Syrian Agony

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.

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6 thoughts on “Syrian Agony”

  1. The issues don’t just effect Syria. Lebanon is also vulnerable. There has already been attacks across the border by Syrian Government forces and also clashes between the militia’s supporting the Syrian Government and those opposed.

    The danger of the war spilling over into the already war torn, barely recovered Lebanon is seriously under estimated.

    In the wings are Israel who’ve already conducted air strikes in Syrian air space and the Russians, ready to send Air Defence Missiles to Syria to prevent any external No Fly Zones being imposed and as a defence against Israel’s air strikes.

    The whole of the Middle East is a Tinderbox, waiting to explode and we stand by and wring our hands and talk about arming the rebels, while hundreds of thousands of civilians are displaced, maimed, killed and victimised.

    I don’t have a solution, only prayer and hope that the opposing factions will see sense.

    If there is to be any intervention, it must be UN led, not done by a coalition of allies who have an agenda. But so far, there appears to be no will for this, apart from some support for the refugee’s.

    The danger for all of us is an escalation across the whole of the middle east, where competing ideologies fight it out to the death, deploying all of their weapons, which include WMD – a scenario we must avoid at all costs.

    Where are the peacemakers, the conciliators in this, silenced by the noise of competing priorities of nations at the UN.

    In the end, both sides might fight themselves to exhaustion and come to the negotiate peace as an act of desperation, rather than one of commonsense.

  2. Thank you for your thought provoking post. I have been trying to pray about the Syrian situation on my early morning dog walks and I realise that my prayers seem like empty words. I am at a complete loss as to know what to do. But I too feel that arming any side and wading in with an army is quite wrong, but then I get caught up in the ‘just war’ argument and I find myself going round in ever decreasing circles and so I come back to an anguished prayer and plea. But yet I still don’t know what to do ( apart from the practical charity giving etc.)

    As I read your post this morning the words of Martin Niemöller came into my mind. I don’t know how they help, but I feel that somehow they must, but I really don’t know…….

    “When the Nazis came for the communists,
    I remained silent;
    I was not a communist.

    When they locked up the social democrats,
    I remained silent;
    I was not a social democrat.

    When they came for the trade unionists,
    I did not speak out;
    I was not a trade unionist.

    When they came for the Jews,
    I remained silent;
    I wasn’t a Jew.

    When they came for me,
    there was no one left to speak out.”

  3. How terrible it has been to see the events unfold in a predictable spiral of violence and horror. Prayer is the best I can offer. There seems no easy solution to offer (other than the rather hollow call for peace) as most commentators express the fear that whichever armed group ends up in control the country has even darker days ahead. When countries have intervened in the past with armed force it has rarely gone well. So we are left to watch the news get steadily worse and wince at the suffering we seem utterly powerless to stop. I feel genuine unease as I have been studying the Good Samaritan with my pupils this week…

  4. My hairdresser is a Catholic Christian from Syria. Last autumn, while cutting my hair, he told me about a Memorial Mass his family was celebrating here in Canada for a cousin, a soldier in Syria who was shot by firing squad, his punishment for refusing to shoot into a crowd of civilians which included old people and women and children.

    We spoke of martyrdom, certain his cousin had done the right thing, but what a price he paid for it, only 23 years of age. Though I’ve never met this cousin, haven’t seen a photo of him, I think of him and his family whenever I hear about Syria on the news, and pray for him when I pray my rosary.

    Today I heard it is certain that chemical weapons have been used in Syria of late, pure evil.

  5. A well thought-out piece which has continued to cycle in my mind, long after pressing the shut down button of the computer. I was immediately struck by my total inability to add something in the form of comment, but nevertheless I find myself pitching in some words.

    “I have agonised much about Syria” were the words which nearly rolled off the tongue, but it would not have been entirely true, because I’ve also agonised much about the persecution of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, sincerely. And for several consecutive weeks this year I was in deep anguish over North Korea, not only on the high level of malnutrition there, but in a deeper vein the horrors of what goes on within the enforced labour camps. Reading this material does not sit comfortably on the heart. My life batteries only have a limited amount of what they can expend in compassion, it seems, and sad truth is, the list of shocking monstrosities in this world stretches back into a queue to which I can see no end. My small world hasn’t got the capacity to take much more of it into my arena.

    If there is an answer to this complex nexus of issues, they will be taken by the decision makers, even if from my perspective some of the options on the table seem to inflame rather than quench the fire which threatens to spread into the entire region, and beyond. It can so easily be tempting to fall into the inevitable slot of washing hands, with no apparent care in the matter, because “it’s not really anything to do with me, and there wouldn’t be anything I could about it if it were.”

    From here, I don’t think there’s anything that can painlessly be done. Yet not quite. I feel that if there’s nothing I can “do” in the Syrian (or other troubled spot), I am convinced there is something I can do within the smaller focus of myself, and the immediate world around me. If I get through the day without exercising as much appreciation as I might; if I rise quickly to the bait which I may perceive dangled before me; if I end the day leaving a bad taste in in the minds of others, I may have offended in a way which shows that my actions have not been done with mindfulness, for how can I assume that small actions good or bad, will go no further than the walls of my house?

    After such cyclic thoughts had spiralled through my head for the best part of a week, I turned on the radio. It was Sunday morning, and the piece was about the Maronite nuns and a few monks who live in caves in the mountains of Lebanon. As I listened to the story of their life — they sleep on the stone ground, using smaller rounded stones for pillows. These stones are not only part of their life, but they *are* the life of the Maronite Hermits. Not only do they serve as foundation, but those rocks and mountain forests are themselves the temple in which they live, serve and worship. After all, Peter and Petrol are both words meaning rock. Foundations.

    The piece ended, as the subject wove round to the possibility of the Syrian conflict spreading out to Lebanon with the comment that even if it did, it would be no worse than some of the devastations inflicted in the past. In that brief message, something wordless seemed to whisper into my understanding, as if it had floated in from the breeze. It was a frisson, a deep-seated feeling that the whole picture could never be know to me. Perhaps it was something like the vibration from a tuning fork, from the mountains and the cedars of Lebanon. Something which the hermits knew from the inside out.

    • Thank you for your comment. I’ve been away/offline a few days and am only just catching up. You echo something that a sister living and working in Syria wrote to me recently. My mind just cannot take in what is happening but in prayer something does seem to make sense. Let us go on praying.

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