To Know the World (and Love it Still)

There are few films that deftly and profoundly expose the shallowness of our empathy, our lack of willingness to inhabit the burdens of others. One such film is Hotel Rwanda, a story set against the backdrop of the unthinkable atrocity of the Rwandan genocide. In the short span of three months, nearly one million people were murdered, mostly Tutsi, by the newly politically-powerful Hutu. To heap horror upon horror, upward of half a million women were raped. However, despite the seismic scale, the genocide was largely ignored in America. In one haunting scene of the movie, the main character, Paul, a Hutu who manages a hotel in Rwanda, approaches an American cameraman who has been partially filming the ongoing genocide. With the sort of sincerity that is only birthed out of hope he says, “I am glad you have shot this footage and that the world will see it. It is the only way we have a chance that people might intervene.” After a brief exchange, Jack, the cameraman, responds soberly, “I think if people see this footage they’ll say, “Oh my God. That’s horrible.” And then go on eating their dinners.”

As a white, American man, the verdict of those words are haunting for the truth it forces before me—I believe their problems, whoever they might be, are not mine. Genesis 14 forces us into the wrestle of considering: is it possible to know the world and love it still? To know its sorrow and pain and horror not only as theirs but as mine? To share solidarity with strangers? To inhabit the lives of immigrants? To bear the burdens of the broken? To do so not for a likable Instagram post or to claim the moral high ground? To do so simply as an act of faith that as we have received the promise of God, we are to carry his promise in the broken places around us? For all his faults, in Genesis 14, Abram begins to carve out the way of faith for us to follow in a way that leads us to Jesus.

At the end of Genesis 13, Abram is posted up in the promised land. The skirmish with Lot and his herdsman is behind him. The promised land is before him, and he holds yet another reaffirmation of God’s promise in his hand. Things are, in a word, well. Yet the page turns in the narrative to a Lord of the Rings-level war raging all around him. Though Abram is insulated from the epic war, Lot is taken captive. Abram, the elder kinsman, is suddenly thrust into the wrestle of privilege—will he turn the promised provision of God into his own insular comfort or will he be a conduit to carry God’s purpose into the brokenness with the hope of redemption? 

As Abram’s sending 318 of his men on a night raid into the camp of the enemy to rescue Lot reveals, the way of faith lies on the narrow way between two grave pitfalls. On one side, as previously mentioned, lies the danger of receiving the promised provision of the Lord and turning insular, away from the world and its brokenness. Equally perilous on the other side lies the danger of entering into the brokenness of the world apart from the promised provision of the Lord. These dangers often define the dichotomy between the contemporary conservative and progressive narratives. 

Conservatism is often guilty of viewing the ills of the world as the deserved consequences of their actions and as a contagion that threatens the good of the world—good that conservatism locates distinctly inside its own borders. In this view, the world and its brokenness is to be avoided, not engaged, to be kept out, not invited in. It is nothing but a new attempt at the old scheme of the Pharisees—an attempt to claim God while rejecting the ways of the kingdom of God. While, on the other hand, progressivism engages the brokenness of the world—launching justice campaigns and social enterprises and medical non-profits to bring relief to the world’s ache—it often does so apart from the promised provision of the Lord. As a result, the progressive engagement of the world fails to bring the God of redemption to the world but instead presents themselves as the world’s redeemer. It is nothing but a new attempt at the old scheme of Babel—an attempt to gain the kingdom of God without honoring God as king.

The message of Genesis 14 is that God’s intention for his people, the recipients of his promise, is to be conduits, not cul-de-sacs, of his promise. God has provisioned us with promise not for ourselves, but for the sake of those around us, that they might encounter in us the hope of God making all things new. Abram leaves the comfort of his land to reclaim what has been lost and taken captive by evil. In the grander story of Genesis, even in the face of evil, God is using Abram to carry out his eternal purpose to bring good and blessing to a broken world. This is Melchizedek’s point when he offers the blessing, accompanied by bread and wine, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed by God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hands.” Abram is blessed to be a blessing, to be an instrument through which God, who created the heavens and the earth in the beginning, continues to possess it by accomplishing his purpose for the world, even as the world has been laid siege by evil. So the question is thrust before us: what would it look like to enter the places of war and unrest in our city as conduits carrying the promise of the Lord’s renewal?

What’s more, Abram does not do so for the sake of earning a good works merit badge or increased social media following. When the king of Sodom offers payment to Abram for a job well done, Abram refuses saying, “I have lifted my hand to the Lord, God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth, that I would not take a thread or a sandal strap or anything that is yours, lest you should say, “I have made Abram rich.”” Emily, my wife, likes to say that we all want to be the hero in everyone else’s memoir. There’s an aggressive eagerness in us all to de-center others and insert ourselves in their place. This aggressive desire to find acceptance, identity and meaning in others is heightened in our social media world—a reality that the indie film Ingrid Goes West poignantly captures. Returning to Genesis 14, Abram chooses to rest in the acceptance, identity and meaning he has received as a gift of grace from God rather than accept it elsewhere. Abram did not act in order to receive the provision of the king of Sodom. He acted because he already was provisioned by the true King of heaven and earth.

We live in a cost benefit world. We will pay the cost as long as we estimate the returned benefit will exceed the cost. This economy is so engrained in our mental processing that this analysis is often more implicit than explicit. We will do what we judge to be difficult things for God all the while implicitly expecting, even demanding, God return us a favor, a benefit, in kind. So we go on a trip to an orphanage in Honduras and find more pleasure in the likes that our social media postings accumulate than the pleasure of the Father’s heart for us, for we too were once orphans. We invite our neighbors over for dinner and find more satisfaction in the applause of our church than the satisfaction of God with us in Christ, wretched sinners as we are. We manicure our children with the pruners of moral religion because deep down we want to impress others in the mirrors of our children rather than rejoice that God doesn’t require that his children impress him. When our so-called work for the Lord is motivated by our aggressive desire to center ourselves and receive a reward, we have attempted to pimp out the Possessor of heaven and earth for our personal profit. Genesis 14 rebukes our arrogance and reminds us that we already have our reward—in part now and coming fully one day soon. Therefore, we are free to be conduits that point God’s purpose and promise beyond ourselves and to the broken world around us in the enduring hope that God is making all sad things untrue.

Abram’s mission to rescue Lot is a picture of God’s reclamation project that culminates ultimately in Jesus. For the sake of reconciling the broken world back to God, Jesus left the comfort of his God-given place and entered the chaotic unrest of sin and evil. Unlike Abram, Jesus did not simply enter the evil, he absorbed it and its penalty in himself on the cross, and three days later the light of a new creation dawned as Jesus rose from the dead. In doing so, Jesus put death to death, a story Jesus invites his church to remember in the bread and the wine. In the bread and the wine, we remember that the greatest gift was given to us when we had the greatest need. Now we, too, like Abram, and ultimately like Jesus, might turn outward to a needy world in great need with the greatest gift of all.