Phillip Yancey tells the story of the Orange revolution in the Ukraine 2004 to illustrate a point.
Like other parts of the Soviet Union, Ukraine moved toward democracy as the Soviet empire collapsed, though in Ukraine democracy advanced at a glacial pace. If you think our elections are dirty, consider that when the Ukrainian reformer Victor Yushchenko dared to challenge the entrenched party, he nearly died from a mysterious case of dioxin poisoning.
Against all advice Yushchenko, his body weakened and his face permanently disfigured by the poison, remained in the race. On election day the exit polls showed him with a comfortable 10 percent lead; nevertheless, through outright fraud the government managed to reverse those results.
That evening the state-run television station reported, “Ladies and gentlemen, we announce that the challenger Victor Yushchenko has been decisively defeated.” However, government authorities had not taken into account one feature of Ukrainian television. The translation it provides for the hearing-impaired.
On the small screen inset in the lower right-hand corner of the television screen a brave woman raised by deaf-mute parents gave a different message in sign language. “I am addressing all the deaf citizens of Ukraine. Don’t believe what they [authorities] say. They are lying and I am ashamed to translate these lies. Yushchenko is our President!”
No one in the studio understood her radical sign-language message. Deaf people, inspired by their translator Natalya Dmitruk, led the Orange Revolution. They text-messaged their friends on mobile phones about the fraudulent elections, and soon other journalists took courage from Dmitruk’s act of defiance and likewise refused to broadcast the party line.
Over the next few weeks as many as a million people wearing orange flooded the capital city of Kiev to demand new elections. The government finally buckled under the pressure, consenting to new elections, and this Yushchenko emerged as the undisputed winner.
When Yancey heard the story behind the Orange Revolution he applied it this way: the image of a small screen of truth in the corner of the big screen became for me an ideal picture of the church. You see, we in the church do not control the big screen. (When we do, we usually mess it up.)
Go to any magazine rack or turn on the television and you will see a consistent message. What matters is how beautiful you are, how much money or power you have. Magazine covers feature shapely supermodels and handsome hunks, even though very few people look like that.
Basketball player Kevin Garnett, admits Yancey, excels at putting a round ball through a round hoop, and will earn more money this year than the entire United States Senate. What kind of society values one person’s athletic prowess more than the contributions of its top one hundred legislators?
The message of the big screen, suggests Yancey, says Consume! Indulge! Enjoy! Apart from the damage it does our planet, consider the damage we do to ourselves, says Yancey: “Every one of the gravest health concerns in the United States stems from overindulgence: smoking (emphysema, lung cancer); obesity (diabetes, heart problems); stress (heart disease, hyper-tension); alcohol (fetal damage, violent crime, automobile accidents); drug abuse; sexually transmitted diseases. We smoke too much, eat too much, drink too much, work too much, and sleep around with too many people (Yancey/pp 184-187).
As we look to 2011, we are, according to Yancey, literally destroying ourselves with our big-screen export. Democracy, said Jurgen Habermas, requires of its citizens qualities that it cannot provide.
Yancey concludes his chapter noting that we need a new vision in which we see ourselves not as owners but as stewards of a planet, not as masters of one another but as servants of a God of love and also justice. We need to blot out the seductive message of the big screen and start paying attention to the small screen in the lower right hand corner.
We need to build our house on the rock: to hear the words of Jesus and put them into practice. If we do so, no matter what happens with the stock market, no matter what happens with Iran or North Korea or China or any other threat, when the rains come down and the streams rise up, our house will stand“ (Matthew 7:24-27).
We need to be good citizens, participating in the political process, but we also need to recognize we do not control the big screen and will never control the big picture. But, like Natalya Dmitruk, let us be sure in 2011 that we give the true message from our small picture in the lower right corner of the screen.
As Yancey concludes, Jesus says in effect, “Don’t believe the big screen--they’re lying. It’s the poor who are blessed, not the rich. Mourners are blessed too, as well as those who hunger and thirst, and the persecuted. Those who go through life thinking they’re on top will end up on the bottom. And those who go through life feeling they’re at the very bottom will end up on top. After all, what does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose his soul?
Phillip Yancey, What Good Is God? (NY: Faith Words,2010)
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