By Keith Starkenburg
Let me offer a confession. I don’t like growing older. On my birthday, I needed a little encouragement. Time seemed a great burden. So, I caught up on my New York Times reading. I found Nicholas Kristof’s column claiming that “2017 was probably the very best year in the long history of humanity.”
Taking his cue from Steven Pinker’s forthcoming new book, Kristof mentions that fewer and fewer people make less than two dollars a day. Fewer and fewer people are illiterate. Every day, 325,000 more people gain electricity. And, more.
Why does Kristof highlight this? One of his conclusions: “the most important thing happening right now is not a Trump tweet, but children’s lives saved and major gains in health, education and human welfare.” After a speech given by Steven Pinker for the Cambridge Conservation Initiative in April 2017 in which he previewed his forthcoming book, an audience member exclaimed: “This world is pretty good! Why aren’t governments telling us the good things to keep us happy?” Kristof means to do just that: encourage us on a job well-done, in order to empower us to keep at it.
On my birthday, these statistics brought me some solace and I do think some of it should be celebrated. In my church communities I am formed – just as I have been ever since I started waking up to the kingdom of God in college – to seek and celebrate just these sorts of gains. For example, I remember how much I deliberated in my mid-twenties – even sort of tormented myself – about attending a particular graduate program partly because I would have to commute 40 minutes three or four times a week. I would have to commute because my spouse’s work meant that we could not move. It took me months to make a decision, and I still remember my weird Generation X anxiety. The choice didn’t appear in keeping with caring for creation, working for peace. My commute wasn’t going to be shalom-keeping. I was going to do more shalom-breaking. Another friend diagnosed me later. I was something of an environmental fundamentalist.
My silly self-torment had to do with many things, but my friend was right. My working theology had something to do with it. Jamie Smith, in his recently published Awaiting the King, calls my problem “naturalizing shalom.” Smith, describing a moment on his own journey, notes that “even believers, in the name of affirming ‘this world’ can unwittingly end up capitulating to a social imaginary that really values only this world.” When Smith writes autobiographically about this, I’m feeling it.
As that angsty twenty-something, I had naturalized shalom. My spirituality was boiled down to achieving justice on earth; justice was mostly a matter of obedience to God. In this case, the biblical command to care for the earth. I could recite the doctrine of justification, as taught by John Calvin. But justification by grace and the justice of the kingdom of God were running against each on two parallel theological tracks, and one of them was winning.
I needed theological therapy, and like Smith, Augustine and some contemporary interpreters helped me. Meditating on Jesus’ wilderness temptations brought it home. When the Satan promised Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, Jesus would have been able to maximize the statistical gains that Kristof and Pinker outline. Yet, Jesus didn’t take the bait. Why not? The blessing he brought to the poor in spirit was the kingdom of heaven, not the kingdom of the tempter. In part, that meant that the blessing Jesus brought to the pure in heart was that they would see God. Seeing God isn’t something we can take. Its gift. And, given the choice between seeing God and the opportunity for a well-run world, Jesus chose the former.
In any case, that’s a bad offer. The world won’t run the way it is supposed to run without the whole creation encountering God in Christ. For example, try using the best tech and massive amounts of political will in order to undergo forgiveness and reconciliation as a way of stitching together cultures that have been erased or suppressed through chattel slavery or other means. The politics of the kingdom, in many contexts, includes working on getting a decent fridge. But there’s just much more to be had. The politics of the kingdom is about “one new humanity” (Ephesians 2.15) such that any two or three gathered souls – no matter how much has transpired between them – can share what’s in the fridge.
Hannah Arendt, the great philosopher of radical evil who learned much from Augustine, suggested that forgiveness is “being released from the consequences of what we have done” and that “no one can forgive himself.” For that to happen, you’ll need the record of our injustices – all of our injustices – to be registered openly, say on the body of God’s Son. And we’ll need the one who receives that injustice to be strong enough to receive us again, releasing us from our actions. If Arendt is right, then the scribes that Jesus countered had a point: “Who can forgive but God alone?” (Mark 2.7).
If there is such a thing as progress, it means more than simply getting beyond violence and depravation. It will mean an accounting for all the evils of history, and more besides. My evil included. Accounting for one’s sins in the face of God’s strength? Learning to wait to see God? Maybe that’s what birthdays are for.
Keith Starkenburg teaches theology at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois.