Some 1.475 million U.S. and Vietnamese soldiers were killed in the Vietnam War. A total of 5,933,900 Jews were brutally murdered during the Holocaust. Another 220,000 human beings died in the 2010 Haitian earthquake. More than 100,000 men, women and children have perished in the Syrian conflict. The sum of 25,000 people are missing as a direct result of the Haiyan typhoon in the Philippines.
Yet there is no ferocious, daily outrage or dramatic action taken. Lives continue; classes are still on Monday/Wednesday/Friday; food continues to sizzle in the frying pan and we still search for affirmation through social media.
Meanwhile, these humans become a historical footnote.
Our willingness to forget, gloss over and essentially numb ourselves to tragedies of catastrophic proportions is psychologically impressive and morally bankrupt.
As Joseph Stalin, who was responsible for more than 680,000 deaths during the Great Purge of 1937-1938 in the Soviet Union, infamously said, “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.”
As Americans, our absence at these devastating events makes it all too easy to mark the people losing their lives as a definite loss, then move on. We justify our actions by telling ourselves there is nothing that can be done.
“I think we psychologically distance ourselves from it, which ultimately results in our desensitization,” senior psychology major Arielle Wilburn said. “There is a disconnect; a convincing in our minds that those tragedies are distant from us, therefore, we are not mentally allowing ourselves to feel anything but ‘I’m sorry those things are happening … but that’s not my reality.'”
When does this scapegoat become selfish protection? If Christians believe that every single bundle of flesh, bones and vibrant blood was created in the image of God, why do we seem to value the lives of our own American citizens more than those of a different religion, culture or socioeconomic status? Why does 3,000 American innocents dead justify a war, but the genocide of Native Americans is downplayed and erased from children’s textbooks?
There seems to be a lengthy disconnect between our American Christian ideals of biblical equality and the way in which we value real humans who are fiercely oppressed in our modern society. If we run from the physical pain and emotional outcries of the world, how can we come close to calling ourselves followers of a man who sprinted full speed toward individuals bereft of all hope, even when that meant His own brutal execution?
“We keep praying that God will ‘break our hearts’ the same way his breaks, and I don’t think there is a day that goes by where God does not weep for our world,” Wilburn said. “If we are truly his people, there’s no way we can get by without being entirely wrecked by the injustice, brokenness and tragedies in this world.”
Numbing our minds to the humanity of a victim cannot be limited to violence, either; we must earnestly step into the world of oppression and not oversimplify an area of society that seems comfortable.
“In much of the Western world, we have normalized extreme sexualization and violence,” said senior psychology major Katie Vasseur. “This tends to have the unfortunate consequence of dehumanization for those involved. Instead of viewing a stripper as a person, many of us deem her another sexual object to be used for pleasure, not unlike those from pornography or any other medium.”
Desensitization does not stop when the newspaper is thrown in the trash. We refuse to see the tragedy in our indulgences, our radical consumption, sexual satiation and religious arrogance.
We are better than this.
God calls us to struggle; he calls us to pain. When the realization that each individual person affected by genocide, the porn industry, drug abuse and domestic violence has a face, heart, breath and soul, there is no longer an emotional escape route for onlookers.
Howard Zinn, in his critically acclaimed book “A People’s History of the United States,” offers this piece of wisdom: “In such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.”
Let me be clear. I am not proposing that you spend all day and night curled into a ball, crying for those who have been lost. On the contrary, I want you to remember them as you form action plans that will take your life in a desirable direction. Recall the eyes of the statistics as you take that job, study for that test, challenge your professors, ask critical questions of your church. Let these victms remind you of your purpose on this planet: to embrace every human being with drastic, irrevocable love.
“Christians have an obligation to bear the burdens of one another,” said Vasseur. “Our Savior shed his blood for us and if we do not do the same for others by feeling their pain and reacting to it, then we are taking for granted the greatest gift that has historically been given.”
Pain is strongest when we use it as a fire, a flame that propels us to greater heights while scalding us when we turn our heads away from the tears of this fragmented world.