Living in a wasteland

“For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.”  -- Romans 8:20-22

At a refugee camp about 15 miles from the Ethiopia-Somali border, commerce buzzes around the base of an old fort with a crumbling watchtower where a gunman scans the empty horizon. Women sell milk and tea, soap and sugar -- everything in small, refugee-sized packets. Groups of men walk by in twos and threes, holding hands, nonchalantly toting guns on their shoulders.

No one is angry, no one is hostile; people smile and laugh gently at us. In spite of this, there is something hard in their eyes, some vestige of times and places where guns would not be dangling unused; perhaps it is this undefined thing that gives them a pent-up look, as if some little spark might set things ablaze.

All around us stretches a giant collection of makeshift shelters formed with sticks and pieces of tarp. A few of these are in one piece and display the logo of the United Nations (U.N.) High Commissioner for Refugees, relics of former beneficence; but most are a rainbow patchwork of squares, colorful defense against the unhappy sky.

There are some aid workers who come to greet us, and they say that the U.N. will not operate there because it is near a disputed boundary. The camp contains about 25,000 people. Eighty percent of the households are headed by women who left with their children because the husbands are not able to feed their families and stayed behind to care for the dwindling livestock.

There are several thousand children in the camp, but only about 500 attend the school. The rest are busy with other tasks. Most of the people have walked here in search of help from the other side of the border, across several miles of burning dust. A small clinic is open about once a week, but the local NGO (non-governmental association) that runs it has not come for over 10 days, and they don’t know when they might be back. The aid workers are very informed and seem very organized; the meaning they find in their work is evident in their movement and sentences, which are not rude but have a tension in them, molded by the demands of urgency.

Many accounts of similar plights emphasize the horrors of what people have gone through and are still dealing with, but they sometimes fall short when it comes to explaining why we should respond. Is it because people are living in difficult conditions? Is it because we need to show the love of God to people who are disadvantaged, as Jesus did?

It’s true that they are living in terrible conditions; it’s true that we need to show all people the love of God in concrete ways; but there is something more than this.

The term "third world" is starting to fall out of use in academic circles for some good reasons, but the concept is still very much with us in the way we think. The "third world" is the one where we don’t live. It’s the one that we visit on mission trips and afterwards come back to give glowing reports about how wonderful and enriching the experience was, how generous and loving and appreciative the people were, how we’ll just never be the same.  

We love the third world; we have compassion on it; some of us define ourselves by our relation to it. But we do not live in it.  

We refer to its citizens as “others.” In the same way that we’re uncomfortable with "third world" but still make use of the concept, we don’t really know what to call these people. We replace words like “indigenous” and “native” with “national” or “local.”  But whatever words we use, the people are fundamentally different; they are the inhabitants of that other world which is marked off from our own by national and other shadowy boundaries.

Our world is comfortable; theirs is not. Our world has diversions -- things to fill our stale minutes; theirs is boring. Our world can be manipulated to suit us according to our abilities and desires: we can earn more, buy more, travel more, experience more. These things are within our power and therefore we have the means of escape from mediocre, stifling existences; they are imprisoned.

This division between worlds in our thinking, however, is a denial of the biblical teaching about the way things are on earth. The whole world as it now exists is condemned to futility with no hope of escape through currently available means. That is true of the wastelands in Somalia and Ethiopia -- vast tracts of scorched nothingness where people live day by day, trying to scrape together a meager existence. It is also true of the wastelands in Minneapolis and Chicago, Denver and Los Angeles -- anthills entombed in concrete where poor inhabitants spend all their time obsessively trying to accumulate more trinkets as insurance against the kind of life they fear.

I don’t care where on earth you live, you are living in a wasteland; you are living in a futile place with no hope of escape through means available to your flesh. There is an escape, and it’s on the way; but we’re missing something if we think it is only necessary for Africans, and the rest of us are doing pretty well, thank you very much. When we recognize that it is not so, then praying, giving financially, and skipping meals every so often, becomes something other than a duty, or an act to assuage guilt; it becomes an expression of solidarity, something we do out of the recognition that we are all in the same plight.

-- Steve Sharp is a specialized assignment missionary to the Horn of Africa Field.