We set great wreaths of brightness on the graves of the passionate
who required tribute of hot July flowers—
for you, O brittle-hearted, we bring offering
remembering how your wrists were thin and your delicate bones
not yet braced for conquering.
The sharp cries of ghost-boys are keen above the meadows,
and little girls continue graceful and wondering.
Flickering evening on the lakes recalls those young
heirs whose developing years have sunk to earth,
their strength not tested, their praise unsung.
Weave grasses for their childhood—who will never see
love or disaster or take sides against decay
balancing the choices of maturity.
Silent and coffined in silence while we pass
loud in defiance of death, the helpless lie.
–Song for Dead Children
by Muriel Rukeyser
day and night,
while people say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”
Wondrously show your steadfast love,
O Savior of those who seek refuge
from their adversaries at your right hand
And he spake unto the multitude, and said unto them: Behold your little ones.And as they looked to behold they cast their eyes towards heaven, and they saw the heavens open, and they saw angels descending out of heaven as it were in the midst of fire; and they came down and encircled those little ones about, and they were encircled about with fire; and the angels did minister unto them.
–3 Nephi 17:23-24
I saw my little boy in the dead Syrian child, 3-year old Aylan Kurdi, that washed up on the shore in Turkey yesterday. They’re about the same age; my youngest, Galen, is 4. Their body types are similar, in that way that all small children are almost jarringly the same. Our quest to become ourselves as we mature means that we mark ourselves as separate from others in particular ways. But small children are so remarkably alike (not identical but alike) in their movements and their bodies, so nearly universally transparent and unguarded in their emotions and responses to stimuli. Perhaps that is one reason why it so easy to see the face of a child you know in a child you don’t. We understand that children are in need of particularly close protection and care because of their physical and psychological vulnerabilities, but perhaps in addition to that basic fact, this is a reason why images of children suffering and dying are so profoundly devastating: that to see one child suffer is to see all children suffer.
The image is dreadful, even (maybe especially) when you know that it is but a fractional representation of other atrocities that are right now occurring with regard to the Syrian crisis and other awful events going on all over the world. Perhaps you, like me, cannot stop thinking about it. Perhaps you, like me, find it difficult to work and to concentrate; the photo has almost literally arrested you and you find yourself in a state of semi-paralysis (and there are far more images of children from the Syrian crisis that will haunt you mercilessly). You find yourself obsessively searching for all references to the story. You learn that Aylan’s 5-year old brother and mother also perished in the sea, along with 3 other children. That his father, Abdullah, upon arriving on shore, barely a survivor himself, sat on the beach for hours, completely devastated. It’s not true that one cannot imagine being in Abdullah’s shoes. Surely most of us cannot speak from that kind of experience, but we all have broken, half-healed parts of us that reach out in solemn understanding to those who are being torn apart. It’s often the only way we can connect with those who otherwise are utterly alien to us.
There is a terrifying ordinariness about events like these. They occur with such frequency that if we could truly grasp all that is going on in the world just today we would surely lose our minds, to say nothing of all of human history. Mourning and lamentation are surely appropriate responses, and I’ve turned to these themes again and again in my writings.
But I also reflect on our obligations as human beings in the face of desperate suffering. We come to these stories as privileged, in the sense of relative immunity, experiencing the benefit of living as an audience for a narrative rather than being participants in the awful drama. And this distant observation deck threatens to devolve into a theatre of the absurd if we do not understand the full ramifications of what we are seeing and understand what our humanity (and in many cases our religion) requires of us, and why we cannot turn away–from these images, and certainly not from the events that produce them.
Syria’s crisis alone is a human disaster of enormous proportions. Its refugees are seeking asylum all over the world, and politically violent, state-destabilizing conflict has been on the rise for a number of years. But climate change is increasingly contributing to violence, and is often entangled in political factors that lead to violent conflict. As drought, scorching temperatures, and failed crops pummel certain regions of the world that are already politically unstable, refugees and migrants will become more and more the norm, not the exception. The coming world is increasingly a world of homeless migrants and refugees, like Abdullah and his family. And many of the same kinds of forces that have driven people from their homes in the Middle East are the ones pushing people from the southern reaches of the Americas northward. There are very good reasons to consider both groups in the same categories.
One response to this is to build our walls and shore up our cities and militarize our borders. This is a position purely constructed on a scaffold of fear, but it is also not tenable in an increasingly interconnected and entangled world. Nevertheless, for those of us called to follow Jesus Christ, this is an impossible response. For the follower of Christ, the homeless, the weary, the indigent, the weak and ravaged, these are our people. Those are our children. Those cries stir these hearts or we are traitors to the life of Jesus and the promise we have been called to keep again and again to live as he lived and make him live again on this earth. Enacting and staying faithful to such a promise will always be, at minimum, deeply uncomfortable, and at times even dangerous.
But the good news Jesus taught was not the good news of personal prosperity and increasingly inventive ways to become ever more physically and emotionally comfortable. The news was good because it announced to the world that the kingdom of God wasn’t what awaited us after death if we were worthy enough, but it had come here, to dwell among those who needed it most, bloodied, bruised, but with us down here, at the bottom of all things, determined to heal and save. Those angels in the above scripture, called by Jesus, encircling the children in rings of fire? They are us. We are such ministers. And if we, in our strength and luxury, do not create a safe space for them, who will? If others turn them away (and they have) where will they go? We cannot stand or kneel before our God with such hearts.
But it is more than simply responding to calamity after the fact. We must always inquire into the conditions that set the calamity loose in the first place. Military machines, the tools of capital in the hands of a relative few, inter and intra religious disagreement, etc. Our ministry will be to shake these structures from the inside while we also tend to the lives that were thrown into and caught up in their awful machinery.
“Where is your God?” He is here. These hands, binding your wounds. These shoulders, bearing you up. These feet, running to meet you. These eyes, weeping tears over the deaths of your little ones. They are yours but now they are ours as well. And you are our brothers and sisters. Our home is your home. Welcome home.
“Since that day till now our life is one unbroken paradise. We live a true brotherly life. Every evening after supper we take a seat under the mighty oak and sing our songs.”—Extract from a letter of a Russian refugee in Texas.