The recent fires in Southern California gripped the nation as the horrific images of houses and forests being consumed indiscriminately appeared on television and on the Web. Half a million people fled their homes (including two of my friends who were evacuated from their senior residential communities in San Diego), about 2,000 homes were lost, and a half dozen people lost their lives. Even though tragedies like this hit this region every few years, you just never get used to it. And, it seems, you're never prepared for the devastation.
Some people say these fires are the price we pay for living where we do. This part of the world is hot and dry (and getting hotter and drier), and they keep building more and more houses in places where the fires thrive if given a chance. I don't really have an opinion on that, because you could probably apply that argument to just about every region of the country. If you shouldn't live where wildfires are a reality, then you shouldn't build houses in hurricane zones. You shouldn't live where earthquakes are imminent. You shouldn't live where men still have mullets. The list could go on.
What concerns me more than the potential for fires to destroy lives and property is the reason fires start in the first place. In California, most of these fires are ignited by nature (lightning strikes) or accidents (downed power lines). But some are set by arsonists. Without getting into the psychology of people who would do such a thing (it's pretty complicated, and I'm not qualified to dissect the kind of person who gets his jollies out of watching stuff burn up), I do want to make a comment on the way arson reflects the true sin nature of humankind. Arsonists are hard to catch, but when the authorities to capture someone responsible for a killer fire, we all breathe a collective sigh of relief, because one more "sick" person is taken out of commission. But isn't that a false sense of security? Aren't there hundreds of people out there--maybe thousands--who get a kick out of starting fires?
You see, the problem is much bigger than a goup of people in society who do bad things like this. The problem is not a few sick humans, but a sick humanity. It's all too convenient to point to the creepy people in our culture who start fires and molest children and beat their wives. It's too simplistic to think that if we remove these degenerates from our midst, we will somehow be better people. As repulsive an idea as this is to some of us, we need to come to grips with the truth that these people are our fellow human beings, created in God's image, loved by God, capable of redemption. For us to point a finger and scorn these people as monsters is to in a sense point a finger at ourselves. Who among us is not "degenerate" in one way or another.
We may not be in the habit of starting literal fires with the strike of a match, but we are capable of starting figurative fires with the flick of a tongue. As the Scripture says, "the tongue is also a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell" (James 3:6).