What Hasn’t Changed

Don’t get me wrong. The recently-concluded season of American presidential politics—the longest and costliest in the history of the universe—was a much-needed time of introspection for the American people. After eight years of constitutional degradation, unnecessary warfare, and the erosion of America’s reputation abroad, we’ve needed a period of internal dialogue, and there’s clear evidence that the great national soul search was beneficial for us. In Barack Obama we’ve chosen a thoughtful, intellectually curious, articulate, and inspirational leader at a time when even mediocrity would feel refreshing. Historians will forever remember this election because after 219 years of electing white men to the Presidency, we have elected a man with an African father, and we put two women within spitting distance of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

So three cheers for introspection; but unchecked introspection can turn to narcissism, and the last thing our world needs is a narcissistic America so self-satisfied, so pleased with the transformation in Washington, that it ignores what has not changed around the planet.

Here’s some of what remains the same: a staggering number of humans suffer from poverty that few Americans even can imagine. The World Bank estimates that 1.4 billion people earn less than a dollar and a quarter a day— the World Bank’s threshold for extreme poverty. Nearly ten million children die each year from hunger and preventable disease. As the world’s climate changes, impoverished communities living in the southern hemisphere who consume the least carbon fuels and who emit the least greenhouse gas are suffering the most from droughts, crop failures, and rising sea levels.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a largely unnoticed (by Americans) bloodbath of a civil war—which some observers have called the most serious humanitarian disaster since the Holocaust—has erupted again after a few years of fragile peace. In the last few weeks the war has displaced a quarter of a million Congolese. It is perhaps the deadliest, but by no means the only conflict in Africa. Wars continue in Sudan, Uganda, Liberia, and goodness-knows where else. A humanitarian disaster is unfolding in Gaza. Kosovo’s declaration of independence threatens the peace in the Balkans. Georgians and Russians are rattling sabers in the Caucuses. Hindus and Buddhists are killing each other in Sri Lanka. The military junta in Myanmar continues to round up, imprison, and execute those who speak out on behalf of democracy and common decency. Eighty percent of the world’s 10 million refugees are women and children.

HIV/AIDS, cholera, and tuberculosis continue to ravage the populations of those living in the developing world. In developing nations, a lack of clean water results in 2.2 million deaths from diarrhea each year.

Every year 800,000 people are victims of human trafficking; 27 million slaves exist in the world today—more than at any other time in human history. No one knows how many women and girls are forced into unwanted marriages each year, though it is estimated that, per annum, 4000 British women and girls are wed against their will.

There’s more, but you get the picture. The national introspection necessary to elect Barack Obama has been palliative and cathartic, and I hope it becomes an abiding part of the American character, but we must look outside ourselves as well. While no amount of “yes we can do” attitude will solve all of the world’s problems, inaction and indifference are not morally viable options for a people who dare to call themselves good.

10 thoughts on “What Hasn’t Changed

  1. Ben,

    You are quite right, nothing has changed. Hopefully we can get over all the romantic president worship nonsense and get to work. Nothing, not even the uber-evil Bush-Cheney-Rove regime, is as destructive to the Constitution as the cult of president worship, and the “slacktivism” of believing we have done something marvelous by merely bothering to vote, marching in protest, or holding a candle light vigil. The world calls us to do real hard work as individuals and stop expecting Big Brother to take someone else’s money to do “charity” while we congratualte ourselves.

    Randy

  2. Thanks Ben… I am taking a class on Public Theology and AIDS, poverty, and criminal justice, and these numbers throw me back to the earlier part of the class. This whole thing is pretty insane, overall, to think that so much is going on that people don’t know about, and then to hear that it would cost (in comparison to what we spend on the military) very little to make a huge impact…. well…. whew!

  3. Randy,

    I’m not so sure that we haven’t seen the ill-effects of President worship for the last eight years. President worship was pretty strong in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and while the American Public got over it fairly quickly, it seems that the President those around him have worshiped the president (or at least–to be fair–the Office of the Presidency) with the ardor of true believers ever since. Like you, I pray we don’t have a similar cult around Obama.

    Sarah,

    I wish I’d taken a class on public theology at Princeton. I don’t even know if such a class was offered. The need for public theology has never been stronger.

    Thanks for reading!

    Ben

  4. Ben,

    Perhaps I should have said presidency worship. I am not singling out the current president elect in any way. Once I had posted, I realized you would assume that. From the move to make Washington king, through the extraordinary war and crisis powers accumulated under Lincoln and FDR, to the mythos of the martyred JFK, to date, America has suffered from political imbalance and centralization of power never intended. Americans “get politics” every 4 years and become passionate about selecting the president, someone who should be a boring administrator, not a champion on a horse. The average American, enthralled by presidential campaign Kabuki, can’t tell you who their state legislator is. More college student voters, dancing in the streets, can name the Three Stooges than the three branches of government. As a society, we increasingly expect the president to be the strongest richest father, to be and do everything for us. Under the most enlightened and benign president, this is corrosive to the Constitution and destructive to the nation.

    Randy

  5. Thank you for the (teary) eye-opener Ben.

    American president (or presidency) worship is a result of a society’s need for a Savior. Hurting and dying people will look to almost anyone who might lead them out of their despair, and rightly so, even though we often depend on the wrong man for the job.

    Still, God can certainly use all kinds of leaders, whether religious or not, to bring salvation, both physical and spiritual, to any land. Jesus is our solid hope manifested through many different earthly means, and it is an honor for us to be participants in the wide range of situations in need of redemption through our unique callings. While my heart breaks for so many suffering people, I am just as glad that there is hope.

  6. Randy,

    I actually think that Obama Worship (as distinct from worship of the Presidency) is an issue for which we should be on the look out. Having said that, I actually think there can be value in inspirational leadership. Of course, having a good administrator is also important–more important–but inspiring leadership can get people involved in the democratic process as well as in other service-oriented kinds of work. So as long as a person is an excellent administrator, I’m happy if she or he also is inspiring. Obama may be both. From the looks of how well he ran a campaign he is a strong administrator. From the look of his first days as President-elect he is a shrewd administrator. We’ll see what happens going forward. Already, there are things I wish he was doing differently, but on balance I’d say we’re in for a good presidency.

    Elizabeth,

    Thanks for your word of hope. May Christ use all of us to change the world (which just may be the same thing as saying “may Christ use all of us to glorify God”).

    Ben

  7. Hi Ben,

    Thanks for a great posting. I understand how coming to grips with the size of modern slavery can leave people feeling overwhelmed. But there’s an interesting paradox about the 27 million slaves in the world (this comes from my book Disposable People) – yes, it is a huge number, the largest ever in human history, but it is also the smallest fraction of the human population to ever be in slavery. Likewise, the amount of money slaves pump into the world economy is big, around $50 billion a year, but it is also the smallest fraction of the global economy to ever be represented by slave labor.

    The truth is that slavery has been pushed to the edge of its own extinction and working together we can tip it over the brink. I hope you’ll visit and share our website – http://www.freetheslaves.net, and maybe look at my book on how we can bring slavery to an end in 25 years, it is called: Ending Slavery: How We Free Today’s Slaves.

    All best wishes,
    Kevin Bales

  8. Kevin,

    Thanks for the post and for the clarification and thanks for the book you have written and for the good work you are doing at freetheslaves.net.

    Another good book is Not For Sale by David Batstone. It also has an accompanying website:notforsalecampaing.org.

    We need more people doing what you and Dave are doing. And someday I’d like to see similar work dedicated to ending forced marriage around the globe.

    Best,

    Ben

  9. Ben,

    Name any president, except perhaps Harrison, and I will document their destruction of liberty and corruption of the Constitution; the more “inspirational,” the more destructive. The U.S.A. is a nation of law, not a nation of men; the more “inspirational” the leader the less powerful the rule of law. Americans must be motivated above all by the gift of the singular declaration, “…that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…” and cognizant of the law of the land. Lacking this knowledge, they are doomed to the certainty of the idolatry of hero worship, dependency upon government and chains.

    I weep for the children, for the death of The Republic.

    “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and those are the people you need to concentrate on.” —- Robert Strauss

    “Were we directed from Washington when to sow, and when to reap, we should soon want bread.” — Thomas Jefferson (Autobiography, 1821)

    “It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere.” –Voltaire

    “In a democracy you get the kind of government you deserve.” –anon

    Regards,

    Randy

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *