“These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also…”
-Acts 17:6 (NRSV)
I was sitting in a hospital room with my father-in-law Monday morning with the local news on TV. I wasn’t really paying attention, I had the sound turned all the way down, but I noticed out of the corner of my eye as the broadcast went to a shot of the anchors in the studio that they suddenly had very serious, somber expressions on their faces. Their tight mouths and narrowed eyes didn’t fit with the usual content of a news broadcast on a holiday morning. So I wasn’t surprised to see “Breaking News” across the bottom of the screen.
I was surprised that it was breaking in Highland Park, a nice town on the shore of Lake Michigan about a 20-minute drive from my house.
It was, of course, coverage of the mass shooting at an Independence Day parade that we would eventually learn left 7 people dead and 46 wounded. Kids were killed, paralyzed, and orphaned. This week, as a write this, funerals are being planned. People are shocked and grieving. Calls for gun laws are being raised again, as are the voices of those who insist that more restrictive laws infringe on the Constitutional rights of responsible gun owners. To that, I would just wonder why someone who might be inclined to boycott Disney wouldn’t also be inclined to boycott supporting a firearm industry that’s made billions of dollars selling guns like those used in Highland Park? Sure, the Constitution says you can own a gun. But should you? But that’s not what this is about.
What it’s about is something a friend and member of my church in Chicago, Nicole Estes, said in a story by the Christian Chronicle this week on the Highland Park shooting. Nicole and Steve and their daughters live just a few minutes from Highland Park. They eat there, shop there. The shooter was arrested a mile and half from their front door. Nicole says in the story that Highland Park is “a somber place to be right now.” She says she’s been praying about all the mass shootings, and “it’s a comfort because I know that our God is more powerful than Satan.” But then she says this: “We’ve always been this nation that’s ‘under God,’ that everyone’s admired for the good that’s in America and the safety that’s in America. And now we have this happening. … It’s terrorizing to everyone.”
Nicole’s words clicked with some things I’ve been thinking about this week. What I’ve heard from a lot of people after mass shootings, about violence in our cities, about police misconduct, about the events of January 6, is a sense of helplessness. We all know that these things are terrible, brought about by a tiny fraction of the American population who have found that acts of violent cowardice give them outsized influence. But we don’t know what to do about it. Or, maybe, can’t agree to make the sacrifices we may need to make. In any case, we lament the loss of our collective innocence that we’re this great nation in which these things shouldn’t happen. And we feel helpless to make a difference.
What I want to say is that we aren’t helpless. We can change the world. Well, not us, but Christ in us. It was said of the church in the book of Acts, in the Bible, that they were turning the world upside-down. That’s exactly what we can still do, if we will. And here’s how.
First: Model contentment instead of dissatisfaction. Paul wrote to the church in Philippi that he knew how to be ”content in any and every situation.” His big secret was, simply, " I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” The writer of Hebrews warns us to “be content with what [we] have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’” Contentment, then, is knowing that because of God’s faithfulness we have what we need. So much of the violence in our world, I’m convinced, comes from the fact that we’re never just…content. We’re always wanting, always aspiring, always conspiring to get more, more, more. We get angry when we don’t have everything to which we think we’re entitled, right now. A house. Cheaper gas. A better job. A better romantic life. On and on it goes. Our expectations have risen and our contentment has plummeted. Ray Wylie Hubbard says, “The days that I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations — well, I have really good days.” To be more content, practice being thankful. I think most of the other Christian virtues come out of this one. Develop the habit of giving thanks. Then we won’t add to the anger and frustration in the world, because we’ll be too busy discovering the depths of God’s faithfulness and all we can do through him.
The second way to change the world: Always look out for those who don’t have enough. There’s a tension here that we’ll visit again. When it comes to your own situation, practice the discipline of contentment, whatever your circumstances. But don’t be content when you see others suffering from poverty, want, lack of resources or recourse, lack of love, lack of opportunity. Reach out to them. Show kindness and compassion. Offer what you have. People who are suffering lash out. They think they’re alone. They lose their connections to the rest of humanity because they think the rest of humanity has disconnected from them. Prove them wrong. Don’t let a child in your sphere of influence grow up thinking that no one loves them or values them. Don’t let someone miss a meal if you can do something about it. Don’t allow someone you can touch to get old and die alone. Do what you can to make sure people who need care get it. God has always expected his people to look out for those on the margins of society. You can’t help everyone, but most of us can do more than we imagine.
The third way to change the world: Return love and peace for hate and conflict. This is, quite literally, the gospel. Jesus changed the world by absorbing hate, misunderstanding, violence, and murderous intent and returning love, compassion, forgiveness, and grace. It’s amazing how quickly even the church abandons this. This is how we “win.” This is how sin, evil, violence, and death lose. Not by being outfought, but by being outloved. We live in a world in which insults, barbs, threats, and even shots are exchanged at the drop of a hat. The way of Christ is always countercultural, but never more so than today. When we take people at their worst and show them the unshakable, uncompromising love of God, we stop evil in its tracks.
But here’s another tension: the fourth way to change the world is to Never turn a blind eye to the mistreatment of others. When we can stop the abuse and neglect of others, we should. Even when we can just raise our voices for those who have no one to speak for them, we should. It is like Christ to endure mistreatment with love; it is not like him to stay quiet when others are being mistreated. Injustice is a corrosive influence in society. When the powerful abuse the powerless, the reasons for society to exist — protection, cooperation, interdependence — go out the window. Follow Jesus in insisting that those with power care for those who depend upon them. Never allow someone to be ganged up on or be alone.
Finally: Pray. Nicole is. So should we all be. God is more powerful than Satan. Sometimes we think of prayer as something done instead of anything else. But for us, it’s the starting point for all we do, because our power to change the world comes from what God has done for us in Jesus.
This is why I remain optimistic. Not because people are smart — we aren’t — but because God is powerful and good. We can change the world. Now let’s do it.