This week I leave for a trip to Ukraine, Belarus, and Hungary. My first stop, Ukraine, brings to mind memories of the stirring Orange Revolution that occurred there in 2004. In one of my books, What Good Is God, I told the little-known story of an unlikely hero who helped spark that revolution.
Like other members of the Soviet Union, Ukraine moved toward democracy as the Soviet empire collapsed, though in Ukraine democracy advanced at a glacial pace. If you think our elections are dirty, consider that when the Ukrainian reformer Victor Yushchenko dared to challenge the entrenched party, he nearly died from a suspicious case of dioxin poisoning. Against all advice, Yushchenko, his body weakened and his face permanently disfigured by the poison, remained in the race. On election day the exit polls showed him with a 10 percent lead; through outright fraud the government managed to reverse those results.
The state-run television station reported, “Ladies and gentlemen, we announce that the challenger Victor Yushchenko has been decisively defeated.” However, government authorities had not taken into account one feature of Ukrainian television, the translation it provides for the hearing-impaired. On the picture-in-picture inset in the lower right-hand corner of the television screen a brave woman raised by deaf-mute parents gave a very different message in sign language. “I am addressing all the deaf citizens of Ukraine,” she signed. “Don’t believe what they [the authorities] say. They are lying and I am ashamed to translate these lies. Yushchenko is our President!”
Deaf people, inspired by their translator Natalya Dmitruk, led the Orange Revolution! They text-messaged their friends on mobile phones about the fraudulent elections, and soon other journalists took courage from Dmitruk’s act of defiance and likewise refused to broadcast the party line. Over the next few weeks as many as a million people wearing orange flooded the capital city of Kiev to demand new elections. Under such massive pressure, the government scheduled new elections, and this time Yushchenko emerged as the undisputed winner.
When I heard the story behind the Orange Revolution, the image of a small screen of truth in the corner of the big screen became for me an ideal picture of the church. Jesus-followers do not control the big screen. (When we do, we usually mess it up.) Go to any magazine rack or turn on the television and you will see a consistent message. What matters is how beautiful you are, or how much money and power you have.
Magazine covers feature shapely supermodels and handsome hunks, even though very few people look like that. Every parent knows what a devastating impact the relentless big-screen message can have on an unattractive teenager. And though the world includes many poor people, they rarely make the magazine covers or the news shows. Instead we focus on the super-rich, names like Jeff Bezos or the Kardashians. One telling fact symbolizes our celebrity culture: several elite basketball players in the NBA will each earn more money this year than the entire United States Senate. What kind of society values one person’s athletic prowess more than the contributions of its top 100 legislators?
Our modern society is hardly unique. Throughout history nations have always glorified winners, not losers. Then, like the sign language translator in the lower right hand corner of the screen, along comes a person named Jesus who says in effect, Don’t believe the big screen—they’re lying. It’s the poor who are blessed, not the rich. Mourners are blessed too, as well as those who hunger and thirst, and the persecuted. Those who go through life thinking they’re on top will end up on the bottom. And those who go through life feeling they’re at the very bottom will end up on top. After all, what does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose his soul?
Society barrages us with the message that our worth depends on appearance or income or access to power. Jesus calls us to see the world through God’s eyes, to realize that God may care as much about what is happening in Syria or Myanmar right now as on Wall Street, that God may have as much interest in the rundown neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles 90011 as in Beverly Hills 90210. The prescription for health, for an individual or society, requires attending to the contrarian message of the small screen.
The United States, arguably the most blessed nation in history, must confront the sad fact that privilege does not solve everything. We have a stable political system and we have, at least for now, more money than any other nation on earth. And yet with 4.4 percent of the world’s population we house 22 percent of the world’s prisoners, almost as many as China and Russia combined. And we consume three-fourths of all the world’s prescription drugs.
The message of the big screen—Consume! Indulge! Enjoy!—has patently failed. Apart from the damage it does our planet, consider the damage we do to ourselves. The gravest health concerns in the U. S. stem from overindulgence: smoking (emphysema, lung cancer); obesity (diabetes, heart problems); stress (heart disease, hypertension); alcohol (fetal damage, violent crime, automobile accidents); drug abuse; sexually transmitted diseases. We smoke too much, eat too much, drink too much, work too much, and sleep around with too many people.
We are quite literally destroying ourselves. In light of that fact, shouldn’t we give some thought to the message of the small screen?
(Adapted from What Good Is God)
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