“Oh, these days you have to protect yourself…”
“Anymore, you can’t be too careful…”
“When we were kids we used to…nowadays, you wouldn't even think of letting…”
…this gnawing assumption, everywhere present but scarcely ever analyzed, that the world is somehow more dangerous and the people less trustworthy now than back in the “good ol’ days.”
This is just a straight up devil's lie.
I don’t have room here to even begin to reference all the good statistical indicators of how patently false this is. If you’re interested, I highly recommend Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined or, for a less analytical, more spiritual angle, Scott Bader-Saye's Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear. Pinker (a sociologist who actually cares nothing for angels) goes through about 700 pages of hard, systematic evidence showing that our world is overwhelmingly safer than ever before and continues on that trajectory somewhat predictably.
The long and short is that murder, abductions, thievery both small and large, accidental deaths, war related deaths, and of course, hunger and disease are just a fraction of what they were even 100 years ago. And that was a fraction of what they were 500 years before that. Don't trouble yourself trying to think of what aberrational catastrophe happened 100 years ago to throw off the numbers, this is a long and steady trajectory across the globe.
The world is safer than ever before.
When we want another kingdom’s resources, now, we trade with them rather than warring with them. When someone steals from us, the majority of us trust that justice will be served through the approved channels of the society rather than retaliating personally and thus locking our families into an escalating cycle of vengeance. We typically find it more lucrative to compete in the economy by seeking out an education than by sabotaging our neighbor’s crop. Our planes crash way, way less than our ships used to capsize. And I can’t even remember the last time I challenged someone to a dual because they offended my wife’s honor (she’s more than a little bitter about that, methinks).
Now, someone will point out that this does not mean that everyone of every class, race, country, etc. is feeling the progress equally or that we can stop trying to get better. Of course not. But what's interesting is, getting anecdotal for a second, I can't help but feel like the people who are most certain today that the world is getting worse are the classes, races, countries, etc. that have actually benefitted the most from the improved circumstances. I'm talking about my own. Who is living more scared than your average middle class, white person in the US right now?
If you’re absolutely certain that I'm wrong, that the world is not better off now than before, don’t argue with me. Look into the actual evidence and argue with that!
Note: I used the word evidence, disciplined statistical evidence.
We don't have evidence to the contrary. What we have, are news stations whose profit margins are based on their ability to shout words of warning about the horrors of the next neighborhood over more quickly and luridly than the other stations. We have round the clock access to every tragedy that ever happens around the world at anytime in our social media newsfeed. In short, we have unlimited access to terrible stories, which we simply wouldn't have known about before, and no matter how rare or improbable, it's damaging our confidence in the universe.
If you're a person of wizened age, the world actually used to be a little more dangerous, by almost every indicator, when you were younger, but you were way less aware of the danger that existed than you are now.
And today, with a population of 7.6 billion, if .0000001% of them experience something horrific this morning, you’ll know all about it by lunchtime, and it will be more than enough to spike your blood pressure the rest of the day. And let's be honest, blood pressure doesn't spike out of compassion. It spikes the second we image the same thing happening to ourselves. The reptilian fight or flight center of our brains doesn't filter through stats and probabilities very well.
And for that I can empathize. I understand the real human compassion and concern for your loved ones that drives the fear. But that doesn’t mean that the fear is justified or productive.
On a side note: don’t watch the evening network news. Ever. Just don’t. They exist to profit off of your fear. And there are way more thoughtful and comprehensive news sources out there, that focus on more than just whatever tragedy porn they can find on a given day. Find them.
Not to minimize the very real violence that still exists in the world, and if you can do anything to prevent it, please do. But you have to admit, .0000001% is kind of a weird probability on which to base your life decisions or even your blood pressure if you’re truly someone who lives with a lot of anxiety that the world is a dangerous place.
In fact, consider the kinds of things we do when we think like that. Think of how many pre-emptive strikes are dropped, how many first shots are fired, how many sensible laws are voted down, how many funds, capable of feeding every hungry mouth in the world, are diverted to weapons research and production, how many unscrupulous contractors are funded because of that .0000001%.
One could even make a strong argument...hmm how can I say this pithily...that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
It’s no surprise that Jesus repeated the rhetorical question, “Why worry?” over and over like a mantra throughout his life.
And his first word to his disciples after having risen from the tomb was “Don’t be afraid.” One assumes he just means, "Don’t be startled," because it can seem a bit ghoulish when your dead friend is standing there alive in front of you.
But it's an unqualified statement. So I wonder if he is saying something more broad. “Don’t live in fear. Quit existing in a near constant state of worry as if the only point to life is pain avoidance. Stop allowing yourself to be driven by the worst things that ever happen in the world, and be pulled toward that which is good.”
Lately, I’ve been working on some spiritual practices which I believe are far more urgent and relevant today than, say, just having your name on a Presbyterian membership roster because your family is Presbyterian or serving on an “evangelism committee.”
You’ll get the gist if I just lay out some examples.
- I don’t watch the evening news.
- I leave my laptop out on a café table when I go to the bathroom.
- I don’t close the garage door when I walk the dog.
- I have all news notifications turned off on my phone (it’s important to inform yourself on what is going on, when you are prepared to take it in—not to be blindsided by it at any time and never get a Sabbath).
- I don’t watch the evening news.
- My internet passwords are weak and redundant.
- I don’t set the alarm when I leave the house.
- And I don't watch the evening news.
Could something bad happen? Sure. But it’s worth it to me to live 100% of my life under the assumption (or even the delusion if it be) that the universe is basically good, that God will provide, and that the people around me aren’t out to get me—rather than build my entire life around that .0000001% of things that might go wrong today.
By the way, if you take one thing from my list, don’t ever watch the evening news. Ever
When I was regrettably talked into installing a home security system, which I now pay for every month for the next two years but almost never activate, the installation guy told me “this button allows you to set a custom distress code [for when someone follows you into the house, holds you at gun point, and forces you to deactivate the alarm--this makes it seem like you have done so, when in fact, you’ve discreetly signaled the police)."
My first thought was "Really? Everyone knows this? Everyone? How often is this actually happening?" My second thought was "Wow, I see that I've been duped, here. You’re telling me that by supporting your company I’ve just financially contributed to the general hysteria which I firmly believe is the only thing truly destroying our world right now?”
So I pay the bills for the alarm system until my contract is up, but I never activate it as a silent protest against the fear.
If you’re a thief and you’re reading this, you saw that correctly. It's never on. Have at it. We have a pretty nice tv, though it would be kind of hard to carry out discreetly. Consider bringing a partner. My guitars are pretty nice and I’m sure would hold some resale value. Just, please, all I ask is that you be nice to the dog. She’ll bark a lot at first, but she’s really sweet. And there are some treats on the kitchen counter by the cookbooks that you can use to calm her down.
If you're a murderer, honestly, what are you even doing reading a theology blog?
Cheers and peace and don’t watch the evening news,