Today I saw a child die. I was walking through the hospital campus on my way to get some lunch, and I noticed a small family group frantically feeling and looking at the little girl in her mother’s arms. Suddenly the young mother broke out in the most heart-wrenching screams I have ever heard. Her husband, mother, and several other women quickly joined in, beating their breasts, crying out in horror, and drawing a crowd of onlookers. Only when the grandmother succeeded in wrestling the child away, and I saw the vacant eyes and head flopping from side to side, did I realize what had happened. Hospitals can’t do anything for dead people here in rural south India, so several security guards quickly pushed the group, dead little girl still in her grandmother’s shaking arms, into a nearby rickshaw. It sped off back to some distant village, the crowd dispersed, and the hot afternoon returned to normal.
I had just spent all morning sitting at a high school biology-style lab bench, trying yet another method of extracting the DNA from some very uncooperative cow manure. Sound boring? Well, it is. And this scene I witnessed at lunch got me wondering just what it is that I am trying to do with a year of research in India, and questioning whether my work approaches anywhere in the vicinity of addressing the needs of this dead little girl and her mourning family.
As I take these baby steps into the vast realm of global health and development, I’m daily reminded of the need to seek and be content with proximate justice. Can I continue to find meaning and purpose in the almost inconsequentially small expansions of knowledge that my research represents? Sure, all medical breakthroughs have to start somewhere. But can I really just return to my pipettes and spreadsheets when what I actually want to do is bring that child back from the dead, change the life circumstances that made her mortally ill from what was most likely a perfectly preventable and treatable disease, lift her family and community out of poverty, and save the rest of the world while I’m at it?
Herein lies the problem. Shaped as we are by a robust Kingdom vision, in which “sins and sorrows grow no more, nor thorns infest the ground,” it can be tempting to become so forward-looking that we forget about the hard work necessary in the here and now. Without an understanding of this idea of proximate justice, the disappointments that come from constantly failing to achieve the final good can begin to overwhelm and overpower us. I think this is especially true for those who pursue vocations in which service to humankind and world improvement are explicit goals. As I bounce around the fields of international health and sustainable development, talking to colleagues who have been involved in this work far longer than I have, this story has been confirmed over and over again. They start off inspired, ready to face the toughest challenges, and really expecting to see major change in the health and prospects of their target populations. Years pass, however, and the ugliness of sin in all its incarnations begins to dirty that initial vision. Cynicism sets in, frequently mixed with anger and even scorn for those they are trying to serve.
As a Christian struggling to navigate these muddy waters of the now-but-not-yet, I hope to avoid the disillusionment that so often follows misguided expectations about what I can do to change the world on my own. I know the redemptive plans God has for all creation, and I feel privileged to be able to play some small role in that process. If all my hopes and dreams aren’t realized in my lifetime, I can still be confident that God is using my meagre efforts for his purposes and glory. So let’s keep praying “your kingdom come” and imagining the wonders of what will be one day when all is made new.
But for now, it’s back to that cow manure.