For about three months this summer it seemed as though the world was falling apart. I can’t remember a period in my lifetime in which so many awful events happened so quickly. And now, though months have passed, none of them have really been resolved.
Here’s my quick recap:
• Violence still rages in Iraq and Syria, forcing Christians and other minority groups to face winter with only the assistance strangers provide. At least 12 million people have been made homeless.
• Ukraine still suffers unrest with armed breakaway groups.
• Ebola rages in West Africa, with more than 13,000 cases and an additional 27 cases in five other countries.
• The fighting in Gaza has ended, but there is no just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
• Central American gangs continue to threaten lives of youth, even as the media has lost interest in the problems of minors crossing the border into the U.S.
What’s important to understand is that these events are part of a broader phenomenon, one that actually has a hopeful overall trajectory. Despite the seemingly random horror of these events, we can see how they fit together and how we as Christians can respond with hope and love.
The bigger picture is actually full of good news. Over the past 30 years tremendous progress has been made on behalf of the poor. A billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. Child and maternal mortality rates have plummeted worldwide. AIDS and malaria have been reduced dramatically. Twenty-five years ago, almost 2 billion people lived on less than a dollar a day; now 970 million do. Over the same time, maternal mortality has dropped by 50 percent. Adult literacy has increased from just 43 percent to 84 percent since 1970. Two billion people have gained access to clean water—less than a billion are still left without it. Five out of the ten fastest growing economies in the world are now in Africa.
But there are places where these gains are not taking effect. In these countries out in the margins, governments are not willing or able to provide basic services to citizens. There is minimal rule of law; roads, schools, and basic infrastructure are missing; violence is usually the norm. Sometimes, in places like Syria, Somalia, or Iraq armed groups sew conflict. Elsewhere, like in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the government is simply incapable of providing for or responding to the needs of its citizens. When something goes wrong, such as the outbreak of a deadly virus in West Africa, there are minimal capabilities to respond.
In development and foreign affairs terms, these marginal places are called fragile states. There are 50 fragile states as defined by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. These are the hard places, but they are the places where poverty and violence remain even as people in other developing countries are moving towards living full and abundant lives.
While these fragile states represent only 19 percent of the world’s population, they are now home to half of the world’s extreme poor. Just these 50 states are home to 70 percent of all child mortality and 60 percent of the world’s hungry. By all accounts, the poverty of tomorrow looks like it will take a stranglehold in the fragile states and by 2030 two-thirds of the world’s poor will live in these countries.
According to Raj Shah, the head of USAID, “Fifteen years from now, the effort to end extreme poverty will largely have failed or succeeded on whether development policy and practice can serve alongside efforts to usher in peace, security, and stability.”
As Christians who care about sharing and showing the good news of Jesus Christ, these fragile states are also the places most in need of Jesus’ message. The population in these fragile states is two-thirds non-Christian and one-half Muslim. These are not the places where our church missions dollars are traditionally going. You can’t take the eighth-grade youth group to Somalia. You also can’t host vacation Bible school programs in Syria or build churches in Iraq.
But Christians can offer real assistance to people in need. In Iraq, Christians, Yazidis, and even Muslim minorities were forced to flee violence at a moment’s notice, carrying with them nothing but the clothes on their backs. Now, as winter sets in, we can provide blankets and shelter from the cold. In South Sudan, 50,000 children are at risk of dying from starvation. We can offer them nourishment. In West Africa, health workers need supplies to avoid infection. And we can be voices for a just and lasting peace in Israel and Palestine and wherever conflict seems intractable.
The headlines are shocking and intimidating. But we have an answer to this kind of evil. We can act. We can be ambassadors of the love of Christ to these most vulnerable people. We can send a blanket or supplies to help a nursing mother with her baby. More importantly, we have the spiritual gifts of truth, forgiveness, reconciliation, compassion, and justice. We—the church—can be the hands and feet of Christ in our broken world. It is not our calling to retreat in fear behind our television screens as we watch the evening news but instead to advance into the margins and into the pain in our world.