This past week, I was visiting the United Kingdom (still United, thank goodness), to attend a conference at Cambridge University.
While there, I also took a trip north to York University to do some historical study.
While there, I stayed in the old walled city of York. One evening, I attended an Evensong choir service at the magnificent York minster Cathedral. There, dwarfed beneath the tallest tower and the widest nave of any medieval church in Europe, I listened to two very apt readings from scripture.
The first was from the book of Job, in which Job wails about the misery he is experiencing without reason. Job tells us that God brings misery to the just and terrible losses to good men and women, because He can do so. The second was from the gospels, detailing the crucifixion of Christ and his suffering — again the suffering of a good man who had done nothing to deserve such a fate.
So the world is full of suffering, even among good people, and God will do nothing to prevent it. A horrible, depressing pair of readings, really. And with the four horseman of the apocalypse loose in the world – Ebola (pestilence) in Africa, war in the Middle East, famine (from drought) again in the Sahel, and death visible as never before (live on YouTube–beheadings!) – they seemed all too apt.
Yet the message of these texts really is that it is up to us to deal with the terrible turns of fate that inevitably arise, and try to make something out of the challenge and suffering that redeems them. Whether you believe that Christ actually came back, or that Job’s life really had a happy ending (some scholars believe that was tacked on like a change in editing in a Hollywood movie), what is clear is that we have to continue to make our own efforts to bring closer a world where suffering by good people will be rare or not occur.
In that context, President Obama’s speech today at the UN was extraordinary. He did not shy away from calling to account all those who contribute to suffering by good people — whether a faceless virus that the US will try to fight, or radical clerics encouraging people to hate and kill, or states that invade their neighbors. He didn’t sell the task short: He took on the big historical issue, pointing out that only resolving Sunni-Shi’a conflicts, even if that takes a decade, is the only way to “stop the madness” of continued cycles of violence.
At the same time, Obama didn’t exaggerate the ability, role, or purity of the US. He pointed to our own racial conflicts, and rightly said the only thing that separates us is that we have transparent media, laws that work, and hold leaders accountable in ways that allow us to gradually move closer to our ideals.
This is potentially a turning point for the Middle East and North Africa. If the various religious conflicts in the region can be diminished, it could be comparable to the ending of the Wars of Religion in Europe in the 17th century — which by the way kicked off the Enlightenment, scientific advance, religious pluralism and eventually the birth of the United States. So this is a big, big goal, worth all the time and effort it will take to pursue.
Obama ended his speech by saying that peace begins close to home, in people’s neighborhoods, schools, and work. This morning, driving to my Metro stop in suburban Virginia, I passed a school bus picking up children. There was a tall blond mother waving to her daughter; alongside her were women in headscarves and robes waving to their sons and daughters — all of them wanted only one thing at that moment: for their children to have a good day. America is a place where most children can go to school, and most of the time hope for a good day, regardless of their religion (to be sure, and sadly, for different racial and ethnic groups we can’t say that so often). That should be the goal — a world where in all regions all mothers can send their children off to school, believing they will be safe, get a good education, and be able to plan for a better future. When we get there, we should also have a lot less needless suffering by good people.