I have just scanned the news and four things jump out as having something significant in common: David and Samantha Cameron’s son Ivan died last night at the age of 6; the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have published a superb and strongly-worded condemnation of Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe and announced a day of prayer and fasting (as well as giving cash); a plane has crashed in Amsterdam; Obama has addressed his people with a strong encouragement that America will emerge from its problems eventually.
The thing that links these four ‘items’ is the fact that whether we are talking about a single family or a whole nation, a community of travellers or a starving and oppressed people, every individual counts. Millions of people die every day – most of them too young and most of them utterably avoidably. Over four million people have died in the Congo. Zimbabwe, with which I mostdeeply connected, is suffering terribly both from its own internal problems of misrule and corruption, but also from the neglect from elsewhere in Africa to do anything about Mugabe. But, when millions die unnecessarily every day, why does the death of one person hit the main headline?
Anyone who has done pastoral work – especially in contexts of bereavement – knows that the death of someone close makes the rest of the world disappear. A million may die, but each individual has a network of family and friends that is unique and irreplaceable. One death changes the whole world for a load of other people. Zimbabwe rightly disappears from view when your own child dies. When I read about the suffering in Zimbabwe, I don’t think of an amorphous mass of people who look the same; rather, I see the faces and hear the voices of particular people in particular contexts with particular challenges.
Obama is rightly telling people the truth: there is no quick fix and some people are going to suffer before things get better. There can be no hiding from that truth. But, we need to recover our ability to take a long-term view and re-shape the world slowly, step by step, at every level from the macro (government, banking, fiscal systems, etc) to the micro (looking after my neighbour who is suffering or in need). Obama sounds increasingly like one of the perceptive and brave Old Testament prophets.
The Cameron family will, I hope, withdraw from the world and grieve fully and properly for the loss of their son who was profoundly vulnerable during his short life. I hope they will be given the space to come to terms with the fact that the whole world has changed and other people can handle the Party and our economic challenges while they take the space to love and be loved.
Zimbabwe needs our love and anger and action. I hope many will give to the Archbishops’ Appeal – not because this is a tidy way of salving the post-colonialist conscience, but because the need is immediate and great and bigger than the niceties of my particular feelings about how they have got into this mess and who is responsible for it. My conscience or analysis does not matter a great deal to the parents of the child in Gweru who is not eating, not going to school and in danger of suffering from Cholera.
Every human being is made in the image of God and is infinitely valuable. Some of us have to hold the tension between the macro and the micro, but the shock of the macro (Zimbabwe) should never minimise the trauma of the micro (the death of one person such as Ivan Cameron- RIP).