I have, like some of you I am sure, been listening to the various promises of the political parties and candidates over the past two weeks. This week it is the Republican Party’s turn to take the stage and tell us why we should vote for McCain–Palin on November 4. While all of this has been going on our nation has also faced another great storm that hit our southern coast Sunday–Monday. The truth of the matter is obvious—we face trials for sure but we are the most prosperous nation on the planet and may well be the most self-indulgent and self-centered as well. (Most European nations excepted, but then they do not enjoy our wealth either!)

This all came home to me as I listened to all the talk about our gloomy economy over the past two weeks. How many of us realize that we are not in a recession, that our unemployment numbers are the envy of most Western nations, and that even the storms that hit our coast are nothing like the trials of the life-and-death many in the world face month-in and month-out? When former-Senator Phil Gramm said we were a nation of “whiners” the McCain campaign had to let him go. All he actually did was speak the truth.

While the storms hit us, and we waited for the Republican answers to our problems to unfold in St. Paul, I watched three documentaries on Sunday-Monday. These were Facing Sudan, The Lost Boys of Sudan, and Ghosts of Rwanda. If you can’t go to Africa, but want to see what much of the world sees every day, watch these films. I formed several conclusions as a result of my weekend viewing and pondering.

1. Most Americans do not care at all that a full-blown genocide destroyed over 800,000 people in Rwanda in 1994. The Clinton administration did nothing, absolutely nothing. And when President Clinton visited Rwanda in 1998 he never once apologized for doing his nothing, though he expressed regret in his typical fashion.

One person in one of these films said, “America doesn’t have friends in the world, we have allies.” We help nations when it is in our national interest, as some believe that it is in Iraq. The one American of the Clinton era who came across as a hero in the Rwandan film was Madeline Albright. She was our ambassador to the UN at the time and argued powerfully for the U.S. to help the Tutsi’s who were being slaughtered during a fatal 100 day period of time. When ten UN peacekeepers from Belgium were brutally killed the whole world decided to look the other way and thus supported Belgium in running from the problems. Never was the UN so totally ineffective. Even Kofi Anan, the general secretary at the time, admitted the same on the film about Rwanda.

2. Most Americans know little or nothing about Sudan either, and more particularly about Darfur. Sudan
Northern and Southern Sudan have been locked in a brutal bloody conflict, to varying degrees, for five decades. The Islamic radicals of the north want to kill and dominate the Christians in the south. This is simplistic, but it is essentially the truth. The people of the south seem to know that a unified Sudan will never work. The rest of the world keeps trying to make them make it work. Well over a million people have died and multitudes are still dying in camps every day. Do we care? Not much if the truth is known. Following the Holocaust we said, "Never again." We didn’t mean it, at least when the victims are black and live in Africa.

3. The individuals who did care, and actually did something in both instances (Rwanda and Sudan), were very often women; e.g., college students, homemakers, etc. Men were too busy, or too political, it seemed. They were managing the agenda while the women decided to care about real dying people. Women were the ones who time and time again showed mercy and rose up to try just solutions that helped foster peace and save real lives. In America alone, if women were not concerned about Africa I wonder who would care. (This is simplistic I am sure but there is a lot of truth in my generalization and it shows in these three films powerfully.) This reminds me of a simple fact—we need women in leadership right alongside of men if we are to effectively engage the modern world with both authority and compassion. God made us both male and female in his image. We need to embrace the contributions of all who are made in his image if we are to solve any of the problems humanity faces.

These three films are all valuable in very different ways. The one on Rwanda was a Frontline (PBS) presentation and was of the highest quality. The two on Sudan are personal projects done by filmmakers who wanted to tell a story and thus used their money and talent to do it. These are less well done professionally but in their own way they are very moving pieces that arouse the conscience.

Next time you want to complain about America, especially while your emotions are stirred up about how bad the economy is in this country, stop and pay attention to the rest of the world. 99% of our news reporting in this country is Ameri-centric. My biggest argument with our media is not about the liberal media bias politically, which the right turns into the biggest story about the media during election seasons. (“Fox News is so over the top, or MSNBC is so liberal that it is goofy!”) My biggest beef with our media, which is in fact predominantly liberal in ideology, is that they are so grossly inconsistent given their ideologically liberal ethos. They care about almost nothing if it doesn’t have to do directly with Americans. If we are talking about people we could actually save in Africa they almost never use their considerable influence to tell these stories at all.

While I am at it, it is known that I am not the biggest George W. Bush fan in the world but liberal commentators hardly ever note that this president has done far more to help in Africa than his predecessor every dreamed of doing. To Clinton’s credit he has done more out of office than he did in office to help Africans. But please be fair. No one in our highest levels of power has mobilized our nation to care and the reason is really quite easy to see. If they tried most Americans would not be interested. We are too self-centered to care. Tragically this includes most churches as well as secular agencies, though the church seems to have a far better record on African involvement than any other American institution. Watch these videos and you will see what I mean.

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  1. Nathan Petty September 5, 2008 at 10:18 am

    Thanks for the reminder. Let me plug an organization which you have recommended, the African American Self-Help Foundation. They do good work on the ground with very little overhead.

  2. Rick Sholette September 5, 2008 at 1:05 pm

    Hi John:
    The topic of your post today, America’s blessings in the context of a suffering world, had its usual effect on me: the stirring of nearly ineffable compassion, helplessness, and anger.
    Compassion because with the slightest effort I can begin to imagine the horror of Rwanda, Darfur, human trafficking, and numerous other evils and be moved to tears with sadness for my fellow human beings who suffer such pain and evil with little help or hope. [For other such moving films see: “Human Trafficking,” “Stolen Lives: Children in the Sex Trade,” “Cutting Edge: Child Sex Trade,” “Sex Slaves,” “The Day My God Died,” “A Sunday in Kigoli,” “100 Days,” “Shooting Dogs,” “Hotel Rwanda,” and “Sometime in April.” Every Christian should watch such films on a regular basis.]
    Helplessness because the solutions seem as personally remote, difficult, and improbable as trying to stop a hurricane by blowing hard against the wind.
    Anger because it is SO wrong. Wrong for those who do such things, and wrong for those who do not stop them.
    I remember 25 years ago in graduate school taking a course on change management. The question was raised (by me) about the benefits of reform (slow and consensus-building) as opposed to revolution (fast and coercive). While the professors seemed committed to reform, I could not help but point out the total uselessness of reform for people suffering NOW. What do we do for people caught in the bear trap NOW while trying to persuade others to care enough to change trapping laws?
    At that time I saw Jesus as more of a revolutionary than a reformer. I now see that he was both. And the Church also needs to be both reforming and revolutionary.
    I feel angry that the Church in the West is so foolishly self-indulgent and selfish. Foolish because we cannot (will not) look at such world evils and let ourselves FEEL what is appropriate to the situation. Instead, we eat another bowl of ice cream and watch the latest sit-com. Or maybe we watch news of such situations, shake our heads in disgust and dismay, and then change the channel instead of our selves. In any case, we fail to respond in Jesus’ name: with his character, truth, power, authority, reputation, and purposes. In this way, the Church (not Americans) bring shame to the name of Jesus Christ in our collective apathy and failure to bring the whole gospel of the Kingdom to the World.
    John, I would use the word selfish rather than self-centered (we are all necessarily at the center of our selves) to describe our Western Christian and American failure to care. Elsewhere I have composed a compelling biblical case for the idea that God intends for us to be self-interested and self-centered–but NOT selfish. In fact, in our failure to properly care for and about others, we also fail best to care for ourselves (hence neglecting our own best interests). Attachment and related theories reveal the social context of all care. Care for others is always good for the self, and care for the self always extends to care for others who share in our world. The failure of America, and more significantly the American Church, to care about global and systemic evils shows our foolish and myopic individualism as much as our selfishness. (But it also reflects the layers of cultural life that leave many of us too isolated and disempowered even when we do want to respond.)
    I try to address this issue (and diminish my feelings of helplessness) by urging the Church to understand its wonderful role and calling to represent Jesus Christ in our world, starting with self-awareness and awareness of the world around us.
    Advancing the Kingdom of God means sometimes forcefully (Mtt. 11:12) advocating for righteousness and justice through confrontation and persuasive argument, but more often it involves consistent living and ministering in Jesus’ name: with his character and truth in his power and authority for his reputation and purposes.
    May God help the Western Church (including myself) to avoid the mistake of Israel as described in Malachi: “If you do not listen, and if you do not set your heart to honor my name,” says the Lord Almighty, “I will send a curse upon you, and I will curse your blessings. Yes, I have already cursed them, because you have not set your heart to honor me” (2:2).

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