Near the turn of the second century, a Latin poet named Juvenal published a collection of verses titled Satires. Among other things, the text was meant to spark discussion in regards to social norms within the Roman Empire. Specifically, at a time when Juvenal believed the mass public was growing increasingly lazy and indifferent toward public involvement, he wrote:
…everything now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses (Juvenal, Satires 10.77–81).
What concerned Juvenal was the way in which citizens were growing less concerned about positive social change due to their overly obsessed pursuit of bread (comfort) and circus (entertainment). He believed political leaders were using comfort and entertainment as a way to “dumb down” the public, distract them, and open increased opportunities for manipulation. In addition, Juvenal believed the public was all to willing to cooperate in this process, for entertainment and comfort was much more attractive than striving for social justice alongside the poor and marginalized members of society.
What I find incredibly intriguing about Juvenal’s concerns are that, numerous generations later, it can be argued that much of what he considered to be problematic in Roman society continues to exist in our day and age. For example: How much of our daily thoughts and actions are geared toward the pursuit of bread and circus? How often does the search for comfort and entertainment guide the ways in which we use our time and resources? To what degree does bread and circuit influence the friends we chose or the interactions we seek? And from a different point of view: How often do we avoid situations that are uncomfortable and/or not entertaining? Are times of displeasure and boredom merely times to “endure” and/or “tolerate”, or should they be times to embrace? Is it not healthy to be uncomfortable and/or un-entertained every so often?
Naturally, there is nothing inherently wrong with comfort and entertainment when consumed in manageable doses. The enjoyment of “bread” and “circus” are to be received as God’s gifts, for they provide rest, relaxation, and a joyful break from the ever-present stresses of this world. When our daily lives included arguments surrounding government, various family concerns, work-related pressures, and growing anxiety about the economy, a bit of comfort and entertainment is a good thing! Nevertheless, like most anything in life, when something meant for good is used and/or pursued in excess, it can provide a great deal of harm. Comfort and entertainment are meant to serve as a retreat from the hard work of social engagement, but when used in excess they are anesthetics which numb us to that which is causing damage to others, as well as to ourselves.
With all this being said, I wonder what would happen if we allowed ourselves to be more uncomfortable and less entertained? What would happen if faithfulness and pursuit of justice for the poor and marginalized replaced bread and circus as primary goals of our existence? How would this transformation of priorities affect our lives? How would it affect those on the “lower rungs of society” whom are all too often forgotten? Instead of only participating in activities that we “enjoy” or consider immediately stimulating, or as a replacement for accompanying those whom we easily interact with, what would occur if we stretched our limits and pushed ourselves out of customary comfort zones? What would take place if we intentionally placed ourselves in situations we normally avoid? What if we broke through our various routines, tried something different, and as a result learned a great deal about others and ourselves throughout the process?
As Country Coordinators of the Young Adults in Global Mission program in South Africa, Kristen and I receive a firsthand look into what takes place when North American volunteers do not receive the “bread and circus” they are accustomed to. Instead of residing in comfortable environments with constant stimulation, they are urged to adjust to unfamiliar surroundings which require flexibility and resourcefulness. Instead of immediate access to Internet, cable television, and other comforts of “home”, they are forced to reconsider the significant difference between “needs” and “wants”. As time passes, volunteers no longer worry about what they do not have, but rather, their eyes are opened to what they do possess – fellowship with others as a result of incredible hospitality received from South Africa hosts. While the initial weeks of “bread and circus withdrawal” can be a challenge, volunteers experience incredible growth and life-transformation, to the point they are equipped upon return to the United States with a renewed outlook at life and increased confidence in their abilities to seek faithfulness and justice in an ever-changing world. Kristen and I are fortunate to have an opportunity to accompany such a faithful group of young adult volunteers, and we thank God for South African host communities who guide us throughout this incredible life-changing process.
I will be the first to acknowledge how tempting it is to remain within comfortable and entertaining environments, for the fact of the matter is that “bread and circus” can be quite fun! There have been numerous times in my life when I have spent far too much time and money on comfort and entertainment, and I suppose there have been days when I dreamed about winning millions of dollars in the lottery and then spending the rest of my days sitting on the couch with nothing to do but watch television and eat ice-cream! Nevertheless, underneath temporary moments of fantasy, I realize God has given us life not to be comfortable and entertained, but to be faithful and fruitful. Yes, there are times for rest and relaxation, yet our lives are not to be centered around the pursuit of bread and circus. We are called to love God and love others, which means, there are times when we need to seek-out the people and places where comfort and entertainment are not immediately present. There are times when we need to surround ourselves with those who are poor and marginalized, so that we can observe the injustices which so many face, and then learn listen and consider the best methods to move forward. There are times when we need to close our mouths and genuinely consider those who hold beliefs much different than our own. There are times when we need to passionately engage with public representatives for honorable laws and policies which serve a common good. There are times when we must admit that we have received benefits as a result of oppression, and we must ask for forgiveness while learning to accompany others in mutuality. These occasions are not comfortable, nor are they entertaining, but they are necessary for us to help create a world which is filled with compassion, love, and understanding.
Rather than “anxiously hoping” for bread and circus, as Juvenal lamented so many years ago, may we activity pursue what God has called us to be and do: agents of love and compassion in pursuit of dignity, hope, and justice for all people throughout the world.