“For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you and desire that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; That ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God; Strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness; Giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light: Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son: In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins.” -Colossians 1:9-14
Listening to NPR can be a dangerous—at least when there’s a very alert almost-four-year-old listening with you.
Last week, while my daughter and I were out running errands, I left the car radio tuned to our local NPR station and didn’t give much thought to what the sonorous, comfortable talk radio voices were discussing. Then suddenly from the backseat came the startling question, “Daddy, why are the children in danger?”
The reporters had been talking about the thousands of Latin American children fleeing their homelands in hopes of finding asylum in the United States. With the uncanny interest and sympathy that children show for other children, my daughter had been listening intently and with great concern to the stories of little ones making a long and dangerous journey on their own. Now she wanted more information: “Where are their mamas and papas? Why do they have to leave their home?”
Questions are big in our house these days. We’ve recently spent long suppers trying to figure out why the Wicked Witch of the West is green, and why Swiper (chief nemesis of Dora the Explorer) swipes. I can usually spin a passable answer to those questions. But this was something bigger than I’m used to getting. “Why are the children in danger?”
I’d just read a New York Times story that answered my daughter’s question in fairly graphic detail. But every element of the story was so horrifying—criminal organizations pressing elementary school-age children into their service, executing young people who try to escape their grasp, and murdering whole families in order to consolidate their terrible reign over towns and villages and whole regions—I didn’t know where to begin explaining it to her. “There are bad men who want to hurt the children, my love. Their mamas and papas want them to be safe, so they’re trying to send them to America.” (Not my best, but the most I could manage under the circumstances.)
“Why do the men want to hurt the children?” Four-year-olds are the world’s most tenacious journalists. There’s always a follow-up.
“Well…” What could I say? “Because vast and interconnected drug cartels seem to exert complete control over every aspect of life in some places”? “Because criminals made wealthy through the American appetite for narcotics have taken to recruiting and/or murdering children in order to terrorize and dominate entire communities?”
“Because the men want money from selling drugs, and they want the children to help them get the money. But the children don’t want to help the bad men, so the bad men try to hurt the children.” I was floundering.
“What are drugs?” To say that I had lost control of the situation would be a major understatement. I knew how this would play out. The follow-ups would come fast and heavy. My answers would become more desperate and less plausible. The child would recount the conversation to my wife. My wife would be…less than thrilled to hear of us discussing such a topic. Things looked grim.
I was saved by Chick-fil-A. At that very moment we drove past the restaurant’s instantly recognizable sign, and my daughter became much more interested in discussing the relative merits and demerits of individual Chick-fil-A playgrounds. (That specific location’s jungle gym had been closed on our most recent visit because, as she reminded me, “some kid threw up.” My daughter considered this excuse unacceptable.) Car conversation crisis averted!
But while I wasn’t forced to continue our dark and difficult discussion to its conclusion (whatever that might’ve been), I find myself returning again and again to its course. From an NPR report on the problem of child immigration we arrived, in only two or three questions, on the topic of drugs and addiction. And this progression was not a stretch. Each question followed the other in a reasonable way. Each terrible link was obvious, when pursued with the dogged curiosity of a young child.
We don’t often think about these issues in this way. Normally, a story or crisis dominates its own individual news cycle and then quietly recedes into the background. (Yesterday, for the first time in a startlingly long time, I heard about the still-unresolved situation of the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls.) Each problem seems terrible and insoluble in its time. None seem very closely connected.
But my conversation with my daughter forced me to recognize that the drug problem is different. Where drugs are involved, we really can trace the connection between the misery of the individual addict directly up into the crises facing a family or community or town or city, and then up again into the murky but vast domain of the international narcotics industry. Out of that dark cloud precipitate intractable problems of corruption and lawlessness in Latin American countries, which trickles down into individual regions and cities and towns, which seeps into schools and families and, at last, into the lives of individual children. When we see it in this way, the connections between two major crises—the immigration crisis and the war on drugs—are obvious, even if the tales of individual human misery on either end—of a refugee child and a tormented addict—might not have appeared related at first.
To my mind, these connections and relations and progressions make the whole problem of drugs and addiction one of the most potent metaphors for (and one of the most devastating expressions of) the Biblical understanding of Sin as a power—a reign—a dominion. The passage from Colossians with which I began this post is one particularly striking example, but it’s a concept found all over Paul’s writings. We hear about “the power of darkness,” “the reign of sin,” “the dominion of death.” Sin, for Paul, is not simply a naughty thought or a careless word; a momentary indulgence or a forgotten duty; an instant of weakness or a giving into temptation—in short, Sin is not simply “sins.” Rather in Paul’s writings and throughout the New Testament, Sin—attended by its constant companion Death—is an oppressive tyrant ruling over the human race.
That’s a bitter pill to swallow, particularly for modern people and especially for Americans. We don’t want to think of ourselves as under anyone’s thumb—let alone slaves to a cosmic tyranny. We have free will, don’t we? Some people make good choices and some people make bad choices and we all have to live with the consequences of our choices.
But nothing demolishes this boot-strapping sense of self-righteousness faster than the whole messy tangle of drugs and addiction and child refugees. What we see in the current crisis is a whole host of “bad choices” (“As if a person in the throes of addiction has a choice!” wrote Fleming Rutledge in the wake of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death) resulting in horrible consequences for innocents thousands of miles away. Who could pretend that this is just or reasonable or fair? This is misery begetting misery. Hunger begetting violence. Greed begetting pain. My self-loathing begetting another person’s suffering.
This is Sin. Vast systems and pernicious industries perpetuating personal pain and quiet tragedies—and then those same pains and tragedies feeding the systems and industries anew. The hell-mouth envisioned by our medieval forebears may be the best visual representation of it all: a gaping maw with an insatiable appetite, never closing, always gobbling, endlessly consuming without regard for any of the categories or considerations that we use to divide the world into good people and bad.
This is what Paul is talking about in the passage from Colossians quoted above. This is what the drug problem makes so horribly, heartrendingly clear. Sin is a force, an authority: the power of darkness. Its roots go deep into every person’s soul, and its branches shed woe over all humankind. Our need as a race is not for certain troubled individuals to put an end to certain troubling behaviors or patterns. (Though to be sure we all need to do that in some corner or other of our individual lives. It’s what the Church means by “repentance.”) Rather, we each and all need to be set free from a power that stretches far beyond what we can imagine and a force that far exceeds the forces we can grapple with.
All of which is why I find such strength and hope in Paul’s announcement. “Giving thanks to the Father…who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.”
The Gospel message is so much more than a declaration that our sins have been forgiven (though they have!). The Gospel message is so much more than an assurance that we can begin to live a new way (though we can!). The Gospel message is so much more than a call to oppose valiantly all systems of evil and oppression (though it is that!). Over and under and beyond all these things, the Gospel message is the announcement that God has intervened decisively in this world against the powers that bind us. The Gospel message is the announcement that God has changed our citizenship—has been translated from one kingdom to another.
Against everything we fear and dread, God has smashed the great gaping jaws, and has shattered the teeth of hell. Apart from anything we could ask or imagine, God has broken all our former fealties and paid off all our limitless debts. Above what we could expect or even hope, God has claimed us as daughters and sons of his kingdom and is even now making us saints according to his will—joint-heirs with Christ Jesus our brother and our Lord.
And this changes everything. I cannot see a way out of the drug problem. I cannot figure out how to make right the lives that have been ruined by addiction. I don’t know how to comfort and shelter tens of thousands of refugees, or how to combat the power of cartels. I hardly even know how to tell my own sweet child about the grief and suffering there is in this world.
But I know that all of the towering powers and all of the potent principalities that rule in this world now cower in the shadow of the Cross. I know that by the mighty weakness of Jesus’ death, Death itself has been defeated and the reign of darkness is ended. I know that in the glorious power of Jesus’ Resurrection, we are given the promise that all things, even the hopeless things—even the things we cannot see through and cannot solve—will be made new.
In that light, may we look unflinchingly on the problems that confront us. May we see them clearly for what they are: the lingering reign of Sin and the residual power of Death. And may the Church march against them with faithful courage and bold strength, knowing that they have already been conquered.
Our solutions to the world’s great problems may be temporary. At times they will surely be imperfect or misguided. But let us work toward solutions all the same, offering them as merest signs and slightest symbols of the great solution and victory that has already been wrought upon the Cross. Let us pray constantly and in sure and certain hope for the day when at last that victory will be made complete.
“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new.” -Revelation 21:1-5