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Grace for This American Life

By Jesse Carey Interactive Media Producer - 2008 was the 14th anniversary of when a young photographer named Kevin Carter won the Pulitzer Prize for photography—and the world of journalism recognized that one of his images captured the plight of some of Africa’s most in-need people. His story—and the story behind the photo—offer more than just a lesson about injustice and suffering; they can also help remind us about grace.

On a recent episode of the radio documentary series This American Life, host Ira Glass also touched on topic of grace (even if it was somewhat inadvertent). The NPR show is a weekly program that features several human interest stories each episode, all centered on a certain theme. But no matter what the stories are, the show always begins with a short commentary by host Ira Glass.

You may recognize Glass; the cable network Showtime is in the middle of a huge marketing blitz promoting the second season of the TV version of the show that recently released on DVD.

Though This American Life isn’t a religious show, it always makes a genuine attempt to live up to its name and encompass all types of elements of American life—and for many people, faith is a huge part of that.

On the April 28 episode, all of the stories in the show were based on the theme “With Great Power”; they told stories of people who were in unique situations that yielded them the opportunity to do something that would have a great impact on someone else’s life.

In the introduction commentary by Ira Glass (who is Jewish), he recounted a phone call from a Christian missionary couple he was friends with. They told him that after seeing the film Schindler’s List, that they felt like they better understood him and his heritage.

They told him that scene in the film that most deeply affected them was at the end of the movie, when Oskar Schindler, who had dedicated himself to use his fortune to save Jews from concentration camps during the Holocaust, realized that despite all of his efforts, there was still more he could have done. After the war ended, he looked at all the possessions he still had, and equated them to lives he could have saved.

The Christian missionaries told Ira Glass that the scene in the film illustrated what they went through on a daily basis. The couple, who were part of an evangelistic outreach to juvenile offenders, said that every day-off they took was a chance they missed to reach another kid.

They told Glass that they were afraid that at the end of their lives, they would stand before God and see that every time they took time off and didn’t use their day to help the teens in need, more young people didn’t get to hear about salvation in Christ.

Glass said that like the film helped his friends understand the plight of the Jewish people, their story of baring great responsibility to tell people about God’s saving power enlightened him to what they went through on a daily basis.

After hearing Glass’ commentary, I couldn’t help but being reminded of the tragic story of Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist Kevin Carter. Carter was a war photographer who rose to notoriety documenting violence in South Africa during the apartheid in the mid-1980s. But the photo that shocked the world ran in 1993 after Carter made a visit to the famine-ravaged Sudan.

The now-famous image ran in The New York Times and showed a starving Sudanese toddler with her head down as a vulture lurked just steps away. When later asked about what took place after taking the picture, he told reporters that he chased the vulture away, but did not take the girl to the near-by feeding center.

Carter, who had captured one of the most iconic images of the century (and spurred many people to action), became the subject of criticism for not taking action to save the girl in the picture. Two months after receiving the world’s highest notoriety for photography, the Pulitzer Prize, Kevin Carter committed suicide.

Though his message to friends before his death cited finical problems and depression, he admitted to being “haunted” by the things he’d seen ... things that in some cases, he had done nothing to change.

According to a story in the Newseum Museum of News by Harry Evans, Carter said that taking pictures of people being brutally executed was morally very difficult. “I was appalled at what they were doing. I was appalled at what I was doing. But then people started talking about those pictures... then I felt that maybe my actions hadn't been at all bad. Being a witness to something this horrible wasn't necessarily such a bad thing to do.”

Like the missionary friends of Ira Glass, what haunted Kevin Carter wasn’t something that he had done, but it was the things he hadn’t.

I once heard that the difference between mercy and grace was a simple matter of syntax. Mercy was not receiving what we do deserve, and grace is receiving what we don’t deserve. And this is the gift Christ gives us: He’s decided to see past just our actions and circumstances, and look at our hearts and our potential.

The book of John recalls a story of good intentions and Jesus’ response to accusations of inaction.

Mary, a dear friend of Jesus, poured out a bottle of extremely expensive perfume and used it to wash His feet. When he saw this, the Bible says that Judas, who was one of Jesus’ disciples “objected.” He asked, “Why wasn't this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year's wages” (John 12:5).

Jesus replied, "Leave her alone ... [It was intended] that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me" (John 12:7-8).

Christ understood more than just the logical details of the scenario; He saw the bigger picture. He saw Mary’s heart.

There is no question that God wants us to spend our lives serving Him. We are called to spread the good news of salvation through Christ, to serve the poor and further God’s kingdom. But no matter how much good we do, we can not be saved by our actions.

Paul reminds believers, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8).

Living under the burdens of this world can be crushing. Whether we sat by as a causal observer as bad things happened around us, or we realized that we could have done more—if we try to do it on our own, we’ll always live under a haunting feeling of inadequacy.

It’s important to remember that we can’t do everything; but we can always do something. But in the end, no matter we do, we're all still living in God's grace—and that's a gift we should never take for granted.

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Jesse CareyJesse Carey is the Interactive Media Producer for With a background in entertainment and pop-culture writing, he offers his insight on music, movies, TV, trends and current events from a unique perspective that examines what implications the latest news has on Christians.


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