2015: Looking back / looking forward

December 30th, 2015

How do you measure a year?

In “Seasons of Love,” the centerpiece song of the Broadway musical Rent, lyricist Jonathan Larson asks us to consider, “Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes / How do you measure, measure a year?” The song goes on to list possible units of measure (sunsets, cups of coffee, moments of laughter or strife, and so forth). So how do you measure a year of our lives?

If the year in question is 2015, do we measure it by the bookends of terrorist violence in Paris (Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan) or the high moments of wonder (a flyby of Pluto and a lunar eclipse)? Is the measure of the year the racial politics of American policing or the ephemeral joy of pop culture moments (anybody remember “left shark” at the Super Bowl halftime performance)?

Christians see much deeper meaning in the passing of time. Even in years when it seems that the world has regressed or humanity is existentially threatened, there’s a larger narrative at work for those who are shaped by the mystery of faith recited in many churches during the Great Thanksgiving before Communion: “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.” How do we look back on the significant events of 2015 in light of that affirmation, and how does this shape the way we look ahead to 2016?

Paris and San Bernardino

On January 7, gunmen inspired by the Islamic State that controls parts of Syria and Iraq attacked the offices of a satirical magazine that had published cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Twelve people were killed. The Charlie Hebdo assault in the center of Paris came in broad daylight and was accompanied by hostage dramas in other parts of the city. The attack raised fears of terrorist violence in Western countries. While there were other smaller incidents through the year, the November 13 assaults in the same city — at sidewalk cafes, a stadium and the Bataclan concert hall — left over 125 dead and galvanized world attention. Terrorists also struck in other parts of the world, notably Nigeria, where the Boko Haram group was active.

In the United States, on December 2, a man and his wife killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California, in what was being investigated as a terrorist incident. It was the largest such incident in the United States since the September 11, 2001, attacks, which prompted Jeh Johnson, secretary of Homeland Security, to tell The New York Times, “We have moved to an entirely new phase in the global terrorist threat and in our homeland security efforts.” Even so, for all the outsized attention these attacks receive, U.S. deaths due to terrorist attacks (including not just jihadists but also white supremacists and other right-wing extremists) since 9/11 number only 93, according to statistics from the New America research organization.

The continuing crisis in Syria

The terrorist threat led many world leaders to focus military attention on the situation in Syria where the Islamic State has taken hold of parts of the country. Russia, France, Great Britain and the United States all conducted bombing campaigns in Syria, which has been wracked by war for several years. When Germany joined the U.S.-led coalition in December, German justice minister Heiko Maas said, “We must stop this terrorist gang of murderers. That will not be achieved with military action alone, but neither would it be achieved without.”

Some 12 million Syrians and an additional three million Iraqis have been displaced by fighting in their countries. Refugees fleeing the war zone began flooding into Europe this summer, creating the greatest migration crisis on that continent since World War II. Germany was preparing to receive over 800,000 of the refugees by the end of the year. The European Methodist Council responded to the challenge with a pastoral letter that said God calls the church “to welcome those who arrive as our fellow pilgrims.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. decision to receive a much smaller number of Syrian refugees (an estimated 10,000 in 2016) was met with opposition by some presidential candidates and governors. “Texas will not accept any Syrian refugees,” Texas governor Greg Abbott announced on Twitter following the November Paris attacks. “I demand the U.S. act similarly. Security comes first.”

Security and gun violence

Security was much on the minds of Americans this year as gun violence continued to take lives. As reported on the Vox website, each year guns account for about 33,000 deaths through homicide, suicide, and accidents — far more than through acts of terrorism.

Conversations about the relative merits of gun control and deterrence through greater gun ownership followed high-profile shootings in Charleston, South Carolina; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Roseburg, Oregon; and Colorado Springs, Colorado. Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. urged students at the Christian school to carry arms on campus. “I always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walk in and kill,” Falwell said, later clarifying that he meant Muslims who perpetrated attacks. United Methodist pastor Jason Micheli took a very different tack in considering gun control, saying, “It’s not a question of what’s constitutional, legally allowed or what the Founders envisioned; it’s a question of how we as Christians live as a peaceful alternative to State, placing our identity in Christ above all worldly loyalties.”

And in other news

Other events of the year offered different possibilities for peace and unity. Despite much opposition, the United States and five other world powers approved an agreement with Iran aimed at limiting that nation’s nuclear program. Pope Francis made a six-day visit to the United States in September, during which he emphasized opposition to the death penalty, support for interfaith tolerance, and advocacy for the environment and the needs of the poor. At the same time, he drew large, admiring crowds.

And in the far reaches of space, probes brought back magnificent close-ups of lonely Pluto and signs of flowing water on Mars. Meanwhile, in late June, the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the United States.

‘Christ must control your hearts’

If the future has been ensured by the action of God in the cross and resurrection, then Christians can grasp the hope of each moment. Colossians 3:3-4 puts it starkly: “You died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, is revealed, then you will also be revealed with him in glory.”

If we’re relying on external events to assure us of this hope, then we’ll always be at the mercy of the latest news report of a mass shooting or the latest cute cat video to determine our mood and our actions. Instead, Colossians goes on to say, “The peace of Christ must control your hearts — a peace into which you were called in one body. And be thankful people” (3:15). If Jesus Christ is Lord, then the way to respond to any year is with acts shaped by love.

In “Seasons of Love,” the song with which we began, Larson doesn’t leave the audience hanging. “How do you measure a year in the life?” he asks. His response? “How about love?” So how about it?

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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