Has God Failed to Keep His Promise in Syria?

How different today’s first Mass reading, Isaiah 54. 1–10, seems when read in shortened form at the Easter Vigil, yet the promise it contains is one and the same. The Lord does not forget; he has joined himself to us in an everlasting covenant. If that is true, then it is true in the streets of Aleppo and the dark corners of Yemen as well as in the peaceful, well-nourished households of the west. Our problem is that we do not see it like that; we feel that God has failed in some way to keep his promise, and we are angry and disconsolate. We blame God for the tragedy, for all the misery inflicted on those he claims to love.

One of the uncomfortable truths with which Advent confronts us is this: God relies on us to fuflfil his promises — most spectacularly, when he relied upon the consent of Mary to be the Mother of God, but also, less spectacularly, when he relies upon us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and do good to them that hate us. We may think that we can do nothing to help the people of Syria or the starving children of Yemen, but in fact we can do a great deal. By living as we ought to live, with integrity and generosity, by being peace-makers in our own circle, by cultivating an unshowy sense of mutual support and kindness, we contribute to the store of good in the world and undo much that human malice and evil attempts. It is easy to dismiss this as pie-in-the-sky-idealism, but as G.K. Chesterton remarked long ago, it is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, it is that Christianity has never been tried. We cannot silence the guns, perhaps, but we can create a climate of opinion in which the guns cannot be fired.

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The Problem with Indignation

We all know what makes us indignant. Sometimes our outrage is accompanied by a nice warm glow of self-approval as we condemn what everyone else seems to accept uncomplainingly: war, poverty, disease, that sort of thing. I exaggerate, but for a reason.

There is a lot of indignation circulating online at the moment, but I’m not sure it is achieving anything very much or that it is always genuine, in the sense that it represents a truly compassionate response to a grave situation. The problem with indignation is that it often generates more heat than light. Our emotions are worked up, but our brain cells barely function. We seethe at the Save the Children report that over 1,700,000 children in Yemen (yes, you read that right, one point seven million) are severely undernourished and in need of ‘protective assistance’ because of war, but we do not know what to do about it. We may sign a petition; we may give money to aid agencies; but beyond that, we are at a loss. It is at that point that something sinister often seems to happen. We begin to feel guilty, as though we were responsible for what has happened, or, worse, we try to pin the guiilt on another. It helps if the other is an institution of some sort — a government, a church, an -ism of some kind. Either way, our indignation is in danger of feeding on itself because, of course, neither we nor the institution that becomes the focus of our rage is necessarily capable of changing things. That is particularly true, I think, when we are talking about the situation in non-Western countries. Our indignation gets us nowhere; it clouds what little vision we have and may even work against what we hope to achieve because anger feeds anger.

To return to that terible statistic about Yemen. We must translate that statistic into nearly two million children’s faces — children who, if they grow up at all, will always bear in their bodies and minds the dreadful consequences of these years of malnourishment and conflict. This morning the media are awash with reports of the terrible bombings in Jakarta and Diyarbakir, and rightly so; but those children, who will plead for them? More to the point, who will be prepared to give up an entrenched position so that they may live? We in the West earnestly desire peace for the people of Yemen, Syria and wherever there is conflict. We know perfectly well that the reasons for the present conflicts are many and various, but ultimately all our efforts, all our indignation, will avail nothing unless the people fighting one another want to change. Our prayer today must surely be for a change of heart, for an overcoming of every obstacle — in ourselves, as in others.

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