Reuters – A girl carrying a doll sits on a step of a building in the Damascus suburbs of Arbeen, Syria.
There’s all too often a sense, with stories about about Syria, and Aleppo in particular, that nothing changes. The airstrikes and mortars, the futile attempts to bring peace, the latest diplomatic setback: it’s essentially the same story with a different date.
Is there any point in telling them, or reading them? Will anything really change? And how, in the face of the enormous scale of the suffering there, can Christians remain prayerfully engaged with the situation and still continue to function?
Sometimes a story cuts through that sense of generalised awfulness and makes us weep. Here are some by BBC reporter Jeremy Bowen. In a piece about Aleppo’s children he writes about an eight-year-old boy named Hani Jadid, whose right arm had been amputated above the elbow. His four cousins were killed by the shell that maimed him and he was being sent home, still in agony from his wound – an hour’s drive by taxi.
Or there’s seven-year-old Rawda al-Youssef, who was sitting with her family outside eating dinner when she was shot in the back. The family didn’t even hear the shot. Now she’s paralysed.
Or then there’s the middle-aged dentist, Mohammad Marzen Saboni, whose wife and two-year-old son were killed by a rebel shell. He may not walk again. By him in the next bed was his nine-year-old daughter Mayar, also with both legs in plaster.
One estimate is that 11.5 per cent of Syria’s population – 1. 9 million people – have been killed or injured since the first shots were fired in Deraa in the south of the country in March 2011. One death is a tragedy, Stalin is supposed to have said; a million is a statistic.
And that’s the problem. These stories of Hani, Rawda, Mohammad and Mayar might move us to tears, but multiply them by millions and we can’t take it in.
So how should we care – and how should we pray? The ease with which images and stories are shared around the world nowadays means that we can be bombarded with calls on our compassion. The good thing about this is that we can never say that we just didn’t know. The bad thing is that our feelings of sadness or shock can take the place of real, engaged compassion and commitment, as though feeling sad or sorry about something can actually achieve something. At its worst, this turns us into voyeurs, who get an emotional jolt from other peoples’ pain. So here are five things to help Christians respond to tragedy in a Godly way.
1. Turn sadness to prayer
Praying for a person or a situation means that we are redirecting our sense of helplessness. We are placing a hopeless situation into the hands of God. We can’t see how it will work out, and we can’t even be too specific in our prayers. But prayer is an expression of hope in God’s future. It says He can change a situation, even if we can’t see how.
2. Turn prayer to action
We have to choose our battles. We can’t engage with every worthy cause; sometimes we have to say, ‘No’, and leave an issue to someone else. But just as feeling sad can be a dead end without prayer, so prayer can be a dead end without action. At its worst, it can be a substitute for doing something concrete, a quick tick-box exercise that lets us off any responsibility for doing something. When we think about Syria, we realise we can’t do much. But we can give to a charity, and we can stay informed about what’s happening.
3. Take hold of the near edge
Situations like Aleppo are too big for us to visualise. There are too many people, there’s too much politics and there is too little clarity. But we can visualise Hani, Rawda, Mohammad and Mayar. Giving a conflict a human face and praying intentionally for these people helps stop us praying in a sterile, generalised way for something that’s terribly urgent and human.
4. Don’t lose your outrage
What’s happening in Syria is wholly against God’s desire for his creation. Every death and injury is an insult to Him. The failure of the world to stop it, and the cynical use of rebels and regime to fight out a proxy war, is disgraceful. We are to be inspired by anger as well as love.
5. Don’t stop believing
Faced with death and destruction on such a scale, it would be easy to conclude that God was not interested in peace and was not involved in achieving it. For some, these terrible situations are evidence either that God doesn’t exist, or that he is impotent to change things. But this isn’t how believers there see it. For many of them, His presence with them in their distress is what helps them survive. Honour their faith by sharing it.
Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods