I was 15 when the original We Are the World hit the airwaves. I think it was for Ethiopia at the time, was it not? It kind of escapes me now. But I remember thinking that it was an interesting idea, but I didn’t know what kind of a dent it would make.
Now, 25 years later, they’ve recorded another “We are the World”, this time for Haiti. And Michael Jackson’s still in it, using footage from the original. If you haven’t seen it, here it is:
My daughters have both been very active raising money for Haiti. We have a friend who runs an orphanage outside the capital city, and they’ve been overrun with refugees, so we’ve been helping to support them, sending money down.
So please understand, what follows is not mean to disparage anyone’s fundraising efforts for Haiti. The country is in desperate straits.
No, what interests me more about this video is what struck me 25 years ago, too, as a teenager. Take a look at the words:
We are the world,
We are the children,
We are the ones who make a brighter day,
So let’s start giving.
It’s a choice we’re making,
We’re saving our own lives
It’s true we make a better day,
Just you and me.
Okay, here’s a grammar question: who is the subject in the majority of those phrases?
It’s “we“. The song is supposed to be about people who are suffering, but instead it’s actually a song about how we feel about the people who are suffering, and how we can make a difference, and how we feel about the fact that we can make a difference. It’s a song glorifying our generosity.
Does anyone else find that a bit jarring? First of all, we AREN’T the children. I think the point they’re poetically trying to make is that those starving kids are no different from us, so we should really give. But what would it matter if they were different from us? Shouldn’t we give anyway? No matter which way you look at it, the reference point in this song is US, not those who need help.
It’s true we make a better day, just you and me. It’s about you and me! We can sing about ourselves and feel better about ourselves because we care about others who are just like ourselves.
It’s a perfect metaphor for what has happened in our society over the last few decades. As the idea of objective truth and objective morality have dissipated, it’s been replaced by the ultimate idea that our feelings should now be an arbiter for the goodness or rightness of anything. Truth is what we feel truth to be. Truth is what feels right to us. Love is what feels right; if it doesn’t feel right, it’s not love, and we can give it up. We don’t want to be judgmental, so what you want is fine and what I want is fine. Everybody should just get along, and decide on their own what they think is best.
At one point, people believed in a higher morality, even if they themselves weren’t religious. You should do the right thing because it was the right thing. So people gave generously, or volunteered, or lent a hand, because it was the right thing to do. They didn’t have to be convinced to do it because it would make them feel good about themselves; they did it simply because it was the right thing to do, and doing the right thing mattered to people.
We no longer believe in “the right thing” as much as we believe in “the right thing for me”. I am the reference point, not the right thing. Everything revolves around me.
Image via Wikipedia
When Jesus makes His case for why we should help the poor, He says, “for as much as you did it to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it for Me.” We should feed the poor because Jesus Himself identifies with the poor. He is the poor. When we feed them, we feed Him, because we care about what He cares about.
This song, on the other hand, doesn’t identify God with the poor; it identifies US with the poor. God is no longer our main reference point; it is simply how we feel about things. We aren’t then really honouring the poor in Haiti; we’re actually diminishing their humanity by saying they aren’t important in and of themselves; they’re only important inasmuch as they remind us of ourselves. We can only have sympathy for those who are like us, because our world has been reduced to what we want and what we think, and it’s no longer as wide and as big as it was when God was at the centre. When we are at the centre, the world is small. When God is at the centre, it’s full of immense possibilities and dreams and futures and hopes.
It’s amazing how we thought that in getting rid of God we could achieve more for humanity. It seems instead that we have become self-centred narcissists who exist to feel good about ourselves. Again, let me reiterate: I am glad that these artists are attempting to raise money and awareness of Haiti, and I hope and pray their efforts succeed. The fact that they have done it in this way, though, shows something rather disturbing. It’s now all about us. And if it’s all about us, and we decide that we really don’t want to care, what’s to stop us? If it’s really about us, and we decide we don’t want to stay married, or be bothered to be good parents, what’s to stop us? If we are the only arbiters of truth, then what is the higher purpose of life, except for trying to feel better and better about ourselves? It seems like a rather empty life, and I hope that someday soon we may remember a better song:
He’s got the whole world in His hands.