Saturday night I had dinner with The Philosopher, a friend from our Baylor days who happened to end up in the tri-state area at the same time as I was. He's back in New York now, working on a PhD and teaching and working and enjoying life in the big city. We hadn't seen each other in years, so we had a great time walking around the East Village, looking to see what we could find at The Strand (a bad place for two broke bibliophiles to even look at), enjoying the unbelievably good food at Bello's, a tiny Italian place on St. Mark's, and catching up on everything that's happened.
The last time The Philosopher and I were in New York together, it was about a month after 9/11. We met in midtown and went downtown because we had to, and stood in silence at the fence by St. Paul's. You couldn't visit "ground zero" at the time, and so I have never seen it. I don't want to. It seems obscene to make a tourist attraction about a place of so much horror, and I don't need to visit to remember. I still can't forget seeing face after face on the makeshift bulletin boards at Grand Central. Nor can I escape the dust that covered the financial district and stuck to our shoes and made me weep.
I haven't been back to the financial district since.
A lot has happened in the three or four years since we'd last met up, so we had lots to cover: relationships (including his short-lived one with, apparently, a former Miss Arkansas), our PhD programs, his move to Colorado, and my trips to the Congo. In the course of our wandering, I told him about some of the things I've seen there. "Oh, and the soldiers gang rape six-year-olds," I said as we stepped off a street corner in our attempt to find a restaurant.
The Philosopher stopped and stared at me. "That's not the kind of thing you just say," he admonished. "But it's reality," I replied.
Maybe I have become a bit desensitized to the reality of the rape crisis in the eastern Congo. It's become routine for me to read articles like this one, which notes that the number of rapes treated by MSF in North Kivu doubled in the first half of September. After awhile, you forget that everyone does not know these facts, and you spout them out as you would facts about the weather, or the cost of an 800 square-foot condo downtown, or the number of bees that have disappeared since last summer.
But there's another dimension to this issue of desensitization that goes to the heart of The Philosopher's objections to my matter-of-fact comment: this is reality.
I've been thinking a lot about comfort these last few years, about how we can live our good, moral lives without being exposed to the reality of suffering in this world. Certainly it's possible to grow up, go to college, start a job and a family, go to church every Sunday, spend weekends at the lake and vacations at the beach and never have to be aware of the unpleasant fact that a 10 Congolese soldiers raped a woman today. Or that the following is the reality of a woman named Maganza's life:
"One woman, Maganza, had gone five years without treatment before she showed up at the Heal Africa facility on Saturday. She had been raped by six rebels who left her for dead after forcing another woman to cut out her lifeless foetus."
But this is reality. I am not going to stop sharing these stories and facts about reality until this crisis is over. And I am not in the least bit convinced that God calls Christians to ignore reality, even as we are thankful for our blessings. It ought to make us uncomfortable. It ought to cause us pause in the middle of polite conversation, and not simply because we are annoyed that someone ruined an otherwise perfect evening. How we handle that, is, I think, what defines us.