Thursday, September 5, 2013

Syria: memories and imagination

In April 2002 I spent a few days in Syria.  It was part of the semester abroad program I was doing in my second year of college, based mostly in Cairo, Egypt but with short trips to Lebanon, Israel/Palestine and then a three week excursion by land from Cairo to Istanbul, Turkey via Jordan and Syria.  I spent a few days in Damascus, staying in a monastery and exploring the immensely beautiful streets of that city - where you could knock on a door in the wall of the old city and then be immediately invited in, where street vendors with greying hair and wise faces joked that we were Egyptians because of our accents, where we had a lecture followed by dinner and dancing with young Syrian musicians.  It hurts to even begin wondering where those people are now.  On our way up to Aleppo we stopped at the oldest church building in the world, built into a mountainside in an Aramaic speaking village.  Then we had the incredible experience of visiting the extended family of one of the students in our program - Bethany's father was Syrian and almost all of his family still lived in a village there, although he had spent his adult life in the US.  When Bethany arrived - their American granddaughter and niece, there was so much weeping and laughing and hugging and kissing - a sacred place to bear witness to family in the quiet green of village life and apricot trees.  They set a massive meal before us and we sat on the floor laughing, feasting and drinking tea enjoying all the beauty of their lives.  It was a moment of sacrificial hospitality that marked me.  In May, Bethany's Syrian family had their homes destroyed and were forced to flee to neighbouring Lebanon as refugees.  They are doing alright there, she says, there are marriages and babies, they are a resilient people taking it one day at a time.

Bethany's Aunt and Uncle in more peaceful days

That semester in the Middle East was my most intense experience of culture shock (my first time outside of the US) and community and worlds colliding in the most untidy of ways.  It's when my "personal relationship with Jesus" met  "Jesus died on the cross so that the United States would not have to drop bombs on Iraq", which met an understanding of God's love for people groups and nations like never before.  Everything that I had thought was only spiritual and future in God's kingdom was finding urgency in our present physical reality.  It's when rhetoric and ideology was dismantled slowly and painfully on many life levels and I was confused, disillusioned but so incredibly alive.  Studying Arabic, Islam and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict ripped my small-town Pennsylvania world wide open for me and I spent the next decade trying to live in the tension of so many questions: what does it mean to be a privileged American who is also a follower of the crucified Jesus?  What does it mean to be a good neighbour, a global neighbour?  What is really going on in the Middle East beyond what the media is telling us?  What voices are being ignored?  How do I stay connected to suffering people when my own life can be so easy sometimes?  These questions still burn in my heart.

I've had seasons of being extremely engaged and active, and  I've had seasons of tuning it all out and getting absorbed in my own stuff.  I've had moments of pregnant hope and long, long moments of despair.  I have, what one of my professors calls, "the luxury of irrelevance".  It's not my home that could be bombed at any moment, I'm not crossing international borders with my children in my arms and not much else.  I can very easily turn down the volume or unplug for a few days, even worse I can throw my hands up to fatalism and the gods and not engage because I feel hopeless and apathetic and scared. But when I open my heart up even a wee tiny bit to the suffering of families in Syria, (or Egypt, Palestine, Libya ...) I sense the tremendous grief of God, the divine pathos, the suffering of Jesus on the cross that continues as the children made in God's image suffer in these very moments.  And as a Christian I'm called to engage with God in that place of pain.

I believe that prayer matters, whether it's specific times of really engaging and interceding or it's just carrying a people on your heart throughout the day.  I think knowledge matters and as an American I care about the decisions my representatives make on my behalf, I acknowledge the blood on my hands as well with every drone and missile strike.  And I honestly believe that my capacity to imagine is extremely important.  Walter Brueggemann writes in The Prophetic Imagination,
How can we have enough freedom to imagine and articulate a real historical newness in our situation?  That is not to ask, as Israel's prophets ever asked, if this freedom is realistic or politically practical or economically viable.  To begin with such questions is to concede everything to the royal consciousness even before we begin.  We nee to ask not whether it is realistic or practical or viable but whether it is imaginable.  We need to ask if our consciousness and imagination have been so assaulted and co-opted by the royal consciousness that we have been robbed of the courage or power to think an alternative thought.  
I want to take back my imagination and let God lead me to think the thoughts of someone who has been born into the new creation.  I want to hold on to those words in Scripture that make no sense, that seem like they are impossible or worse, impractical, and write them on my walls and tell them to my children.  I want to raise children who can see the evils of war and violence and can think in ways about conflict that I probably never will.  And just like I grew up pledging my allegiance daily to the American flag, I now pledge my allegiance daily to the Lamb who was slain, who took upon himself all of the bombs and missiles and hatred, racism and greed that fuels this violence again and again.     

Here are a few good links to read.  Regardless of how we think or whether or not we pray, let's all carry our neighbours in Syria close to our hearts.

9 Questions About Syria You Were Too Embarrassed to Ask - Max Fisher @ The Washington Post

Syria: An Overview and A Call to Action - Joy @ Deeper Story

Greg Boyd's kingdom pacifist perspective on talking to Pres. Obama about Syria @

Why Italian Trappist Nuns aren't leaving Syria.

Sweden leads the way in welcoming Syrian refugees.

Read Mennonite Central Committee's call to end violence in Syria and send it on to your representatives.

Subscribe to 25 Days of Prayer for Syria @ SheLoves Magazine

In days to come the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills.  Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say: 'Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths. ... He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, no longer shall they learn war anymore; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.  For all the peoples walk, each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever.  (Micah 4: 1-5, NRSV)


  1. I guarantee you that if we visited my family now in the tents and over crowded rooms they are living in they would still greet us with the same warm smiles, love, tears and hospitality. Hope remains.

  2. wow, that's so true. and i can only imagine how overjoyed they would be to see you. love you, friend.