August was a brutal month. First, we awoke slowly to the horrors being committed by the Islamic State in northern Iraq against local ethnic and religious minorities as well as foreign journalists — horrors which reached a graphic culmination in the murder of journalist James Foley. Then the shooting of Michael Brown left a community grieving and forced our nation to face the old wounds of its own divided and unjust racial history. Finally, the body of Robin Williams was discovered some time after the cherished and beloved actor and comedian took his own life following a long struggle with depression.
Three unrelated tragedies of the past month brought back to our collective memory three persisting truths of the human experience.
1. Humanity possesses a distinct kind of dignity.
Human death is always tragic; it represents a painful loss of life, relationship, and potential. The tragedy is compounded exponentially when the death is unnecessary or avoidable. That deep sense of loss or tragedy is felt as a sickening in our collective gut, an unanswerable grief that nevertheless begs for an answer.
Despite the disparate circumstances and motivations for the events of August, we experience a similar and profound sense of loss for each one. How can we explain it?
The holy scriptures attribute this profound sense of loss to a unique and inherent feature of a humanity that is created in the image of God. The creation story of Genesis teaches that humans have dignity because they bear and reflect the infinite glory of the Creator from whom all glory and dignity flow. The Christian gospel compounds the unique dignity of humanity when it teaches that God personally identified with the human race by first becoming a human and then dying a human death in order to reconcile humanity to him.
As a result, death speaks to a truth that is broader than the individual event. There is a deep wrongness to it, a meaningful wrongness that surpasses the merely naturalistic explanations of solidarity within the species. We are touched with a timeless, expansive glory that makes death seem somehow slanderous, somehow deeply inappropriate.
2. Humanity has a self-destructive streak.
In a recent column for the Washington Post, Richard Cohen meditates on the idea of “pure evil,” and what it tells us about the inexplicable crimes of history. If there was any doubt that evil exists in the world, the acts of Islamic State disabuse us of that doubt. But evil exists in many forms and each of them is destructive to the human dignity. Evil can manifest itself collectively in one group’s oppression over another. It can manifest itself generationally as in the systemic racial divides still present in contemporary American life. It can manifest itself personally, as in the emotional and psychological condition that would drive a beloved husband and father to take his own life.
When we pause for a moment, when we turn off the noise and consider these three recent events, we find that we live in a world that is marked by collective, and generational, and personal oppressions, and this does not bode well for human life or dignity.
3. Humanity longs for a change.
Each of these tragedies have sparked action, a concerted effort to change whatever root causes made such tragedy possible. The focus of U.S. foreign policy has shifted toward northern Iraq and Syria in the form of humanitarian aid, diplomatic pressure, and support of some of the region’s better actors. Protests in Ferguson have initiated conversations about the use of police force, crime, racial discrimination, and disparate experiences among America’s ethnic groups. In the aftermath of Williams’ death, efforts to increase awareness of clinical depression have moved beyond news reports to social media, friends, and family encouraging others to seek help.
History provides a blunt reminder that our efforts will not eradicate evil in any lasting way. We make headway here, lose ground there, but evil continues to afflict us collectively, generationally, and personally. Despite this history lesson, many people continue on with a remarkable sense of hope. I suppose this hope might spring merely from our fitness as a species. Perhaps it derives from a divine image with which humanity has been endowed. Perhaps it gives voice to an undefinable sense that human history is moving toward an end point, that human history is ultimately a comedy and not a tragedy.
In the New Testament, the book of Revelation symbolically depicts a world to come in which every tear is wiped away and death is no more. In this new world, human dignity thrives unmarred by the destructive forces of evil in a world where bodies are made whole, communities are healed, and troubled spirits are offered rest.
Not a bad sequel to a month like August.
Image courtesy of Chris Liu-Beers.