My heart is broken for Syria. I have been closely following the civil war since before it was a war, back in 2011 when peaceful protesters gathered to declare their desires for a better, less-oppressive Syria.
In 2013 I had the opportunity to travel to Lebanon and spend time photographing refugee life in some of the informal tented settlements.
no one leaves home
unless home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well*
The next two generations of Syrian leaders are homeless. Two years ago, it was estimated that more than half the population of Syria was internally displaced. More than 11 million people are homeless inside the borders of Syria.
And that is only a guess.
This sweet babe was born in a refugee camp in Lebanon. He is not entitled to a Lebanese birth certificate, and his mama can’t afford to return to Syria to get a birth certificate because they live in abject poverty. It is likely that he will live his entire life as a refugee: lacking food, adequate shelter, and suffering chronic health ailments related to a lack of clean water.
The Syrian Crisis did not materialize one day last week. Aylan, the precious baby found face-down on a Turkish beach, was not the first Syrian baby to drown in the Mediterranean Sea. Hundreds of Syrians have drowned escaping the war, but Aylan was the first one that people chose to see. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have died in the war –many of them children– but none of those images or stories grabbed the Church’s heartstrings.
The Western Church is, at long last, appropriately horrified by the situation facing the Syrian people. Christians on social media are hashtagging their indignation: #BeTheChurch and #WeWelcomeRefugees are everywhere. There are petitions asking governments to resettle refugees. Much-needed money and supplies are pouring in, and that is truly a benefit that will make people’s lives better.
Why now? Why did the Church decide to “Be The Church” on a random day in August? What made that day more significant than any of the other previous 1,640-ish days since the Syrian Crisis began? Cute babies die daily in Syria. I’m not trying to be crass or to downplay the significance of those deaths; it breaks my heart that people can cause such damage to one another.
But where have you been, Church? Where have you been for the Palestinians? Where are you for the Afghans? For Iraqis, Somalis, Congolese, Myanmarese, Colombians, or Sudanese? Because from where I stand, it looks like you aren’t here for any of these, or as Jesus called them “the least of these.”
The least of these are mostly confined to their own countries, mostly out of sight, and definitely not affecting the West or Western culture in any way. But those Syrians… they have come to Europe. There are white people carrying the bodies of their dead away in front of white media, and white people are shocked. White people are sweeping in to take care of the poor people of color, white people making decisions, white people saving.
Is the Church really interested in being the Church, in being a servant to the hurting people of the world, in housing the homeless and feeding the hungry? This newfound passion has taken the Church by storm. It looks like a fad, like Christians have discovered the next cool thing to be on fire for, that will soon be forgotten. When was the last time you heard a Christian mention any of the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria? Did you know that Boko Haram is still kidnapping and murdering people? Remember when all of the truly devout Christians in America changed their social media avatars to the Arabic letter that is the first letter of the Arabic word for Christian, to honor all the Christians in Mosul, Iraq who were being massacred? It was so important!
This movement to provide for the Syrian refugees is not an organically-grown movement. It is a public relations campaign that catapulted itself into existence off the body of a dead baby. It is a campaign of shock and awe– shock at the realization of the masses that babies are dying horrible deaths, and awe at the incredible spending power of Western Christianity. I do not see the “We Welcome Refugees” people coming alongside the servants who have been working to assist the Syrian refugees for the past four and a half years. I don’t see this new force even granting the benefit of a mention to the countless NGOs who started the movement to support Syrian refugees. The Church is once again using its financial power to control the lives of the less fortunate, and is steamrolling those who actually have been “being the Church.”
“Be The Church” is giving Christians a quick and easy means to feeling good about themselves, but it lacks the relational component that is necessary to keep the short attention span of the West focused on people who don’t look or dress like them. The Western Church will show us what it means to be the church: it will burn hot and fiery for a short period of time, and then it will find something else with which to entertain itself.
The Syrian Crisis is going to continue to be a crisis in October. It is going to be a crisis in 2016. It will still be a crisis in 2026, and for decades after. This isn’t a problem the Church can fix. It is one of the most complex social issues facing the world today, and it is one that will outlive my children, and possibly my grandchildren. If the Western Church is going to have any lasting effect on the lives of refugees, it needs to ditch its Saviour complex and learn from the people who have been battling this crisis since the beginning.
*excerpt from the poem “Home” by Warsan Shire,
you can find the entire poem here.