In April of last year, 276 female students were kidnapped during the night, taken from a secondary school in Northeastern Nigeria. The girls were 16 to 18 years old, and they were at the school to take final exams in physics so they could complete their final year of school. The school had been closed for four weeks because of violence in the area, and when the kidnappers broke into the school, they pretended to be guards who were taking the girls to safety.
But they weren’t guards; they were the bad guys.
The girls were taken by Boko Haram, a militant Islamist fundamentalist terrorist group whose name means “Western education is forbidden.”
In the five years before this incident, Boko Haram had killed more than 5,000 people in Nigeria. By the end of 2014, 650,000 people had been displaced by the violence committed by the group and the Nigerian military, who has struggled to respond effectively. At least 10,000 children had been unable to attend school because the group often targets schools, and hundreds of children had been killed by the terrorists.
This high-profile mass kidnapping was far from the beginning of Boko Haram’s terrorist activities. And in comparison to the 5,000 people their violence had already killed, 276 was a significant but fairly small number. In fact, the Nigerian government had declared a state of emergency almost a year earlier, in an attempt to contain the activities of Boko Haram. Yet until this incident, the group’s activities didn’t even register in the lives of most Americans.
When the girls were taken, Nigerians took to social media to express their grief and demand more effective action from their own government, and this story captured the attention of Western media and the American people. Suddenly Boko Haram was Enemy #1 for millions of us, and we hastened to show our outrage and demand action through social media.
The Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls became a common rallying cry used to show support for the girls, to call the Nigerian government to find the girls, and to call Western nations to use their power to rescue them. Some held protests in major Western cities like Los Angeles and London.
For about two weeks, the American people were caught up in this story. They were moved to action, but their actions had little effect–and no one brought back the girls. And then, like so many other stories before and since, this one faded away as the latest celebrity news broke and fresh disasters captured our attention.
Since the day these girls were kidnapped, Boko Haram has kidnapped more girls. They have kidnapped boys, forcing them to fight with them. They have kidnapped and killed men and women, including 11 parents of the girls who were captured at the school last April. They have visited violence on thousands. Nigerian and international governments have yet to find and rescue the missing Christian girls, and Boko Haram is forcing them and so many others to convert to Islam and marry or be held in slavery. Boko Haram is occupying churches, beheading men, forcing Christian women to convert to Islam, and taking them as wives.
And the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls is pretty quiet in this part of the world these days–even in the wake of another highly publicized attack just last month.
People used that hashtag because they cared. They were outraged and horrified, and they really, really wanted to do something. They were also worried. And many probably felt they had done something, and they walked away from this news story feeling soothed by their involvement. But they weren’t really involved, and they didn’t really do anything. They were seduced by a false sense of power in a powerless situation.
The truth is, you aren’t as powerful as you sometimes believe you are.
Granted, we are incredibly powerful people. No one in history has lived in such a small world, had the capacity to go nearly anywhere, had such strong military technology, had so much money.
Social media puts us in touch with people around the world at the click of a button.
Social media, money, military, the smallness of our world, and echoes of Sesame Street also give us the false impression that we can do anything if we just put our minds to it. That there is no limit to our power to make a difference.
Many of us walk around with a heavy burden of responsibility for problems that belong to others and others need to participate in solving.
The truth is, there is much we cannot solve, address, or even fully understand.
It might come easily for us to say we feel powerless. But we don’t easily acknowledge that sometimes we actually are powerless.
The example of #BringBackOurGirls and Boko Haram is a revealing one. Is the United States powerless against such terrorists? No. But we are not all-powerful either. Am I as an individual powerless against them? Essentially, yes. The best I can do is exercise my power to incite others to exercise their power. But even then, it may not be enough.
This is not a popular message in a can-do culture and a humanistic age. But if money, military might, education, handshakes, and hashtags could solve the world’s deepest problems, conflict in the Middle East would be a distant echo from history. Terrorism would be a term used only to describe home life with a three-year-old. Both starvation and obesity would be strange concepts, and “Bring back our girls” would be merely the rallying cry of nervous dads on prom night.
That’s not the world we live in.
We live in a world where even our greatest achievements are deeply flawed, with each new life-saving and labor-saving accomplishment opening a new compartment in Pandora’s box. Planes, trains, and automobiles revolutionize transportation, agriculture, mail service, and family life. But they also pollute our environment, cause deadly accidents, and fuel worldwide conflicts over access to oil. Medical advancements save lives–and make possible clean and easy assisted suicide and euthanasia. The Internet puts the world at our fingertips–and makes true privacy a precious relic of the past.
We don’t have the power to truly make the whole world what we want it to be. When our desire to do so is frustrated, it can morph into worry.
Sometimes worry is a way to mask our powerlessness. It just doesn’t seem good enough to acknowledge there’s nothing we can do, so we use worry as a way to soothe ourselves into believing we’re doing something.
But worry is not productive action. It doesn’t do any good.
Living in God’s peace can actually make us more helpful to the world than living in worry. But living in that peace requires us to recognize our limitations and humble ourselves before the one who holds all power. It requires us to trust that God really is in control and is capable of all that we cannot do. That he is in all the places where we cannot go.
If there really is something we can or should do, we may discover it by acknowledging our powerlessness, praying, and becoming peaceful enough to listen for God’s voice. Peace is not the same as apathy. We can care deeply for others, and we can grieve, without worrying.
© 2015 Amy Simpson.