Gnats are annoying. Biting gnats leave welts that are much itchier than mosquito bites and when they swarm, you’re likely to wind up looking like an idiot flailing your arms around in a futile attempt to keep them away. Not to mention that you’ll inevitably end up inhaling or swallowing one on accident. For the next hour you’ll feel like there’s something disgusting stuck in your throat or nasal passages. As small as they are, gnats aren’t the sorts of things you live peaceably with.
So you can imagine that back in the days when camels were a normal mode of transportation, if you hired a camel to carry you and your goods on a long trip, and your guide showed up with a gnat infested camel, this would be an issue. A long trip on a gnat infested camel was probably a known cause of nervous breakdowns in the ancient world. So, of course, you would demand that the guide you hired for the trip do something about the problem. Attach fly paper to the camel’s ears and provide you with a climate controlled helmet to wear on the trip or something.
Now, a camel has a thicker hide than a human. But a serious gnat infestation isn’t fun for a camel to endure. Particularly since the little devils will target soft spots like the nose, eyes, mouth and other more unmentionable areas on a camel. Camels aren’t particularly know for their sweet dispositions anyways. So it’s easy to imagine that a gnat infested camel may be a particularly ill tempered beast.
In fact, while you are busy figuring out what to do about the gnats. the people tending to and attempting to load and prepare the camel are liable to get bit, spit on, kicked in the head, crapped on and otherwise injured by the camel. Imagine for a moment if you responded to the various cries and complaints of the people the camel is hurting by telling them to be more careful in doing their job, to stop with all the complaining. Maybe you fire the person who had the gall to come to work covered in camel dung.
Or maybe you’re not quite that insensitive so you say, “once we get this gnat situation worked out, the camel will settle down and you’ll be fine. But right now I need you to shut up so I can deal with this gnat problem.”
Or if you fancy yourself as a sensitive person who understands the plight of dealing with a gnat infested camel, you might say, “the camel kicked you in the head? That’s awful. I know what it’s like. You should see the bites I got while I was sitting on it. I feel your pain. In fact, you really ought to be over here tending to my welts instead of laying on the ground moaning like that.”
It seems to me that as a people, this is exactly how the problems we face play out. We are so fixated on the problems of those who are riding the camel that we end up not tending to the injuries inflicted on less powerful people who have been injured by the camel.
For example, nearly every week some rich, powerful person gets in trouble for saying something that other rich, powerful people disapprove of. They might lose a TV show, get disinvited from giving a speech, even lose their job at the head of a multibillion dollar company. If the person is perceived as being on “our side”, then people line up to raise a stink about free speech rights and the censoring of ideas and such. Frequently, they will even frame the issue in terms of a fight for our culture or country.
There will be calls to take a stand for God, country and our way of life in support of these people. It will be the talk of cable news for a few days and bajillions of articles, blog posts and cartoons will be created addressing the issue. So seriously do we take the problem of rich and powerful people suffering negative consequences for speaking their minds that friendships between people on opposing sides will end due to the ensuing disagreements.
On the other hand, workers get fired everyday for expressions of free speech ranging from engaging in political activities, to sighing loudly to shaving their head in support of a friend with cancer to not tolerating abuse from customers with a friendly enough smile. And not only do they have no legal recourse, no one really gives a damn. That’s just the way it is. If it comes right down to it, a lot of people will lay the blame on the fired employee for not just keeping their head down and keeping their thoughts to themselves like a good slave employee should. Don’t these people know enough to be grateful just to have a job?
It seems to me that this is what “straining at gnats and swallowing camels” looks like in our modern context. We are excessively concerned with damage done to those who are sitting on the camel and have no regard for the damage done to the people the camel is stomping and crapping all over. In fact, we take the injuries sustained by the little people whose problems we ignore as evidence that they don’t deserve our concern.
Let a rich, powerful (white, Christian) man make crude comments about people’s genitals and we’ll stand up for him just on principle. Let a fast food worker get fired for complaining about their erratic schedule and people will criticize them for not having a better job. Yes, some of these smaller cases do get attention, but for every one we hear about, there are probably 1000 others who lost their jobs on the flimsiest of pretenses.
I’m not entirely sure why we are so prone to majoring in the minors. Part of it probably is that gnats can honestly be a problem. And people seem to have a hard time comprehending that other people’s problem are sometimes not just worse, but so much worse as to constitute a difference in kind rather than magnitude.
For example, some years ago, my husband and I engaged in a conversation with the writer Rod Dreher regarding racial discrimination in the work place. Rod is fixated on the potential for abuse by those who would make false, manipulative or erroneous claims of racism against white guys like him. In fact, once that happened and he was seriously in fear of losing his job. Plus, it made ongoing employment very uncomfortable. And you know what? I understand that particular gnat. I almost lost a job I was depending on due to false accusations of racism myself.
My husband and I tried futilely to explain the urgent unaddressed problem of actual racism in the workplace. We shared numerous stories from my husband’s career of lost jobs, verbal abuse, stonewalling, attempts at sabotage and the like. We explained that there was no recourse when these things happened because any attempt to address the problem will cause even worse problems. We explained that racism in the workplace not only caused discomfort and anxiety, but had destroyed our financial wellbeing, put excessive stress on our marriage and family, severely impeded career advancement and otherwise had serious, negative consequences.
But he just kept replying, “that’s terrible, but it’s not a competition. There’s no excuse for threatening someone’s livelihood with false accusations of racism or creating an environment where people can’t speak for fear of causing offense.” Mr. Dreher is unable to tell the difference between a gnat bite and a blow to the head from a camel. It’s not that a gnat infestation isn’t a problem. It’s just that you need to do something about the camel that the gnats are feeding off of. And treat the injuries inflicted by the camel as serious emergencies rather than the sort of thing you say, “oh that’s too bad. Sorry for your troubles” in response to.
I could provide dozens and dozens of other examples of how we habitually strain at gnats and swallow camels when it comes to society’s ills. In fact, I think that the reason we have so many intractable problems is because this is our normal way of dealing with our problems. We fixate on how the problem manifests itself among the relatively comfortable and refuse to take seriously the problems of those at the bottom.
So, how do you tell the difference between a gnat bite and an injury inflicted by a camel? Well, a gnat bite is a problem which may be intolerable to you. But it’s unlikely to kill you or leave you maimed. The damage will usually heal on its own An injury of the sort a camel inflicts, however, could leave you maimed, homeless and unable to recover without serious intervention.
Further, the solution to a gnat infestation is to do something about the camel. Maybe even get rid of it altogether. But the first priority is to prevent camel injuries and care for those who are hurt. Which is why we must do what Jesus did and deal with the least, the injured, the needy and the marginalized. That is how we are to take a stand for the Christian faith.