The world is a mess…upside down and inside out. Our news feeds have been engulfed by images of Ferguson on fire, floods, and bombs lighting up dark skies all over the world. ISIS is rising and people are dying. We are captivated by crisis and catastrophe.
This is nothing new.
After the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, some students at the University of Wisconsin – Madison painted an 8’ x 4’ sheet of plywood orange and maroon, and offered students a chance to write messages of hope and solidarity. Someone chose, however, to dominate the board with their own message, huge and brutal and scrawled in black: “It’ll happen here next.” Sadly, it seems to be happening everywhere.
India is one of those ‘everywhere’ places–poverty and political corruption, abuses of women and religion in conflict. I experienced some of that complexity and chaos last summer and yet, I was mostly living in rural places, encountering people in simple ways. I sometimes felt more like a clydesdale show horse than a man, especially when surrounded by children. My white skin, blue eyes, long nose, balding head, and nearly 100-kg (220-ish pounds) frame were completely new to most of them. They thought I was a WWE superstar–giant, sweaty, and playfully physical. What they didn’t know was that I was a professional. Sort of.
I was once a gymnast. In a stroke of keen observational prowess, my mother noticed that I had a unique ability to backflip off things, and instead of allowing me to perpetually risk a broken neck, she encouraged (or, forced) me to hone my ability in a YMCA tumbling class. Before long, I abandoned my half-hopes of NFL stardom and went straight for the pommel horse.
Despite occasional ridicule from ‘manlier’ middle school boys, my life as a gymnast was a happy one and still serves me well. After years of flipping, kipping, vaulting, and crashing, I know how to fall, and I know how to get back up.
So, inevitably, in India when we were goofing around the hostel yard in the late afternoon sun, I would do some gymnastics (especially hand-walking) to enhance the oddity that I was. I would turn upside down, pirouetting and bumbling along; the children would shriek and whoop with excitement. Stray chickens and dogs would scatter and hide behind thirsty shrubs, startled by the sudden bursts of noise. I would either lose my balance and crash into the red dirt (inciting more ruckus laughter), or I would maintain balance, gently righting myself, and they would clap and cheer, asking for more. They would revel in my body upside down, and celebrate me when it was right again.
The other day, I was promoting an event on campus at Loyola University Chicago. We had a life-sized cutout of Pope Francis, and encouraged students to take selfies with him.
At one point, I broke from the action to check the time on my phone, and I noticed yet another BBC headline about yet another ISIS hostage–a young woman named Kayla from Prescott, AZ. I visited that town once. For some reason, I felt close to her, sad and scared–a fellow believer trying to do good. She’s dead now. Another reminder of the world upside down. A world that rejects reconciliation and remains choked by violence. An invitation, easy to accept, to remain angry, to hate the other, to will revenge upon them, and to sustain the divides that keep the world on its head, blood flooding it and causing dizziness, destruction, and despair.
I pocketed my phone, I looked up, and there she was: a different young woman wearing a beautiful hijab snapping a selfie with Francis. And, as I so often think, I’m reminded yet again: it doesn’t have to be this way. She committed an act of love. An act of acceptance. An act of dialogue, of joy, and of hope.
There are those who, when confronted by images of darkness and death, savor the world turned upside down. As Alfred says in The Dark Knight, “some people just want to watch the world burn.” They are willing to let it fall into the abyss, so long as they’ve got whatever they want. There are those, however, who seek to lift the struggling world off its submissive knees, no longer willing to bow down to evil and violence. Jesus was one of these people.
We ourselves might not be doing the burning, but too often, we remain indifferent to the all-consuming fire that rages on. We cannot be those people. We must start fires that bring warmth and light and life. No matter how fun it is to turn upside down or to walk around on our hands, that fun doesn’t last; our endurance will fade and we will fall. When this happens, or even before it does, we must heal the world and bring it to its feet once again.
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