6 days ago I found myself in the Beqaa Valley on the border of Lebanon and Syria. The centre of Damascus was just a short 20 minute drive from the informal tent settlements I was visiting to meet with Syrians who had fled the fighting which has just clicked past the 5 year mark.
I did not expect to be filling out ‘proof of life’ questions in case of kidnap and I did not expect to be faced with one of the most f*****d up situations I’ve ever encountered.
From the outset I do not claim to be an expert in politics, although I have an interest, neither do I claim expertise in aid and development, though throughout my 20 years in making documentaries, I’ve told the stories of many NGOs that do. Neither am I a theologian, though I do take an interest in deepening my spirituality. I can really only claim to be an expert in relaying what I saw and how it is challenging me to live my life through the lens of that beguiling 1st century itinerant preacher in Roman occupied Palestine..the former apprentice carpenter from Nazareth who became the miracle worker of Galilee and a disturber of the comfortable ever since.
I have travelled to a lot of places and experienced many stories of tragedy over the years as I’ve attempted to tell stories on film, but it’s been quite a while since I have been rendered totally speechless.
Sitting in a 3x4 makeshift tent listening to a grandmother who is recovering from recent open heart surgery that has gained her life as well as a $650 a month medication bill, or the jaundiced and gaunt 24 year old grandson who has been blind from age 7 due to his kidney disease and that without a miracle intervention will most likely succumb to his lack of access to life preserving dialysis, or the 20 something mother who can’t access enough milk for her 4 month old baby girl or the proper nutrition for her 5 year old son who greets us with a warm smile that reveals his severely rotted teeth, or the 26 year old father and former national martial arts champion whose shoulders the responsibility for this family rests upon. We naively asked him if there was at least a shred of joy that keeps him going despite the overwhelming circumstances, he laughed with a 'fraying at the edges' kind of desperation and told us that he likes to walk in the valley alone so he can cry.
At this point I remember looking at my friends who were with me and we were just kind of speechless…I put down my camera as filming just felt so parasitical … I felt like some kind of voyeuristic vampire extracting the very last from these people who had lost everything.
In the end silence was all there was.
“Sometimes no explanation is sufficient to account for suffering. The only decent thing is silence - and the sacraments.”
I’ve read this quote from the early 20th century American monk many times before and kind of thought it was a nice sentiment not having really understood its full meaning. But sitting in that makeshift tent, rendered completely silent, Merton’s words became deafening.
There are many complex geopolitical reasons why the war in Syria has been raging and why many in the West seem reluctant to show compassion. Yet in that terrible moment of despair when we were searching for a silver-lining, grasping for some kind of relief from the anguish, I realised that this desire for light was more about us than about them…it was about alleviating our pain rather than sitting with their pain in solidarity.
6 days on I can see that the overwhelming feeling of wanting to get out of that tent as quickly as possible was about me and not about them. I was reminded of Christ’s anguish in the garden on the night of His betrayal, with drops of blood His flesh wanted out…yet his divinity galvanised Him to confess “Not my will but yours.”. When I think about that excruciating moment in that tent, the most Christlike thing we could have done was not to offer cheap solutions or trite verbal comforts…the most honest thing we could have done and did eventually do was to be silent and weep with them.
Contrary to the “gameshow host” Christianity that has become so popular in our modern age, Christ does not always give us the option to head home with a toaster oven. It is in these moments of despair that the evangelical/charismatic church’s lack of a robust theology of suffering is exposed. Rather than escape it and avoid lament, it is our obligation to sit with the pain and experience it fully. Not in some masochistic way, but to experience the full range of our humanity still in the hope of resurrection, trusting that these present travails do not have the final say.
This is of course not particularly attractive to our self-made, onwards and upwards, ’you can have it all’ culture…but to sit with these hurting families and even for just a moment begin to feel their anguish felt like the most decent thing I’ve done in a long time. Sometimes you have to allow yourself to fully feel something, before you can think something.
How is it that in the face of the worst humanitarian crisis since WWII we have managed to make it all about ourselves and our comfort?
So often we want to skip to the solution, to medicate the pain, but sometimes the most human thing we can do is to look another brother in the eye and experience that pain with them and in doing so we acknowledge and stumble upon our common humanity. In those rare moments you discover there is no them, there is only us.
Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas puts it this way: the only thing that really converts people is "the face of the other.” When the face of the other is truly seen, particularly when it is the face of suffering, when we go beyond seeing objects of pity and move to empathy, when we make this journey it leads to transformation of our whole being. A moral demand is then placed on our heart that is far more compelling than logic or law.
After meeting with several displaced families the overwhelming feeling I had was of a searing anger. Not the rioting and setting a city on fire kind of anger, but that feeling of righteous anger that is enkindled deep within the coals of injustice. A kind of outrage that sends you out looking for the tables of money changers to overturn.
In one way it’s sort of easy to be angry at the several hundred different armed groups fighting in Syria, as these innocent families are the direct fall out of that unchecked violence. The gunmen with their weapons and cruelty share a large portion of the blame for the misery without doubt, but to only be angry at the men with guns, to me that feels a lot like throwing punches at the darkness hoping to beat it into light. The only place I can with any real integrity direct my anger is at myself and the communities of which I am a part and begin to ask uncomfortable questions of myself and how are my own sins of commission or omission aggravating the wound?
I would say I’ve always been a fairly compassionate person and have something of a predisposition to social justice, thanks in large part to the upbringing of my “go for the underdog” parents. It’s partly why I got involved in storytelling and documentary making in the first place…to provide a voice for the voiceless.
When it came to the Syrian crisis I knew about it from an academic perspective, had watched and read from different news sources, gone a bit deeper by watching specific documentaries on the situation, but was I moved? Yes and no. I think it was probably more a case of compassion fatigue. How much can you really care for any one tragedy, when there is a whole world of heartache both locally and globally?
So what changed for me in that camp in Lebanon? What tipped me from being a concerned yet dispassionate bystander to an engaged advocate? What was it about the human tragedy unfolding in Syria that registered long enough for me to be distracted enough from my usual distractions to take notice? I realised I had been misled, maybe even in some cases lied too. These Syrians who seemed worlds away from my safe and comfortable life in Australia, were not so different from me.
It has become increasingly easy to dismiss and demonise the other, the stranger, the foreigner, those who look different, speak different, believe different. Perhaps it has always been so. In some ways our social evolution has conditioned us to think this way, to identify who is in our tribe and who is therefore safe and who is without, who is to be feared.
But this social conditioning turns to dust when you sit face to face with the other and truly hear their story…prejudice is laid bare.
In two short days I met shopkeepers, taxi drivers, teachers, farmers, mums, dads, kids…not a single ‘radical fundamentalist’ amongst them. What I did encounter however, were warm, friendly and honest people who welcomed me into the tents they are now forced to call their homes.
I met a young couple in their 30s. Mahmoud* was a school teacher and Amina*, his young wife, had paused her University studies in French literature to give birth and raise their now 7 month old son. Both had recently fled from an extremist controlled area in Syria when their home was destroyed by the missile of a warplane.
Mahmoud* spoke joyfully of their beautiful life before the war, the lake they would visit and have picnics with extended family and the rich sense of community they enjoyed. After the extremists took over he described the restrictions on movement and dress and the violent public executions and punishments, barbaric acts that the extremists forced the children to watch as a way to desensitise and indoctrinate. As he described conditions under the extremists he became visibly disturbed and told me that this was as foreign to him as it was to us “this is not Syrian.” he said defiantly. “Will we all be judged by the actions of a few?” he went on to say…I find myself asking a similar question when I think about the xenophobic rhetoric that is becoming the norm here at home.
Mohammed* 24, was blind as a result of his kidney disease, he spoke passionately of how he used to “live like a king” before the war, picking almonds from the trees of their small farm. Now crippled as a result of his faltering kidneys, he could barely raise his head, but spoke forcefully and with a deep bitterness as he lamented their current situation. His brother Jamal* told us that Mohammed* had tried to end his life a couple of months earlier as he felt that he was posing too great a burden on the family. “My baby niece is more important than me.” he had said.
I heard similar stories over and over again. Stories of utter hardship, yet despite the harsh conditions they all spoke of how they loved their lives in Syria and their burning desire to return home. Many still carry around their house keys in the hope of their eventual return.
Why did I think it would be any different? All I could think was how similar they were to me, familiar hopes and dreams for their families and to live in peace. I couldn’t help but think that in a different place and a different time I could easily see us being friends and our children would play together.
This is the tragedy of fear. People who are fleeing for their lives, who have left behind every possession apart from what they could carry, people who have had their hearts broken and minds tormented by violence and unimaginable cruelty. I think if anyone on this earth has a legitimate reason to be afraid - these are the people. So can you imagine their confusion when they discover it is us in the comfortable West who are in fear of them?
I think most prejudice even in its most passive form is based on fear…fear of the unknown and the other. When I think about what I know about the Muslim and Arab world it’s based largely on what the media has told me about “them”. I have very little personal experience as we live very segregated and tribal existences within our national borders.
Fear clouds, confuses, builds walls, numbs hearts and breeds hatred.
Fear paralyses...fear discriminates...fear demonises...fear trusts in scarcity rather than believes in abundance.
Fear believes that for the other to win we must lose.
The politics of fear say that the other is out to get you, to steal your money, your job, your way of life. The voices of fear say that there is not enough to go around for your tribe let alone to give to the other. The voices of fear promote the idea of scarcity while often enjoying untold abundance for themselves.
The refugees I met didn’t want to become Australians or Americans or Europeans…they just wanted to be safe from imminent war and death. The refugees I met more than anything, just wanted to return home to the lives they loved and so desperately missed.
When I think about the anger I felt in that Syrian refugee camp it was about how some, including those from my own tribe would use the misfortune of others to increase their own power. Demonising refugees it seems, will win you votes, but I believe it makes you a terrible human being.
The thing about the politics of fear is that it lacks any imagination. It is trapped in a binary system of quid pro quo, whereas in the economy of grace a seemingly infinite array of unexpected outcomes are possible. Love if given the chance, will indeed make a way.
The level of political and social discourse around the refugee issue in the West has been so disappointing. The initial goodwill shown by many across Europe in particular has now been replaced by vitriol bordering on what can only be called the neo-fascist. To kick a people when they are down is surely the way to guarantee a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Some 75% of Syrian children are not in any kind of schooling as a result of the war. This is a present tragedy, but I wonder what happens 10 years from now when these 7 and 8 year olds become teenagers. What will their experience have been? Love, compassion and mercy? Or fear, rejection and hatred? Nothing can excuse the terrible choices that some make, but I can’t help but wonder if we are doing the extremist recruiters work for them by sowing seeds of bitterness now that may flourish into full blown hatred later?
The fear of terrorism is a legitimate reality in our world, but my question to the leaders who seem to delight in fomenting the fringe with their bellicose rhetoric, is are they actually nurturing the very terrorism they purport to protect us from?
Political players and the angry mob are one thing, but when you begin to hear similar echoes in the faith community I think we have real cause for concern. The fact that some are even debating whether these refugees are worthy of our help to me is chilling. And it really comes down to this dissonance with what I believe is the essence of the Gospel that has rattled me so much.
During other humanitarian crises throughout history, by and large the Christian community has been united in broadly defining that when people are hurting from war, famine and disease we as followers of Christ must be there to lend a hand. This has been our great tradition and strength, that when others are leaving the Church stays to minister as it is able. This is a core tenant of faith that has always made me proud even when other chapters of church history have made me less so. So to hear the slogans of fear in some corners of the faith community is a huge disappointment. A belief system or ideology that harms others or at least allows you to idly stand by as others fall into the abyss, to me is morally bankrupt.
Those of good conscience everywhere and especially those of us who identify as part of the church must rise above the fear and loathing to encounter one another’s humanity.
Sitting in those tents I found the text in Matthew 25 deafening as never before :
‘Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:
I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.’
Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’
Jesus’ whole love thy neighbour and doing unto others spiel looks noble on a t-shirt, but it has always come with the risk that you could be taken advantage of. That sort of just goes with the territory of goodwill.
Whether you stop in the middle of the night to help someone change a flat tyre, invite a Les Miserable style ‘Jean Valjean’ into your home or even accept refugees, there is always the possibility that your kindness could be taken advantage of, but should that change the fundamental values of who we have historically been as societies? I would hate to live in a community that is too scared to reach out to its neighbour. We are already some ways down that path, but I don’t believe it has to be our final destination.
Have we got our wires crossed and reduced the gospel to just our cultural Christianity? Our services and our institutions? Has our love become so conditional that the other must first come around to our way of thinking before we offer assistance, or is it our very actions of selfless love that are to act as the catalyst that draws all men unto God?
I’ve heard people argue with great vigour that Genesis describes a literal 7 day creation, that Noah’s flood wasn’t mythical or allegorical but physical and global and that the prophet Jonah was swallowed for 3 days then spat out on a beach by an actual whale. People that fight over this level of Biblical literalism seem to fall conspicuously silent when discussing other scriptures that seem quite didactic and lack any ‘wiggle room’ for interpretation such as Christ’s commands to love your neighbour, turn the other cheek and feed the hungry. When it comes to the Beatitudes I would welcome a little more biblical fundamentalism.
I was recently able to visit the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, which is an extremely difficult experience as you are thrust into the terrifying gaze of the worst of our humanity. Yet within the horror of the Nazi’s industrialisation of death were a few rocks that stood against the tide.
The residents of the French town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, led by Pastor Andre Trocme, were responsible for saving at least 3500 Jews, including many children, from the Nazi death camps, first hiding and then arranging via an underground railway, safe passage to Switzerland.
When questioned by the Gestapo as to if there were any Jews in the village, Pastor Andre responded “I do not know what a Jew is, we only know what human beings are.”
The example of Pastor Trocme and the many other villagers who risked their own security to save the lives of people not from their own tribe is to me a beacon from history. It is easy to see Christ in our friends, in those that look like us and share our language and cultural sensibilities. Because of our human blindness it can only be the Spirit that allows us to see that same Christ in the other.
In writing these reflections I was reminded of the scriptures in the Gospel of Luke, where two of Jesus’ disciples were walking the Emmaus Road in fear and disappointment that Jesus had not turned out as they had hoped. The disciples were unable to recognise the risen Jesus even after he had accompanied them on their journey for some time. When the Emmaus disciples shared a meal with Jesus their blindness was finally lifted and they recognised the risen Christ. In the same way I wonder if we have been blinded by our own fears that we are unable to see the image of Christ in our Muslim brothers and sisters. Are we not, each one of us, image bearers of our Father? I know for myself that some of my blindness was lifted last week as I shared fellowship with those Syrian families.
Philip Berrigan once said “The poor tell us who we are and the prophets tell us who we could be. So we hide the poor and kill the prophets.” The great Nelson Mandela echoed similar sentiments when he said “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way it treats its children.”. As I drove away from those camps in Lebanon I pondered these words and wondered if my own actions, my own country and community were up to the task.
I’ve heard plenty of sermons over the years that encourage our faith to invade our humanity and transform our ‘wicked flesh’. Recently I’ve been thinking that the complete opposite is true. It seems to me that our stiff, black and white religion is in serious need of an injection of some basic humanity. I see a lot of the Father’s children desperately calling out for bread…I pray we would not settle for giving them a stone, let alone a serpent.
I have heard and read some say to justify their rejection of refugees from Syria they simply want to "preserve our Christian culture/identity” or “that we can’t allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by numbers”…to which I can only suggest what better way is there to live out our Christian identity than by showing love and compassion in a sermon on the mount kind of way? Do we preserve our "identity" by rejecting our core Christian responsibilities to the alien and outcast…I’m left wondering which damages our culture more?
If on the other hand by ‘identity’ we actually mean preserving our ethnicity, colour culture and tribe then I feel like that is something we have learnt from 1700 years of Constantinian empire rather than the suffering Kingdom of Christ.
Love trumps fear, doctrine and dogma. In many ways Jesus was the ultimate humanitarian, constantly transgressing the religious rules of his time for the sake of lifting individual people in love.
I tend to read Corinthians 13 very differently these days:
“If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.”
I used to think this was a nice sentimental thing to say at weddings, but now I find it one of scripture’s most challenging passages. I find it leading me to ask how I view the most fundamental of questions “Who is my neighbour?”.
The book of Leviticus tells me my neighbour is my fellow Israelite, Jesus tells me first it’s the outsider (the Samaritan) but then he goes and raises the stakes by instructing me my neighbour is now also to even include ‘my enemy’. If this is true then Jesus is essentially telling me I have no enemies, only neighbours…and how am I to treat my neighbour? As I would like to be treated. Revolutionary ideas that are uncomfortable reading in a world that is used to running on revenge.
So contrary to the fear filled mantras of the media and the politicians, I have to politely say I have no enemies just neighbours I’ve not yet had the chance to meet.
As crushing as it was to meet those Syrian families and as hollow as I felt, Jesus does not afford me the luxury of resignation to hopelessness and despair, for at the climax of the Jesus story itself, with the utter desolation of the cross and the disillusionment of the disciples comes after a short pause…resurrection life.
This is our pattern and our tradition…from death comes life and the current travails do not have the final word. I believe this is why long after the secular NGOs have left you will always find the local church and local believers carrying out the work of resurrection in the face of insurmountable odds...why? Because resurrection matters to the every ONE that experiences it…resurrection goes about its quiet business reviving humanity one by one seemingly unconcerned with the “scale” or “gravity” of the situation..this has been the pattern for 2000 years.
It can be difficult when faced with the worst of human tragedy. It’s easy to become overwhelmed and paralysed when faced with huge numbers, but then I’m reminded of Christ who revealed the best of humanity. In many Byzantine orthodox icons, Jesus is often represented as holding up His index and second finger, which in iconography represents the joining together of the human and the divine (The Incarnation). Jesus restores the best of the human with the heavenly in the resurrection life that began that first Easter morning. This role of incarnation has now been passed onto us as we go about living out of this resurrection life, awakening each other to our true identities as image bearers of the Father.
The most common, if not only Arabic phrase that most western people have heard, would be from the mouths of extremists as they invoke the now infamous exhortation 'Alluha Akbar'. A less known arabic word which we heard a lot in Lebanon is the greeting 'Marhaba' [مرحبا]. I asked our local host about the meaning to which we were told it meant “God is love”. (Mar = God, Haba = Love). In many ways within those two phrases you have the roots of human injustice made plain. I believe God is indeed great, yet when we appropriate that greatness for ourselves we walk the path that leads us to shattered lives in Syria, the desolation of car bombs in Baghdad, indiscriminate gunmen in Paris and Brussels and words that ferment division at political rallies in middle America. Yet in that humble greeting - Marhaba - we have a truth that is the antidote to hell on earth.
Words are important. Words contain life and death. Words create the world in which you live. While I departed Lebanon with many unanswered questions and a heavy spirit because of all that we had encountered, the small fact that people were consciously or unconsciously declaring the truth of the divine character of God despite their utter physical desolation I believe was a final humbling message to us as believers. I heard Christ speaking through that simple arabic phrase that He is love and that I need to be a vessel of that love despite what the circumstances look like. God is not fear, God is love. My prayer is that perfect love will indeed cast out all our fear.
*names have been changed
So Now What?
You can donate to the great work World Vision is doing through their Syria appeal here:
Something to watch:
It seems to me a sad state of affairs when some of the best journalism is no longer done by journalists but by comedians. This John Oliver piece shines a light on how the public is not served well by a lot of our media and political leaders.
Something to read:
A good summary of information regarding many aspects of the refugee crisis
Something to listen too:
Podcast of a conversation I had with Luke Norsworthy on the ongoing refugee crisis