Celebrities & Social Justice
Here's a follow up article on RELEVANT Magazine that I thought was a great read.
It all started with Bob Geldof. I danced to television images of Queen’s “Radio Ga-Ga” at Live Aid; then innocence faded as Geldof unveiled a world called Ethiopia, starving to death.
In the 1990’s, it was Michael Stipe’s Tibet. Being a fan of R.E.M., I undoubtedly knew more about the Dalai Lama and Tibetan freedom than any reasonable person should.
Today, it’s Bono doing all he can to save the world. Bono and countless others continue Geldof’s tradition of celebrities with a heart for social justice. These celebrities are significant not only for their art, but because they use their fame to propel AIDS, poverty, hunger, homelessness and war into the forefront of the media. They give a voice to the invisible people of the world, inspiring us to make a difference.
Social justice is a progressive pathway of steppingstones that starts with awareness and ends with passion. One stone leads directly to another. There are no stones you can skip, but the path is often abandoned before the end point is reached. Here’s what the path looks like:
Awareness; Compassion; Investment; Mercy; Passion
Our favorite musician appears on the evening news to increase awareness about injustice. Awareness leads to compassion. Matthew 9:36 tell us that when Jesus “saw the crowds, He had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless ...” (TNIV). Compassion, in this context, is a gut feeling, the idea that an individual must do something to address a problem that’s been exposed. Jesus saw the pain of the multitudes and had to act. In the same way, when we see television images of celebrities next to starving children, war zone amputees or emaciated AIDS victims, we have the same gut emotion. We feel as though we must act!
The next steppingstone is investment. We give our time, money and attention to the cause, attending the benefit concert, buying the CD with “Music Inspired by (insert popular cause here),” adding the cause to our MySpace friends and wearing the appropriately colored bracelet and $25 t-shirt that shows we truly care about social justice.
Unfortunately, here’s where it ends for many of us. As a culture, we are fickle. When the star of the celebrity fades or their cause demands too much, we shift our attentions elsewhere. Here lies the problem with chasing after the vision of celebrities. It’s not that they have bad visions, it’s just that they aren’t truly our own. We may adopt them for a while, but we rarely carry them to the next steppingstone, the place where a real impact begins to be made—mercy.
In several instances where mercy is mentioned in the Gospels, the Hebrew word used is chesedh. Chesedh is an untranslatable word, but it means to literally place oneself inside the skin of another person so you can know every aspect of their being. Walt Whitman said, “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels; I, myself, become the wounded person.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer expressed chesedh like this: “I am bound to reach the point where the want, infirmities, and sins of my neighbor afflict me as if they were my own, just as Christ was afflicted by our sins ... ‘Bear one another's burdens.’” Derek Webb said it this way: “Like the Three-in-One, know you must become what you want to save.”
Chesedh doesn’t allow us the luxury of following a Hollywood actor’s vision for as long as it excites us and no further. Chesedh gives us clarity of vision, allowing us to see for ourselves the need and the hurt in the world around us, to feel it as a part of our own being; deeper commitment is the result. The vision that is Christ’s chesedh vision becomes our own. The inspiration is the Holy Spirit guiding us, not our admiration of a rock star or a movie goddess.
Finally, if you’re brave enough to step out of celebrity shadow and move with God, to take on the skin of the wounded person as Christ took on our own flesh, chesedh will lead to passion. Passion is the point where nothing else matters to you more than justice; being willing to sacrifice everything for what you know is right and good and pure and true; giving out of your wealth and your poverty, out of your own flesh and blood, regardless of the popularity of the cause.
I remain a great fan of the Boomtown Rats R.E.M, and U2. I love to see the famous lend their names to help the nameless. I will always admire Geldof, Stipe, Bono, Jolie, Pitt and many others for their good deeds, but they aren’t my heroes anymore. My heroes include a pastor named Perry who has spent years visiting the homeless under bridges around Athens, Georgia, building relationships and growing them into a congregation, an infectious disease doctor named Elliot who has adopted three African children to date, a percussionist named Erving, who lived in an Atlanta shelter for eight years as a crack addict, cleaned up and moved to Los Angeles, built a career, bought a beachfront condo, sold all he had and moved back into the shelter to give his life for the sake of others and a nobody from Nazareth who died to save the world. Show me an individual whose cause doesn’t depend on the popularity of its spokesperson, someone who has taken their cause beyond awareness, compassion and investment and moved forward into chesedh and passion, and there you will find a hero indeed.
Funny thing is, I’m pretty sure that Bono and most of his peers would agree.