Responding to Constant Images of Mass Suffering: Haiti, Technology, and Repentance

Haiti and Suffering

Link goes to DTS's Hait Disaster Relief FundSince the horrible earthquake in Haiti, it has been encouraging to see the incredible outpouring of support and mobilization using all available resources and technology. The devastation there is so terrible it is impossible to fathom, and it confirms the faith of Haitian Christians as nothing less than miraculous.

These events also bring up one of the difficulties we face in the media age – our inability as humans to deal with suffering on a worldwide scale. It is hard enough to face the horror of our loved ones dying, but no human can withstand multiplying that emotion 250,000 times.

Media ecologists talk about the difficulty this way. In an oral culture, people form a tightly knit community physically and emotional connected to every event that happens within their tribe. In a print culture, individuals are disconnected by the medium of print which allows us to gain knowledge of suffering while alone decoding the characters on a page. Today, in a visual/digital culture, we are re-connected to those around us via the speed of Internet and we are re-engaged emotionally through the power of images. Yet we are also disconnected because the suffering we see is of those unknown to us and with whom we are not physically present. (for another take, see Tim Challies)

The natural response to being bombarded emotionally (through images) and continuously (through electronic speed) with the totality of human suffering is to simply become numb to it. Certainly, many of us give our money, time, and prayers to help those who are in pain, but without being there we cannot fully engage. I can read about what friends like Rhett Smith, Lars Rood, Tim Schmoyer, and others feel on the ground, but I cannot absorb their experience through web pages and YouTube videos. I admire their courage and resolve, but I feel helpless at the same time.

Haiti and Repentance

Thankfully, I believe there is another response other than becoming numb and cynical or languishing in helplessness. First, we can involve ourselves in such pain by “looking after orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27). Giving money is not the same as being there, but it is better than doing nothing and it does answer Jesus’ call, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat” (Matt 25:35).

In addition to such support, there is another less apparent response that Jesus tells us about in Luke 13.

When I was a student at Texas A&M, I experienced a really fun year – 1998 the Big 12 championship – and a year of senseless tragedy – 1999 the year the Aggie Bonfire fell and crushed 12 students. Many students and parents were left asking why something so terrible happened.

Jesus addressed a similar event in Luke 13:4-5 where a tower fell and killed 18 people. Jesus challenged the commonly held idea that those 18 sinned and the tower was their judgment (an idea Pat Roberson shamefully repeated about Haiti) by asking, “Do you think really think this happened to those people because they were any worse than you?”

Jesus continues and says something like, “Of course not, but this event should remind you of the sin in the world and the sin in your own life and cause you to repent of your own sins. Don’t worry about those people’s sin, worry about your own.”

The Most Repentant People of All Time?

I didn’t personally know any of students killed in the Aggie Bonfire tragedy, but I felt close to them since we saw their pictures daily for the next few years. Yet I also remember praying that God would allow me to feel more empathy and emotion for them. It seems strange now, but I felt guilty for not being sad enough.

Looking back, I think I had it backwards.

Jesus does not ask me to emotionally engage every tragic event that happens to distant people I do not know. Instead, he asks me to be available to those around me. There is suffering all around me if I just look up from my laptop and iPhone for a few moments.

For those far off, I have only four options: pray, send money, go, or repent.

We are constantly surrounded by images of tragedy – robberies, murder, earthquakes, terrorism, crashes, cancer, and on and on – but we almost never ever choose that last option.

We have an endless stream of reasons to repent, so rather than feel helpless to do something or guilty about our emotions, let us all join together and allow our media technology to call us not into numbness and cynicism, but into godly repentance.

Published by

John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

3 thoughts on “Responding to Constant Images of Mass Suffering: Haiti, Technology, and Repentance”

  1. Not sure I understand what you mean when you say “For those far off, I have only four options: pray, send money, go, or repent.” I guess I don’t see what you would be repenting of.

    1. Eli,
      I think Jesus’ point is not that we should repent of anything related to the tragedy itself, but that tragedy recalls sins presence in the world and should be a reminder to us of our constant need to repent from our own personal sin. Hope that helps…

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