It is impossible for me to watch the footage of the children killed by chemical weapons in Syria without feeling a lack of coherence with the world. We were not meant for this. They … they were not meant for this. Their parents were not meant for this. The world was not meant for this. Breath, the source of life, was turned against these children. Their lungs were filled with death.
There is, in some sense, nothing new here. As a Christian I confess this truth every day. I was not meant for this. The world was not meant for this. The Christian tradition tells me that there is something profoundly unnatural about the life I lead — the life we lead — the life Bashir al-Assad leads — the lives those children led — the lives their parents will have to lead from now on. We were all meant for something else, something altogether more glorious …
The tradition also tells me that I/we/they are separated from the gloriousness by our own sinful activity or inactivity. It was western colonial power that paved the way for the rise of the tyrannical, authoritarian, minority, Alawite government in Syria. It was the superpower of the United States that supported the early rise of modern Sunni militancy in Afghanistan and then abandoned Afghanistan to be administered by these militants. It was the United States that facilitated the opening of northern Iraq to these strains of militancy. And it is these militants who have in the last year become the most powerful of rebel forces in Syria. Both the Charybdis and Scylla were raised by my own hand.
There will be no victors in Syria, and there are no heroes. No side holds a monopoly on the blood of innocents. The democratic roots of the rebellion are threatened if not extinguished as the demos flees by the millions while foreign mujahideen rush in to fight. The “international community” yet again fails to live up to its own moniker; preferring to revive the cold-war rather than face the hard reality of a world in which older power structures are eroding before its eyes. Regional and sectarian powers use the Syrian conflict as a proxy war to manifest their own influence. Saudi Arabia and Qatar compete with each other to determine what kind of Sunni Islam will dominate if al-Assad falls. To bolster its pseudo-Shi’a neighbors, Iran and Hezbollah defend the remains of the ruling regime regardless of its injustice. The eyes of those children are set upon the States who have failed to overcome their own narrow view of interests so as to allow something greater than themselves. Syria is their failure too. It is our failure too.
But if we are not meant to be here, nor are we meant simply to escape. We cry to God: raise us above our necessities. But God’s definitive action moves in the opposite direction, descending into the world of our necessities and bearing them. We are not God, but we too must bear our reality. We must live in the world. We must pray for the peace of Babylon. We must find ways to live amongst our necessities. Never at home, but never fleeing. We are not allowed to look away from the children. Not allowed to change the channel.
It is our lot to distinguish amongst horrors, and to choose amongst terrible options. We will not win. Nor will anyone else. Yet, this is not a reason not to stand. The bodies of the children cry out not only for themselves, but for the next children who may be pumped with poison. It is not that there are no measures in such cases, not as if there had been no consensus of humanity against such atrocity. But the laws of humanity do not stand on their own. They lack an established patron, and thus become a quilt full of tears. A false promise to stand for something, in such a case, is worse than no promise at all. How many red lines shall be passed until the last is reached? How many tyrants shall be comforted by weak words?
We are not gods, nor should we pretend to be. Our hands are not clean. Our hope does not lie in our victory. We cannot solve the insoluble problem of Syria. Yet the bodies of the slain ought to do more than rupture our sense of fitting with the world. They should call us to live in the world, to stand in the world. I pray that we may do so with wisdom.