By now most of the world knows the royal family in England is celebrating the birth of little baby George Alexander Louis. The commentators panted as they caught the first glimpses of the magic baby, about everything from the infant's apparent ability to withstand a media onslaught to the ever-so-newsworthy fact that his father drove the family home with his own two hands.
Meanwhile in Iraq, several hundred prisoners of the infamous Abu Ghraib facility escaped, many of whom were known or suspected members of Al Qaeda. Considering the attention given to the few dozen detainees still held in Guantánamo Bay, it seems reasonable to think that such a breakout would arrest the headlines around the globe.
But instead, we stayed focused for the most part on baby George. I remarked about this to my friend, sharing my concern about the apparent distortion of priorities. He suggested that it simply is a sign of cultural fatigue, or even resignation. Sometimes, after all, these stories that have international importance seem so big, so abstract, and so far away that it is hard to wrap our minds around them. It’s easier instead to set our attention on something more hopeful — albeit remarkably more superficial — that won’t keep us awake at night.
To some degree, there was a similar sort of wordless stupor that overtook those of us in Florida at the national NAACP convention when learning of the George Zimmerman verdict. We sat in stunned silence, self-consciously examining our feelings, while all too aware of the weight of our social surroundings. What could we say? What in the world could we do that would make any difference?
The breaking news story gave way to the baseball game that had already been in progress on the screens in the hotel lobby. Though the moment hardly was forgotten, it was placed at least for the moment as far out of sight and mind as possible.
Human beings have a remarkable ability to compartmentalize experiences, carving them out and keeping them separate from one another when it serves our own personal wellbeing. Hardly something to criticize, this is one of the traits that has allowed humanity to endure through so much adversity and come out on the other side some semblance of hope. But it also can be used to willfully blind ourselves to matters of great urgency and import right in front of us.
How else would the debate about immigration reform continue to rage so fiercely over several years in our country, while most people of faith remain passively silent? How else would the largest religious institution in the world maintain an annual budget roughly six times larger than the amount claimed by the United Nations to be needed each year for a decade to eradicate hunger from the face of the earth forever?
On a smaller scale, how would otherwise good and moral people succumb to what author Malcolm Gladwell calls the bystander effect, which causes groups of people to stand by and do nothing while their neighbor is clearly in distress or harm’s way?
Applied in the wrong moments, this fundamental trait of human nature becomes a germinating seed of sin that leads to systemic apathy we can ill afford as a global society. Yes, there is more bad news in the world in a single day than any one soul can take on. Yes, sometimes there is little, if anything, we can do about the tragedies that fall heavy on our hearts. But to fall victim to the intoxicating distraction of pleasantries when our neighbors suffer stands in violent opposition to the call of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
A teacher in grammar school once told me that, "once you know better, you should be expected to do better." Well, we know better.
Christian Piatt is a Sojourners Featured Writer and an author, editor, speaker, musician, and spoken word artist. He is director of church growth and development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of Banned Questions About The Bibleand Banned Questions About Jesus. His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.