One of the advantages of being on retreat is that news-gathering is restricted to a brief look at the BBC website once a day. Facebook, Twitter, blogs and any of the sites where news is discussed or commented on are off-limits. That may explain why everything else has seemed secondary compared with the agony being undergone in Syria. Even before the U.N. report, it was clear that both government and opposition forces were committing acts of extreme brutality. The detail of some is sickening, involving as it does children too young to understand or make choices for themselves; sickening too is the prospect of the kind of adults many of those children will grow into — if they survive. A war does not end when the guns fall silent but when the wounds of mind, body and spirit are healed. That can take a long time. In Europe we know that wounds from the past still have power to lock us into cycles of mutual destruction; it is the same in Africa, Asia, and wherever human beings have experienced conflict and division. We pray, we hope for better things, maybe send something to a charity providing relief to Syrian refugees; but do we mainly forget as soon as we move on to another headline?
I have been wondering about this during the past few days. We cannot ignore Syria for the simple reason that we are human beings. Our common humanity means that the plight of the Syrian people touches us. We can choose to distance ourselves in some way, arguing that internal politics are no concern of ours; but the moment we do that, the moment we say the bloodshed is nothing to do with us, I think we become less human. That does not mean that we should rush in and try to impose our own solutions. Like many others, I am completely opposed to the idea of sending arms to Syria or sending in troops to aid one side or the other. For me there are no ‘goodies’ or ‘baddies’ as such, only people doing terrible things to one another and to those we would normally think of as innocent — children and old people, for example. The last thing Syria needs right now is more weapons. I suspect many share that view, but there are also some spiritual implications for ourselves as well as the Syrian people we might think about.
How far are we responsible for what is happening? Or, to put it another way, is there such a thing as a collective sin of omission of which we are guilty?* We have seen the escalation of violence in Syria but we have been so busy worrying about the Same Sex Marriage Bill/tax avoidance/the NHS/job prospects (complete as appropriate) that we have done nothing except talk about peace. There are situations where we know we ought to act and act decisively. For most of us, the problem is not knowing what to do for the best, and surely, Syria is a case in point; but does that let us off the hook? What response ought we to make, both as individuals and as a society? I don’t know. The figure of Cain haunts me with his questioning, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ My own response has been to pray, but I sense that something more is needed.
The original meaning of ‘agony’ was ‘contest’. Who can doubt that there is a struggle between good and evil in Syria? We cannot assume that one side is good and the other bad; that is to buy into the moral simplicities of popular politics. The situation is too complex and too dangerous. It matters that good should — ultimately, somehow — triumph. What is our part in that?
*No, rhetorical question, I am using this device merely to express an idea.