Yes. You're right. Point taken. “First world problems” tend to be far less dire than those of other parts of the world. But given our frequency of heart disease and hypertension, our expenditures on anti-anxiety and depression medications, our suicide rate, and any number of other indicators, we can't really call them harmless, either. Ignoring #firstworldproblems because there is something more cushy or self-imposed about them than, say, malaria is to ignore something that is still really quite deadly. And what doesn’t kill our bodies in the “developed world” can very frequently kill our souls, which, from a biblical perspective might even be the bigger death.
If you’ve actually engaged with the very poor in other parts of the world, as I have, you’ve probably started to have some very unpopular thoughts about this sort of thing, verses someone who has just fretted for the “hungry poor” for a minute or two, thanks to a Unicef commercial. One of them is this: however dehumanizing extreme poverty can be, there is something dignified about fighting against real oppressors. Yes, it’s brutally hard. No, it's not right. I wouldn’t wish that level of deprivation on anyone. But there's something solid about it. It’s a noble fight.
I’m not calling a bad thing good. I’m saying that there is a certain dignity in actually being able to name the problem that oppresses you: hunger or injustice, for instance.
How, on the other hand, do we name the “sickness unto death” that still seems to be feeding on addiction, tearing up marriages, increasing teen suicide rates and wreaking all kinds of havoc right hear in suburbia? What are we supposed to do with the daily indignities of living in a device driven technosphere where we’re all mostly comfortable and mildly annoyed? How do we even begin to address a situation where our collective stress level is through the roof and no one can really say why? Why so much road rage on our highways? Why so much trolling on our social media? Why so much fear? Why don’t we know the names of the people two houses down? Why do we find it so hard to just be neighborly and kind with one another when there are no urgent creature concerns pressing on us?
Do we even have the categories to interpret that sort of slow, undignified death?
I want to suggest some ways that disciples of Jesus and the communities they form ought to be pioneers in providing an alternative to the terminal disease called suburbia:
1. Take the problems of your middle class neighbor seriously, and don’t create a false choice between addressing their concerns and caring for the poor. If their stated concern doesn’t seem deadly serious (e.g. “The contractor is taking too long installing my granite countertops,” “Billy wants to quit choir,” etc.), ask more questions and figure out what’s going on beneath the surface. There is almost definitely some deeper frustration that is making this trivial annoyance seem so devastating.
2. Put the devices down and slowly back away. You would think that if Sally Smith had previously spent hours doing the laundry before the dawn of the washing machine, then she would have loads of free time now that most of the work is being done for her. But the decades have not been that good to Sally. The data is clear: she has far less time and satisfaction with a day’s work now than ever. Why? It’s time we began to lead a conversation about some different values other than convenience.
3. Quit worshipping “busy.” “Busy” is an idolatrous status symbol in our society. I heard a story of a student who studied abroad here for a semester. When she returned to her home country, a friend, who was trying to learn English, asked her how you would respond to the question “How are you doing?” “Busy,” she replied. The lilies of the field aren’t “busy” and yet God clothes them in a splendor unknown to Solomon himself. The Christian church is one of the only institutions in the world where the memos we're getting from the top keep telling us to “work less.” So why don't we? The Judeo-Christian traditions have the only worldview where a day of rest is seen as the pinnacle of creation. Unlearning the destructive cultural norm of busyness needs to begin with us.
4. Begin conversations with strangers by saying, “Tell me about yourself” rather than “What do you do?” A society that measures people based on their rank and earning power is anti-Christ. We don’t mean to do this in the church. But it’s ingrained in our casual speech. Let’s start ranking people the way God does, by their status in the kingdom of God and nothing else.
What other ways can you think of?
Cheers and Peace,
Jared Witt (Twitter: @realjaredwitt) is a pastor in the ELCA and, along with Aaron Schmalzle, is a Founding Director of Castle Church Brewing Community and Castle Church Faith Community. Checkout this blog weekly for reflections and updates or subscribe to our newsletter so that you never miss a thing.