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Loving the world enough to save it; hating it enough to change it.
Adam Sandler’s Pixels seems weird enough to be entertaining. It is a tired story, but one that seems to be told every summer with millions and millions dollars of profit to show for it. The world is faced with its end and it’s up to a series of unlikely heroes to save it. You’ll see it in Adam Sandler’s movie, but also in Jurassic World, Independence Day 2, and even in a new Terminator movie. What are these producers really tapping into?
For those of us who love those blockbuster movies about the end of the world, they are tapping into our love for the world. We care about creation. We care about each other. We care about the fate of the universe. We want to save the world. It’s idealistic, but some of us still get enthralled and entertained by the drama of the world ending and salvific heroes. We want to be saved and we want the world to be saved too. Summer movies are all about that (and of course their trailers are released right at the end of winter when we are tired of being cooped up inside and are ready to get out).
I actually think that the United States’ statecraft takes advantage of this idea. Around election time, usually, we hear of world-ending terror and threats. It was Ebola a few months ago and the potential domestic threats of ISIS. Those things are still real and affect people today, it just seems like the U.S. propagandists lose interest once it isn’t their job on the line.
Lately, in the United States, we’ve been bombarded with messages about the dangers that Iran and its threat to Israel and the world, both by Congress and even Israel’s president. There is always an impending threat it seems, and it seems to be the same hysteria that sells movie tickets and wins elections.
We are looking for a savior of the world, perhaps because we need saving, and also just because the world is in constant threat. It was that same logic that started the War in Iraq twelve years ago, this week. We were all convinced that Iraq was a major threat to the U.S. and the world and so freshly injured off 9/11, the United States was ready to wage another war. Support for the war was through the roof. There’s nothing like a national security threat to garner political support. In fact, in March of 2003, just three days after the invasion began, George W. Bush enjoyed a 71 percent approval rating. People want to save the world and they are looking for a hero.
I think some of us got tired of the world police rhetoric. The war drug is one. More Americans were being killed. It was costing the U.S. billions of dollars. It was like the summer blockbuster movie that never ended. People only have so long of an attention span for world saving, it seems. Promises don’t get fulfilled and we become cynical. Some of us even think the thing that the world needs to be saved from are self-appointed and self-interested saviors.
For some of us, we need to be saved from the militaristic United States and the imposition of its wealth and dominance on the whole world. We don’t care very much about the fate of the world because the people saving it are actually harming it. They are using Blinky, Inky, Pinky, and Clyde to kill Pac-Man! We don’t care about the world being saved, we think it’s going to hell in a handbasket. We want to do anything but save it, we just want to survive it, and be minimally enslaved.
I think Jesus is missing from both perspectives. On one hand, lovers of the world may think that some hero, or the government, or a police force might save them. But I think Jesus is the only savior. I think Jesus is our only hope.
On the other hand, if we have no faith at all in the world, I am not sure we even think Jesus can save it. We might think it’s too far gone. But I suppose we have to open our eyes wide enough to actually see the good in the world to love it.
So what does someone do? We are talking about finding faith in the world today, but it seems to be a complicated premise, as you can see. What does a follower of Jesus do? Love the world? Hate it?
When Jesus is talking to Nicodemus in John 3, it’s an intimate, private conversation. In this honor and shame culture, Nicodemus comes by night to see Jesus and he wants to be convinced of the Way. He is open and receptive. Perhaps the most famous verse in this iconic exchange is John 3:16.
You might say that Jesus is idealistic at the start of his ministry, or at least how John portrays it. He is hopeful. God loves the world. Jesus is the offering that God is sending him to save the world—God’s only begotten son is coming not just to save us from death, but to save the whole world. He isn’t here to wish it death and doom. He isn’t here to condemn the world. In John, Jesus seems to eventually get a chip on his shoulder. But here, he seems pretty excited about the prospect of his death freeing us all of the curse.
I suppose we can be that judgmental sometimes. I know I am. There is so much in this world to condemn! So much evil in the world and so much foolishness!
I think sometimes we have Jesus to judge the evil in the world and make it right through violence. I suppose that is often how we think the world needs to be saved—through death and violence. And if we don’t trust the state to carry out its self-destruction, the least Jesus could do is bring a revolution.
But Jesus’ life is all about saving the world through death. Saving our lives by losing it. This kind of backward way of looking at the world, both carries an admiration for it, while also compelling us to change it. He is getting to know his own destiny and the challenge of life on earth.
What does it mean to lose our life in order to be glorified with Jesus? Lent is all about figuring out what we need to lose in order to gain fullness. Jesus’ death is the ultimate example of what self-sacrifice looks like. We sacrifice our own well-being for the sake of others.
This is not an easy place to be in. In fact, Jesus seems to be struggling with his own death. He may have lived quite a satisfying life so far, in fact. It’s hard to know how comfortable Jesus was or what kind of success he enjoyed, but it seems to me like he wants to keep living. In fact, he is just in his early thirties considering his own mortality!
By the time we get to chapter 16, he is passing the cup of death and persecution to his disciples, he is conscious of how we will find trouble in this world, but also why that’s OK. He has overcome it. He has conquered it. He has gone through the trouble and persecution of this world, this world that his Father so fervently loved, and has made something new of it.
Jesus is helping disciples to find peace, oneness, unity, fullness. This world will give us trouble. This world will hate us. And we can go along hating it. We can spread the anger and the rage. We can just hate back.
Jesus’ response is love. But not just loving what is, but loving the world in order to change it.
The debate for us isn’t about preserving the world for what it is. Again, the world is filled with evil. But you aren’t. You are filled with goodness, perhaps because of your distinct separation from the world. Christian separatism isn’t enough. We have to go back. We need to go back into the storm, back into the fire, and save who we can. Maybe we can even put out the fire!
I’m not sure there is anything in this world that is worth dying for. But Jesus tells us to die to save the world. We need to let go of the idea that in this world we will find our salvation. But just because the world won’t save us, doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth saving.
G.K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy wrote this, which I think can serve as a motivation for those of us caught in the paradox.
No one doubts that an ordinary man can get on with this world: but we demand not strength enough to get on with it, but strength enough to get it on. Can he hate it enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing? Can he look up at its colossal good without once feeling acquiescence? Can he look up at its colossal evil without once feeling despair? Can he, in short, be at once not only a pessimist and an optimist, but a fanatical pessimist and a fanatical optimist? Is he enough of a pagan to die for the world, and enough of a Christian to die to it? In this combination, I maintain, it is the rational optimist who fails, the irrational optimist who succeeds. He is ready to smash the whole universe for the sake of itself.
That truly is what Jesus brought to us. A walking contradiction. A man who was despised by the world, a man who was hated by the world, and in fact a man who, himself, was disgusted at the world’s wickedness. But also so in love with us and so in love with the world that he put his whole life on the line to save it.