Fragile States

We are in the midst of a global refugee crisis. Over 9 million Syrians have had to leave their homes in the past four years. Of these, 3 million have had to flee their country. A million of these are now refugees in Lebanon, a country whose total population is only 4.4 million. In other words, one out of every four souls in Lebanon is a refugee from Syria. And besides Syrian refugees, Lebanon also hosts Iraqi and Palestinian refugees.

Syria and other countries like Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Haiti, are fragile states, a term I learned on my recent trip to Lebanon with Steve Haas from World Vision. The term is carefully chosen. As we’ve come to see in recent weeks, life in fragile states is delicate and tenuous. Those who manage to make it to tomorrow do so only barely. They are vulnerable in the fullest possible sense. For many, the extreme vulnerability required in seeking asylum elsewhere is vastly appealing to the vulnerability of staying.

There are about 50 countries that warrant this inglorious title, playing host to nearly 1.4 billion people; 19% of the world’s population lives in fragile states. While this story doesn’t play as well in the media, the truth of the matter is the other 81% of the world’s population has seen big improvements:

  • People living on less than a dollar a day (i.e., grinding, abject poverty) has dropped from 1.9 billion in 1990 to 970 million today. 36% of the world’s population was really, really poor in 1990. Now it’s less than 14%.
  • 2,000,000,000 more people now have access to clean water than did 15 years ago. That’s more than a quarter of the world’s population; six times the population of the United States.
  • Half as many mothers are dying in childbirth. Half as many mothers are paying for their child’s life with their own.
  • Deaths from malaria are down 25%, or a million lives. That’s like all of Seattle and Atlanta not having to die from a mosquito bite.

Things are getting better. Except for those in one of the 50 fragile states. In these places, there are few resources. Health measures are poor. Governments are corrupt or nonexistent. For those caught in these terrible circumstances, choosing the good is far too costly. Which would you choose: sell your body for money to buy food, or let your children starve? Everyday choices like this can give rise to all manner of social ills.

While on the whole, things are looking better than ever, the great need that remains is more concentrated than ever in these fragile states. Progress has been made, but the progress which remains is more desperate than it has ever been. And we, the Church, must not turn a blind eye.

The Church is generally small and lonely in these fragile states. In some places, it would be difficult to find any followers of Christ. Is this a coincidence? Following Jesus is not a ticket out of suffering, nor is the easy life evidence that Christ is with you. But the Light of Christ is not merely light for the afterlife. It has ramifications for this present darkness. As Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount, people don’t light a lamp and hide it under a bowl, “Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others…”

The Church is generally small and lonely in these fragile states. In some places, it would be difficult to find any followers of Christ. Is this a coincidence? Following Jesus is not a ticket out of suffering, nor is the easy life evidence that Christ is with you. But the Light of Christ is not merely light for the afterlife. It has ramifications for this present darkness.

Christ went to lepers, bleeding women, tax collectors, and prostitutes, the people on the margins who were unclean, hated, or both. He crossed boundaries, surmounted obstacles, entered uncomfortable situations, and endured tremendous personal pain during his life and his death. And he did this so that people would be restored, reconciled to God, redeemed, recreated, and given a new purpose for God and for his kingdom.

Jesus loves the people enduring life in fragile states. Let us pay attention to what is going on in such places. We must make special effort to serve people there, directly or through sending others, to alleviate suffering, to share the great news of Jesus, and to nurture the full, good life that God desires for them. Let’s be generous, and let’s be strategic in our generosity.

May we have the courage to follow Jesus into the hard places, into the fragile states.

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