I’m writing today on the international day of prayer for Syria, called by Pope Francis and answered by Christian leaders around the world, including Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I. The current news in Syria has focussed on chemical weapons attacks, which cause a particularly heinous kind of suffering for any affected by them. These attacks, though, are only the most recent atrocities in years of increasingly steady fighting – fighting between the government and rebels of varying origins and loyalties. Throughout the fighting, though, thousands upon thousands of unarmed civilians have been caught in the crossfire or intentionally slaughtered. Thousands upon thousands more have been displaced across Syria and into neighboring countries as refugees. The phrase ‘thousands upon thousands’ is easy to read without grasping it, but if you take a minute to count out loud -1, 2, 3, 4, 5… – and picture a person that you know personally for each number, then you’ll begin to feel a number like 1000.
In addition to the crisis in Syria, there’s a crisis in world policing procedure we’re experiencing because of the difficulty of determining the best course of action for the world powers to take. The consequences of military action from powers outside Syria are nearly impossible to predict, and it appears that most people favor erring on the side of not dropping bombs or putting boots on the ground. But the consequences of not intervening are equally impossible to predict. It seems inevitable that horrific suffering will continue either way.
And here, in the middle of widespread suffering within Syria and a sense of confusion and helplessness without, the most visible Christian leader in the world has called on all Christians to devote today to fasting and prayer for Syria. The significance of prayer to an atheistic or religiously indifferent culture may be lost (though ‘well-wishing’ and ‘sending good thoughts’ are often happily accepted), but nothing could come more naturally to the Church. Her Lord has already conquered the greatest enemy of the world -death- by entering into it and crushing it from inside. It’s to the Lord over death that we turn to when death seems powerful to us.
But if death has been conquered, why do we still die? We as Christians believe the finality of death has been removed; death no longer gets the last word. Christ walked right back out of death after having entered it willingly to take away its strength. Death might still bite us, but its venom has been dried up. It has even been the mark of a Christian to identify with Christ in his triumph over death by entering death as he did: victorious in humility, and confident in God’s power over it. That’s why martyrdom is counted a blessing, and even when martyrdom is not bestowed on a Christian, whatever death he is granted he reckons a victory in Christ. Thus the true saint, holding onto nothing at death but Christ, can rest in peace until the resurrection and vindication at the end of the world.
But the Christians’ confidence in the ultimate death of death and their hope in the resurrection is no escapist, pie the sky coping mechanism. It is neither a way to rationalize nor neglect the ongoing reality of bodily death and suffering in the world. Death, though ultimately defeated, still thrashes and fights and bites. It is still evil, and evil is still the enemy of Good. So we confront it, unafraid of what it can do to us. Just like our Lord showed us how to do, we feed hungry people, visit and heal sick people, replace rags with clothes and repay insults with good deeds. And just like we don’t confront death itself in our own power but rather rely on God’s power, we don’t do the least good deed as if by our own strength or power either. It’s God who works in us. He is the source and cause of all victories over suffering and death, even when we offer our selves and our resources as the vehicles of his working.
But especially where we are unable to carry ourselves and our resources to act directly in the work of alleviating suffering, we turn to the source of power to make it happen. We still participate in the work by bringing our desire to see it done -our participatory pain- to God in prayer. God is certainly not afraid to act on his own, but he loves to delegate good work to his creatures, always for their salvation and fulfillment. For the salvation of ourselves and more so of Syria, let us ask the Lord to act today. Let’s pray for fighting to cease, for the international community to insist on dialogue and negotiation as a way forward instead of warfare, and for those working to bring aid and assistance to the suffering to be granted access and to be well equipped. Let’s also pray that the peace of Christ, a peace which towers above our understanding, will be borne through his saints into all the world.
Consider participating in bringing aid to the refugees of this conflict monetarily at World Vision.