Sunday, September 13, 2015

Syria, Solidarity, Sorrow and Repentance

Syria's Nightmarish Narrative,
 I would like to live in a simple world.

Simple. Safe. With easy answers. Do-able solutions.

A world where good guys smile and bad guys sneer and the difference is obvious and justice comes riding long before the credits roll.

A world free of persistent evil and crushing human pain.

I confess, I’ve been trying hard not to pay attention to the news of Syria.

Even as my time this summer in Finland and Sweden set me thinking about the hazards of small nations caught in the path of desperate power, I’ve kept my gaze averted from the swelling humanitarian crisis.

The ongoing story of bombs, burned houses, rebels, refugees.

It’s over there, wherever “there” is.

I’m here.

I have enough to pray and wrestle with.


An on-line conversation between two friends set me reeling earlier this week. 

One friend, a young mother of two, a dear sister in youth ministry, a conscientious, caring soul, posted on Facebook:

I've been crying today over the pictures of the Syrian child washed up on the beach in Turkey. Every time I see him, I see my own children. We cannot afford to believe that the immigrant and the refugee is other than us. They could be us. That boy is my baby.

The second, another sister in ministry, somewhat older mother of two, writer, thinker, determined activist:

I'm sorry to be such a skeptic, but I am not sure our sorrow, which is heartfelt, will change anything unless we are willing to advocate for be the change. I say this not to discount your sorrow, or anybody else's, or my own, but as someone who has been writing about Syria for years and finally hardened my heart because our national indifference got to be too much to bear. Maybe I'm wrong. I want to be wrong. And forgive me if I sound arrogant or impatient.

What shook me was the sudden awareness of my own grave hardness of heart.

My own determination to look the other way.

My unacknowledged, almost crippling grief at our national indifference.

My deep sorrow and not-well-processed anger that those most determined to speak as “Christians” clap and cheer when presidential candidates use global unrest as political fodder and brag about what they’d do to shut out the homeless, tempest-tossed.

My doubt that change is possible.

I repent.

Not for the anger, although I may get there.

Not for the sorrow – although it’s probably misplaced.

I repent the hardness of heart, the determined disinterest, the doubt born of soul-deep weariness at living in this not-yet world, where injustice seems to rule the day and gentle civilians are trampled and torn by power-hungry bullies.

I’ve been repenting all week.

Praying, reading, wondering.

About causes, solutions, boundaries, borders.

Let my repentance go deeper: in my self-righteous impatience, I wondered why we, the US, don’t take up arms and stop the nonsense driving so many innocent civilians from their homes. Wouldn’t that be better than struggling to find homes for so many who would obviously prefer to live in safety in their own country?

Let me be more politically correct – I wondered why the UN Security Forces haven’t done what they were created to do: intervene. Stop the slaughter. Make Syria safe so the refugees can go home.

My first thought – in this as in so much else - is to look for someone to blame:


The UN.



Oh, sure, President Obama.

Am I missing someone?

I am, on a fairly deep level, a pacifist, yet I found myself tracking across the Internet, looking for military solutions. Surely that’s possible?

Maybe not.

I won’t try to sketch out the complexity of the issues in my targeted 1200 words.
The BBC offered a reasonable summary last March in “eight short chapters”. 

And I won’t set out, here, just war arguments, hesitations, cautions. Gerard Powers, Director of Catholic Peacebuilding Studies at the Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies , recently offered a quick overview of the just war discussion applied to Syria, and concluded:
There are no morally clear or clean answers to the moral conundrums the international community faces in Iraq and Syria.  
The United States, in particular, faces a serious moral conundrum. U.S. policy has suffered a double moral failure: it was immoral to intervene in Iraq in 2003, and in the years since, its self-serving, misguided, incompetent and sometimes grossly negligent policies have failed the Iraqi people. The first moral failure made the second more likely. These many years, many deaths, many billions of dollars, and many missteps later, we are tempted to say that we have done all we can do and wash our hands of the problem, letting Iraq and Syria be torn apart by their “ancient hatreds.” But that would be shirking our moral obligations, for the United States has become –voluntarily! – very much a part of those hatreds.  
The more serious temptation at this moment of crisis is to do what we did in 2003: pursue a quick-fix military solution justified by best-case scenarios about the good that would be achieved – peace, freedom, and democracy for Iraq and the region. But that approach lacks the realism essential to any ethic of military intervention. Because past U.S. interventions helped create the current crisis, we have a moral obligation to act. Limited military intervention might be necessary. But without a serious effort to address the larger political, economic, and cultural dynamics – to engage in nation building in two countries torn asunder, it will be no more successful than it has been until now.
Yesterday, tens of thousands marched through European city centers in solidarity with refugees who have been fleeing Syria in what has been described as the biggest mass migration since World War II. In Denmark, an estimated 30,000 chanted “Say it loud and say it clear: Refugees are welcome here!” 

Here in the US, a Facebook group Open Homes, Open Hearts is looking for ways to offer support, inviting families to post photos offering welcome. 

International groups like Oxfam and Mercy Corps are working to provide for refugees, while smaller, more localized groups, like Migrant Offshore Aid Station and Hand in Hand for Syria focus on more specific concerns.

In my thinking and praying this week, I came across a group, and video, that humbled me, challenged me, and gave focus to my thought and prayer. The video was made in 2012 – so it’s out of date. And long: 53 minutes. I almost said “too long”.

But the group promoting it, Cultures of Resistance, intrigued me.

And the title, The Suffering Grasses, reminded me of the same reality I’d seen in Finland: “When the elephants fight, the grass suffers.”

 It’s worth watching, in part for the way it brings to life the early days of the conflict in Syria.

And in part for the way it makes clear that lack of awareness, lack of interest, lack of global outcry, has made it possible for the mayhem to continue.

It offers a hope for peaceful solution: through creative resistance, digital documentation, reminder of the long history of peaceful coexistence between different clans and religions.

Watching, I found myself wondering at the courage of the video’s creators and those who filmed and spoke, where they are now, what they would say. How many are dead? How many have left Syria/

In church this morning, our sermon, first in a series on Acts, focused on Paul’s conversion. Bent on violent persecution, he encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and was forever changed.

Damascus is the capital of Syria, oldest inhabited city on earth, site of one of Christianity’s most famous conversions. I had been struggling with how to pray, and I was sharply reminded: pray for repentance, conversion, change of heart. 

As I was reflecting on that, our rector, Richard Morgan, mentioned almost in passing the experience of a Muslim woman he knew, who encountered Christ in a dream, and found her life forever changed. Pray for dreams, visions, miraculous intervention!

Our prayer leader cut through my reverie once again with a strong, compassionate prayer for the people of Syria: pray for comfort for those in distress, care for those in need, wisdom and strength for those called to offer aide.

And then, the prayer of confession, a prayer I needed, and continue to need:

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent ...

No neat solutions. 

Yet I open myself to learn more, to listen better, to pray more consistently.

To hold fast to the knowledge that God can change hearts, minds, situations, nations.


And my own.