Dictionary.com has selected its word of the year for 2019: “existential.”
According to the site, “existential” is “often used when the fact of someone or something’s being—its very existence—is at stake. An existential threat to a species, for example, puts its continued existence in real, concrete peril.”
Dictionary.com chose the word because it has come up so often in internet searches this year, especially after news of mass shootings and natural disasters.
An article that explains a decade
Dictionary.com is right: much of the world is facing an existential crisis. A recent article by Washington Post columnist James Hohmann illustrates this fact powerfully. Looking back over the decade now ending, Hohmann reveals a striking international pattern of “discontent with authoritarian regimes.”
He begins with the resignation last Sunday of embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi amid “sustained protests for sweeping reform.” More than 430 demonstrators have reportedly been killed in Iraq during two months of unrest. Thousands of protesters are still camped out in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. Hohmann calls this “the biggest challenge to Iraq’s political order since the U.S.-led coalition toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.”
Next, he cites the Iranian regime’s use of “more violence than at any time since the Islamist revolution four decades ago to repress protests.” As many as 450 people, and possibly hundreds more, have reportedly been killed; another two thousand have been wounded; and seven thousand have been detained. An opposition leader is comparing this crackdown to the demonstration in 1978 that ignited the Islamic revolution.
In Lebanon, members of the military formed a human chain on Sunday to prevent violent clashes between rival protesters as a stalemate over forming a new government continues. In Hong Kong, tens of thousands of demonstrators marching peacefully on Sunday were dispersed with tear gas.
Meanwhile, South America is facing its most widespread outbreak of popular uprisings since the Cold War. Demonstrations against government corruption and economic oppression have arisen in Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina.
Hohmann concludes: “The United States remains locked in an existential struggle with the dark forces of autocracy that dates to our founding.”
Why countries fail to progress
Another Washington Post column, this one by Arthur C. Brooks, adds further clarity and emphasis to Hohmann’s point. Brooks cites the new Legatum Prosperity Index, which is based on data from 167 countries with 99.4 percent of the world’s population.
According to Brooks, the report reveals that “from 2009 to 2019, 148 of the 167 countries have seen net progress—much of it dramatic, and especially so among the poorest countries in the world.”
Then he notes that nineteen countries have deteriorated across the decade, observing that “the greatest declines came in Venezuela (the victim of incompetent and kleptocratic government), Syria and Yemen (which have suffered civil wars).”
Brooks concludes: “In general, the index reveals that when countries fail to progress in the modern world, it is not due to region or any population-specific characteristics. No one is destined for poverty. The problem is generally war, tyranny and poor governance.”
An idea that would transform the nations
Christmas is a fact of history, of course. On a specific night in a specific place, a baby was born who was and is the Son of God.
But Christmas is also an idea. It is the idea that every person matters, from the lowly shepherds who were invited to Jesus’ birth to the wealthy Wise Men who celebrated the event. The baby of Bethlehem became the Great Physician who helped lepers and Roman officials, the Teacher who instructed fishermen and Pharisees, the Savior who died for the religious leaders, secular authorities, and common crowds who sought his execution.
This idea of the intrinsic worth of each human being (cf. John 3:16; Galatians 3:28), if applied to political systems and leaders, would dramatically change the first three sections of today’s Daily Article.
Autocracy (from the Greek for self-power) would yield to servant leadership. Imagine nations led by those who met Jesus’ qualification: “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). Imagine nations populated by people who selflessly offered “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings” for “kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Timothy 2:1, 2).
Imagine a day when all those who lead and all those who follow value all people so highly that everyone obeyed Jesus’ maxim, “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12). This would be a culture transformed by Christmas.
“The most enduring impact you can leave on earth”
Changing the world in light of God’s inclusive love may seem too unrealistic a goal. But Lao Tzu was right: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”
We can pray for the leaders of the world to lead like Jesus, remembering that what happened to Saul of Tarsus is possible for any human being. We can pray for the nations of the world to join the Great Awakening that is transforming millions of lives.
And we can demonstrate the Christmas love of Christ with the people we meet today. Rick Warren: “Love leaves a legacy. How you treat other people, not your wealth or accomplishments, is the most enduring impact you can leave on earth.”
What “enduring impact” will you make today?