to Peter, maybe I should look for opportunities to do the same.

Even Paul, who can have a hard edge to his leadership at times says in Galatians 6:1 "if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path."

If we're to be gentle and humble with believers, who should know better, how loving should we be for those who have not even committed to following Jesus yet?

At no point should we fail to speak the truth in love, but speaking the truth without love (which is what criticism is) is perhaps worse still that just staying quiet.

So I'm going to go back to CT and gently and humbly suggest that we point people to Jesus without presuming to know what everybody else should do in every situation.

I hope he listens, but I guess I'll just have to trust that the Holy Spirit can work in his life.



35@35 is a blog series by Thomas Christianson which involves 35 blog posts in 2014 on 35 things he has learned at the age of 35.