Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Iconoclastic optimism…

In the first millennium of Christianity, a debate raged over whether images were appropriate for churches. Supporters often used specially created pictures- icons- to direct their prayers to God. Critics countered that the second commandment expressly forbids graven (or painted?) images of God. Then, because this always happened, politics intervened, and those who mistrusted icons came to power with armies. They were called iconoclasts, i.e. enemies of icons, statues and whatever human creation might steal honor from the Lord. For centuries, the sides fought and hated each other, until it…stopped.

Nevertheless, the word endured, filtering into modern English, although divorced from Christian origins. Today, an iconoclast is anyone who disrupts accepted wisdom, cherished institutions or widely-held beliefs. Revolutionary War American iconoclasts toppled statues of King George III. Charles Darwin’s scientific iconoclasm is rather ironic, given the word’s beginnings. Jackie Robinson upended beliefs about sports stars. Pablo Picasso challenged perception. Think of those who stretch boundaries, push fields forward; they think different than others. Iconoclasts.

I bring this up because of certain writings I’ve come to enjoy in recent years: Books, articles, blog-posts, etc. celebrating how good things are today. One I just finished begins, “If asked to pick any time in history to be born as an average citizen, the second best choice would be- Today. The best choice- Tomorrow.” To make this point, the author cites facts like the reducing trends of violent crime worldwide, US teenage pregnancy rates falling in half over the past two decades, safer average childbirths, longer average lives, increased education access (especially for girls!) and historically unprecedented (Western) living standards. To which many outside the West are catching up quickly. In other words, these writers survey the world, and see hope. They’re optimists armed with loads of research, charts and data to make the case.

And yet, as I read newspapers, talk with neighbors, or turn on any cable news channel, I feel constantly bombarded by a message that “Things are bad and they’re getting worse!” A Pentagon official said last year that he thinks the world’s more dangerous now than ever before, despite the fact that global battlefield and terrorism-caused deaths are lower now than...ever before. Basically, outside the big, huge, we-should-not-ignore-this upward trend in global-warming-causing gas emissions, worldwide trajectories in things from wealth creation/poverty reduction to affordable vaccinations to democracy to renewable energy costs are heading in our collective favor. Count your blessings, people!

But we often don’t, right? Hope isn’t the dominant, accepted wisdom, as I hear it at least. Rather, today’s optimists are iconoclasts, rouges who challenge cherished, negative beliefs. And as rouges, outsiders, rebels, they’re easy to dismiss. After all, most of us form our opinions from news reports with splashy videos and hysterical graphics, dramatic sounding anchorpeople, whose companies have economic incentives to play up hype and stoke our fears. With that force so strong in our culture, how could we ever listen to other opinions, actually hear the iconoclastic optimists? Easy. Remember Sunday School? The answer’s always Jesus.

I mean, talk about your rebellious hope-monger, amen?! “The kingdom of God is here!” “Blessed are the poor!” “Today, you’ll be with me in Paradise!” In fact, maybe the most important thing Jesus should do for contemporary Christians is flood our spirits with hope and peace about our past, present and future. Because every moment, God is present, with love that conquered death already. Every day, we wake to the light of God’s sun, and God’s Son shining within us. God loved the world so much, God sacrificed everything to show us the way, betting we’d make good of it. Given what these iconoclastic optimists now report, that seems like a good bet God made.

So here’s a challenge for this week- Don’t trust the pessimists. Instead, wield hope like a hammer, one that swings in your heart to break apart whatever shortsighted negativity is trying to drag you down! Of course, neither be foolish; sin still exists, injustice needs defeating. But that battle won’t be won by those convinced we’re lost already. The victors are those who see hope as real as Jesus did. You know, that guy who resurrected?!

Grace and Peace,

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