Thursday, August 9, 2012

Bread and Circus (Brian E. Konkol)

The following reflection was published by the Sojourners God's Politics Blog on August 3, 2012, and can be found at:

Near the turn of the second century, a poet named Juvenal published a collection of verses titled Satires.  Among other things, the text was intended to spark discussion on social norms at a time when the masses were increasingly withdrawn from civil engagement.  In specifics, Juvenal wrote:

…everything now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.

According to Juvenal, the public of his day and age were growing less concerned about social responsibility due to personal pursuits of bread (comfort) and circus (entertainment).  In addition, he believed political leaders used the distribution of comfort and entertainment as a way to sedate the population, distract them, and open opportunities for systemic manipulation.  All together, Juvenal believed far too many citizens were far too willing to cooperate in their own exploitation.

What I find incredibly intriguing – and concerning – about Juvenal’s observations are that, numerous generations later, it can be argued that much of what he considered to be problematic in his era can now be found in North America.  For example: How many North Americans focus their time and resources primarily upon the pursuits of comfort and entertainment?  In addition, how many citizens disengage from public responsibility in order to seek personal pleasures?  All together, how does the addiction of comfort and entertainment – found so prevalently in North America – distance us from God’s dream for the world? 

Naturally, there is nothing inherently wrong and/or immoral with comfort and entertainment.  The enjoyment of “bread” and “circus” is to be received as God’s gracious gifts, for such moments provide rest, relaxation, and a joyful break from tensions and anxieties.  When our daily lives include arguments, concerns, pressures, and nervousness, a bit of comfort and entertainment is indeed worthwhile.  Nevertheless, like most anything in life, when something meant for good is used, pursued, and/or abused in excess, the overindulgence often leads to great harm – to ourselves, as well as those around us.  And so, comfort and entertainment are meant to serve as momentary retreats and/or releases from social engagement, yet we miss the mark when they become a permanent replacement. 

With all this being said, I wonder what would happen if we in North America allowed ourselves to be more uncomfortable and less entertained?  In other words, what would happen if faithfulness and participation in God’s mission of reconciliation, transformation, and empowerment replaced the personal pursuits of bread and circus as the primary goals of our existence? How would this alteration of priorities affect our lives?  How would it shape our local and global communities?  How would it energize the life of Christian Churches and spark our theological imaginations?  Instead of placing our hopes and dreams in the never-ending and unsustainable pursuit of bread and circus, how would our personal and public wellness be altered with Christ-like love, dignity, and compassion at the center of our beings?

While various currents of North American life try to seduce us into a rhythm of bread and circus, the consequences are indifference and ignorance, which in turn push our communities into sites of injustice and inequality.  And so, instead of “anxiously hoping” for bread and circus, as Juvenal lamented so many years ago, we are reminded that following Jesus leads to times, places, and people where comfort and entertainment are not immediately present.  As a result, instead of contributing toward the exploitation of others (and ourselves), people of faith are called to engage with the difficult realm of public life.  In response to God’s gracious love, we are claimed as agents of love and compassion, to be immersed in the civic pursuit of dignity and hope, and imbedded as advocates of peace for all people throughout the world.  These efforts may not be comfortable, nor are they entertaining, but they are indeed marks of faithfulness.