Those who love their life will lose it, Jesus says. And those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
What does that mean? For most of us – at least relative to the rest of the world, and at least by material standards – there’s a lot of life to love. Should we feel guilty about feeling joy when things are good, celebrating when life works out? Are we to walk around in misery every day?
To get at the meaning of this odd phrase, let’s consider a recent happening: the “Kony 2012” online video. The video is about Joseph Kony, the ruthless African warlord who committed the most terrible atrocities against children and families in Africa. He recruited, as many of you will know, children into his Lord’s Resistance Army, forcing them to fight and kill their own parents and relatives. His so-called Army committed rapes, murders, and abductions. Joseph Kony deserves to be prosecuted for these crimes against humanity. The video, created by an American charity, was trying to raise awareness, to stir the international community into doing something. Awareness it has certainly raised: the video has been watched more than 84 million times online. It has prompted debate in governments and in households and even on our Eastern SynodFacebook page. People have begun sending money and raising with their politicians the issue of what will be done. All of this is great; all of this is important.
But, since the video went viral, there has been a backlash – and I think this response gets us closer to what Jesus was talking about. Ugandan journalists and citizens have challenged the notion of the West’s stepping in with the solution that is relatively easy for them: to catch a bad man and bring him to the International Criminal Court. But wait, some others have pointed out: what about the damage that Joseph Kony left behind? What about the system that allowed him to prosper in the first place? What if the people in Uganda, and other countries in Africa, would like attention focused where they most think the need exists? Well, then it gets more complicated for us: we have to ask tougher questions. We have to do more than what the U.S. has done and send 100 advisors to Africa to catch Joseph Kony. And we have to do more than write a cheque, or click “send” on an online donation and buy a $30 action kit with a bracelet and stickers before we return to enjoying the spring sun in our beautiful city in our free and prosperous country. One Nigerian-American novelist, Teju Cole, responded on Twitter with this comment, among many:
“The banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality,” he wrote. “The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.” He went on to criticize the “white saviour complex” of the West, which is, he argued, “about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”
Now, let’s be fair here: a lot of people have responded genuinely to the need expressed in that video. A great many people have learned about an atrocity in another part of the world of which they were not previously aware. And many of them have responded the only way they knew how, with humanity’s instinct to help, with the one thing that the western world generally teaches solves most problems: money. And, while yes, it may seem shallow to some, there are probably people with little to spare themselves who gave that money in the hopes that it might do good, that surely it would do some good. That cannot, in itself, be a bad thing.
But this is where the words of Jesus step in: Jesus is not saying that we are meant to hate our lives, literally: for one thing, people wrapped up with hate never get anything good accomplished. What Jesus is saying is that we are never to love our lives so much that we ignore what needs to be fixed in the world. We are never to get so complacent with our nice stuff that we get lazy. We are not to sentimentalize life down to a neat little saying on greeting card. We must be willing to risk our lives for the sake of something larger than ourselves. Because Teju Cole is right: the problems of the world are not solved with enthusiasm. They are solved by hard work. And few have known this more than Jesus – who kept pushing, who kept working, right up until the end.
Let’s face it: Jesus had a lot going for him. Surely, in his time, the crowds gathering around him to listen to him must have been comparable, in relative terms, to 84 million viewers on YouTube. And we know those crowds were enthusiastic; we will see no lack of enthusiasm next week at the Palm Sunday parade through Jerusalem. But enthusiasm was not enough. Feeling good about a rousing speech from Jesus, or the alms you handed to the poor on the way home, was not enough. Jesus was tough: he asked a lot of them. And when his followers gave it to him, what did he do? He asked them for more. “What’s next?” he asked. “What’s next?”
That is, always, the challenge for us, who have so much in life to love. I once knew someone who was proud not to read the newspaper or watch the news – and she was very religious. I always considered that an odd position: Jesus, by his very example, lived in the world; he sought knowledge about the world. Who wouldn’t want to keep our heads down, and ride the wave of the good times? But at what cost? And for how long would it last?
Jesus urges us to go to bed each night and be grateful for what we have. And wake each morning, and ask, “What is it that I can do better, or make better?” And that means yes, often making ourselves uncomfortable – often going beyond what is easy. It means that sometimes life might not seem so peachy; sometimes we may be bored by it, or exhausted by it, or even, yes, loathe parts of it. But we give of our lives in the service with and for others. It means that we cannot spend 30 dollars and feel our duty is done. We must hold on to that enthusiasm, that disgust at unrighteousness, that loathing for injustice. Because our duty doesn’t end. I don’t know exactly what that looks like. Perhaps, in this recent case, we have to pressure our governments to think differently about foreign aid, to reconsider how companies are allowed to use the resources in Africa. Maybe it means finding a better way to include the people of Uganda, and other African nations, in the discussion of how all that money might be put to good use, or what else we might next do. That discussion will take work – it means asking some delicate questions about social inequality and injustice. But I do know that we don’t just go back to sleep, loving life. We are called to stay awake. To keep trying. To despise what is wrong with the world enough to change it, even if we make ourselves uncomfortable. As Jesus, who was always looking ahead, who taught us so clearly to give alms to the poor, might ask: What will we make happen next?