After Covering Global Disasters for Decades, Nicholas Kristof Is More Hopeful Than Ever

I’ve got my top summer reading recommendation ready for you. In fact, I’m recommending you buy two copies of the book, Nicholas Kristof’s Chasing Hope: A Reporter’s Life. There are two reasons why.

I’ll get to the second eventually. But the first is more straightforward: This is a memoir from someone who has led one of the most dramatically interesting lives of the last half-century, as an acclaimed foreign correspondent and columnist for The New York Times.

If you make a list of the world’s most shattering and consequential conflicts, catastrophes, and convulsions over the last 40 years, the odds are very high that Kristof was present to witness them. So too are the odds that someone was threatening to shoot him: warlords smuggling conflict diamonds in the Congo, Sudanese soldiers roaming the deserts amid the Darfur genocide, Egyptian security gangs wielding straight razors in Tahrir Square, Israeli soldiers patrolling the dark streets of Beirut, ragged teenagers marauding with AK-47s in West Africa, or nervous American soldiers trying to contain an Iraqi mob robbing a bank in Basra.

There is an even longer list of terrifying events where the weapons were being directed at people standing next to Kristof. Such scenes involve Tiananmen Square protestors being massacred by the Chinese army, heroin traffickers in Afghanistan, security forces in collapsing Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, or rioting mobs parading heads on pikes in Indonesia.

The book’s narrative would be implausible as a movie script, but it’s irresistible as personal storytelling because there is no hint of bravado, attention seeking, or adrenaline addiction. We simply find ourselves following a very sincere human who, over a lifetime, keeps taking small steps to go see what is happening to other humans who are suffering unspeakable brutality in the hidden corners of our world.

As he goes, he finds himself sharing the unseen terror borne by millions of ordinary people when history’s great catastrophes unfold. And once among them, Kristof becomes the steward of their stories. When, for instance, a weeping rickshaw driver desperately pedals his cart through a hail of bullets in Tiananmen Square, trying to get the motionless body of a bloodied protester to safety, he gives Kristof his commission with a shout: “Tell the world! Tell the world!”

In this case, Kristof (and his journalist wife, Sheryl WuDunn) fulfilled that sacred commission well enough to earn a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage. But such accolades are complicated, as Kristof seems to know: “We were feted as heroes while our Chinese friends who had contributed so much to our reporting were jailed or in hiding or worse.”

Comparing notes on catastrophe

This is not only a book about an exceedingly interesting and thoughtful life. It also poses interesting questions. How ought humans to live with eyes wide open in a fallen world of so much suffering, violence, injustice, and death—yet so much courage, love, undeniable beauty, and pulsating life?

This is why I recommend buying two copies—and with a specific suggestion. Treat yourself to one, and share another with a family member or friend of an older or younger generation. Read it together and compare notes.

For baby boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials, the narrative will take you back through certain seismic and shattering moments of world history. This is helpful, because it’s strangely easy to lose sight of generational trials you’ve already weathered when you are constantly assaulted with the screaming ferocity of today’s apocalypse economy—the outrage industry that demands your obsessive attention to every terrible thing that is surely ending the world.

Chasing Hope helps us see the elevated, longer arc of human events. From this vantage point, you can see the harrowing climbs and treacherous passages through which you and the world have already passed. It doesn’t make current challenges go away, but you may find it puts them in a less catastrophizing, more steadying, even encouraging perspective.

The truth is, there is little that transpires in a given year—let alone in a given 24-hour news cycle—that has the significance, gravity, or peril of a hundred things that shook the world over the last half-century. For example, exactly 30 years ago, the Rwandan genocide unleashed an orgy of murder that saw 800,000 innocent men, women, and children brutally hacked to death within a few short weeks. Nothing happening now or within the last 10 years—nothing—comes close to the speed and scale with which the genocide inflicted terror, death, and tragedy.

At the time, I was a 31-year-old prosecutor at the US Department of Justice. The UN sent me to Rwanda to direct its genocide investigation immediately after the war. That experience changed my perspective on everything that has happened in the world since. It doesn’t lead me to minimize or disengage from the tragedies of today. In fact, I’ve spent most of the last 30 years with my colleagues at the International Justice Mission immersed in today’s heartbreaking struggles to overcome slavery, violence against women and children, and police abuse.

But when I consider the longer arc of the human story, I find I can do this work with an elevated perspective. Much like Kristof in Chasing Hope, I am actually more encouraged and optimistic than ever.

For Gen Z readers, Kristof’s memoir will give you an intimate and authentic primer on the great train of global events that profoundly shaped and traumatized the world you inherited. You could consult Google and get a quick, metallic-tasting AI blurb on each event as you hear it mentioned in disjointed conversations over the coming years. Or you could treat yourself to a deeply human and coherent chronicle of contemporary history through the compassionate, questioning, loving eyes of a farm kid from Oregon who tried to honor the spirit of the world’s most vulnerable people—including Kristof’s refugee father—by telling some of the hardest stories of his day.

I think you’ll find that Kristof’s larger story offers an orienting frame and inspiration for dealing with the rushing scroll of tragedy shorts and screaming trend lines that surround our brains and send the walls of panic closing in. Grant yourself a book-length summer sabbatical from the culture’s newsfeed neurosis and let Kristof’s history transport you to a higher frame of reference.

And then talk about it with your book-club buddy from another generation. What was it like to be alive through these catastrophic and chaotic global events? Who saw things more clearly and wisely at the time, and why? What should good people have done? What should good people do now?

Christ’s heart for the world

These are especially urgent questions for people of Christian faith, who profess to know what Jesus would teach about living in a fallen and violent yet beautiful and worthy world. A world that, according to this same Jesus, he is relentlessly at work redeeming through his grace and through those who follow him.

Although I don’t know if Kristof is a believer, he seems thoroughly Jesus-curious—or, as my kids would say of so many friends, “Christian adjacent.” Kristof writes with a rare appreciation for the earnest, unnamed Christians who are serving, healing, and loving in the most Christlike ways in the hardest places.

In Chasing Hope, many of his most exemplary heroes seem to be following Jesus. Some are famous, like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Jimmy Carter. But most you’ve likely never heard of: Dr. Catherine Hamlin in Ethiopia, Dr. Tom Catena in the Sudan, Sister Rachel Fassera in Uganda, Dr. Denis Mukwege in the Congo, or the good people of the First Presbyterian Church of Portland, who sponsored his refugee father in the 1940s and made Kristof’s story possible.

For years, Kristof has written a New York Times Christmas column with earnest questions for Christian leaders about Jesus, the Bible, and the behavior of Christian people. As he has come to appreciate IJM’s Christian community around the world and their work addressing slavery and violence among the vulnerable poor, he has asked me similar questions over the years—especially about evangelical Christians in America.

For decades, IJM has been inviting American Christians to recover the biblical teaching about God’s love for the world and Christ’s passion for justice. Indeed, over 27 years, a generation of American Christians has helped power an IJM movement that has brought freedom and healing to hundreds of thousands of people who were enslaved, imprisoned, beaten, raped, and robbed in the world’s poorest communities. It would be a shame for American Christians to lose Christ’s heart for the world and for the vulnerable, leaving their preoccupations more inward, tribal, resentful, political, and fearful.

The Christian faith teaches that every person in the world—of every nation, tribe, and tongue—is of infinite and equal worth. Jesus taught that if people are hurting and in need, the relevant question is not Are they my neighbor? but Will I show mercy and love? Will I treat them as I would want to be treated if I were enslaved, imprisoned, beaten, raped, or robbed?

This is what makes Kristof’s life story such a welcome provocation for Christians old and young. In his writing and reporting, he seems to act as if Christ’s teachings about the world and its people are true, even though he may not share Christian beliefs about his divinity and the kingdom of God. What, then, should we make of those who do profess these beliefs but don’t act as though they are true?

More provocatively, what if they brought their beliefs and actions into greater harmony, radiating authenticity, courage, humility, and joy? Over a generation, I (like Kristof) have witnessed that such lives of Christlike beauty are, indeed, possible. And around the world, I see a new generation of everyday saints quietly doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with their God.

As I write this, I am in South Asia, coming from a profound day with two young women of faith (one from Nebraska and one from Bangladesh) who are partnering with IJM colleagues and local authorities to bring healing to women and girls ravaged by sexual violence. Like Kristof, they are chasing hope—and finding it. And by their lives, they testify not only that the teachings of Jesus are true, but that he himself is true.

Gary Haugen is the founder and CEO of International Justice Mission. His books include Good News About Injustice: A Witness of Courage in a Hurting World.

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