2016 has taken a lot of heat. A lot. And I get it. Bad news came in waves this past year, with events ranging from shocking to sickening to simply very sad. Brutal terrorism. Racism. Violence by law enforcement officers. Violence against law enforcement officers. Protests and riots. Olympic doping. Zika. Extreme weather: earthquakes, hurricanes, wildfires, winter storms, record high temperatures and flooding. Airline disasters. Economic woes. The brutal war in Syria, and the tragedy of refugees that no one quite knows how to handle. Political upheaval: Brexit, a failed coup in Turkey, Trump versus Clinton, left versus right, Russia versus the US, and North Korea versus . . . everyone. Hacking. Fake news. Creepy clowns. And of course the never-ending stream of celebrity deaths.
I’m not going to say that the horrible (even horrific) events listed above weren’t that bad (they were) but I would like to rebut 3 of the more common responses to the previous year. First, many have gone so far as to call 2016 the worst year ever. (I mean, look at Mariah Carey’s performance on New Year’s Eve!) Others, Christians in particular, point to the year as evidence that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. (A handbasket? Why not get an Uber? Or do they do ridesharing there? Anyway . . . ) Finally, some have taken a more positive approach, suggesting that while 2016 was rough, we can hope that 2017 will be much better. In my opinion all 3 of these responses are ill-informed, and I would like to advocate a more rational response. In this digital age, there are a multitude of voices clamouring for our attention, and it is perhaps more important than ever that Christians remain anchored in reason and truth.
So, let’s start with “the worst year ever”*. I think it would be fair to suggest that there may have been other years that would rival 2016 for that dubious title. For instance, there would be a number of scientists who would lobby in favour of that time when an asteroid collided with our planet, wiping out up to 75% of previously living species. That was probably a rough year. Too speculative for you? How about the year of the Great Flood? You know, that time when everyone died except for Noah and his family? Or the Black Death? You could pick one of the years during that dark time in the mid 1300s and make a pretty strong argument for that as the worst year ever.
Okay, some might argue, but those are just natural disasters. What about economic downturn and political upheaval? Well, my parents’ generation would suggest that the Great Depression and World War II would give anything that occurred in 2016 a run for its money. Man’s inhumanity to man? How about the Holocaust? The Cambodian genocide?
Which brings us to the hell in a handbasket theory. It goes something like this: The good old days are gone. This world is just getting worse and worse! If people would just (insert preferred ideology; essentially it involves some version of other people agreeing with their worldview and taking up their pet cause) then everything would improve.
One of the problems with this rather simplistic approach is the fundamental assumption that the world is getting worse. Of course, by the world, they mean people. And I’m going to suggest that people have been doing some pretty awful things for quite some time. Racism, tyranny, insurrection, corruption and greed are not new. People have been crafting creative reasons for the implementation of cruel means to impose their will upon others for millennia. Some examples would Genghis Khan, Caligula, Maximilien Robespierre, Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler—all of whom did their deadly deeds long before 2016.
So what am I saying? That life just sucks; always has and always will? Nope. Simply that bad things have been happening for a long, long time. They happened in 2016, and they’ll continue to happen for as long as we’re all here. Perhaps the reason it seems like more of it happened in 2016 is that in a media saturated, digitally enhanced, on-demand world, we get to see it all up close. Not that long ago, there was a comfortable distance (both chronologically and geographically) separating us from events in Syria, or Turkey, or France. In today’s digital world, that distance is rapidly shrinking. What happens on the other side of the world pops up on our smartphones, live and in HD, almost immediately.
Here’s a second theory: more people. I remember as a kid learning that the world’s population was just under 4 billion (3.7 in 1970). Since then, it has doubled to 7.4 billion. Does it not seem reasonable that with twice as many people, there might be twice as much strife? I think that these 2 factors might also explain why there seem to be so many celebrity deaths. As a result of increased population and higher media consumption, there are simply more celebrities on the planet than ever before. In fact, it could be argued that celebrities weren’t even really a thing until the mid twentieth century. Well, those people are very old now.
So what do we do with all of this? Let me repeat what I said earlier: it is perhaps more important now than ever that Christians remain anchored in reason and truth. And where might we look for truth? Let’s start with the Bible. It tells us that God created a beautiful world for us to enjoy, designed for us as a place to thrive and to exercise our true nature as those made in His image and likeness. But leaving us in charge came with a risk—the possibility that we might discover ways to selfishly manipulate things to our own supposed advantage. Of course, that is exactly what we have endeavoured to do, and the result is the tragedy and heartache that has infected what was once pure and perfect. Hence, the barrage of bad news that daily presents itself through our computer screens, smartphones and televisions.
If the story stopped there, life would all be rather hopeless. Unfortunately, so many have come to that very conclusion. Or, alternatively that we can fix it all if we would just (once again, insert ideological solution). Or that maybe we’ll all just get lucky and 2017 will be better.
But the gospel offers real hope—the good news that we just celebrated at Christmas: that God is for us. That He has come, has conquered it all, and has made Himself available to walk us through even the worst of it. That beauty is alive and well in His world. It doesn’t all get reported in the media, but it’s there nonetheless. Babies are being born. People are celebrating 20th, 40th and 60th wedding anniversaries. Art is being created. Doctors and scientists are saving lives. The sun is rising and setting. And because God is at the center of all that is good, and with us in all that is not—and because He promises one day to restore all things—there truly is hope.
Let’s not be sucked in by the hopeless negativity of a world that cannot see beyond the obvious. Rather, let us walk into a new year with our eyes open to the reality of a world where tragedy and beauty exist side by side, our confidence based not upon ourselves, or our personal ideologies, or anything in our circumstances or surroundings, but with our eyes firmly fixed “not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:18)
“Cause the players gonna play…and the haters gonna hate…heartbreakers gonna break…and the fakers gonna fake…shake it off!”
— T. Swift
I just quoted Taylor Swift. Wow! 2017 is already shaping up to be a year full of surprises!
*In researching this post, I particularly enjoyed this article by Rebecca Onion of Slate magazine:
She debunks the “worst year ever” notion very thoroughly!