I awoke this morning from what I thought was a dream, or nightmare. I had dreamt I was profoundly sad and on the verge of tears.
I saw in my mind’s eye the photo of a little boy who was a refugee.
He had drowned. His body washed ashore and was picked up by a Turkish gendarme.
I touched my arm and realized if I was dreaming I was now awake and the scene was not a dream, it is reality.
The body of 3-year-old Syrian, Aylan Kurdi, lying lifeless on a beach has galvanized the world to become aware of the refugee crisis in the Middle East.
News reports say his mother and sister died as well when their overloaded boat sank in rough seas. They were trying to get from Syria to Europe.
11 million Syrians have been displaced by war and more than 2,600 Syrians and Africans have died this year trying to make the crossing.
The most conservative estimate I’ve seen is that 20,000 people have lost their lives attempting to reach Europe from the African continent through extrajudicial means in the past two decades.
The Global Crisis
Opinions about the crisis abound. World leaders, particularly European politicians and policymakers, have ignored the humanitarian tragedy that’s been underway for years.
The U.S., neighboring Middle Eastern countries, and other civil leaders could have done more, sooner.
I am complicit, too. I wrote to leaders of my own religious community meeting in Europe asking them to speak publicly and they chose not to. And I did nothing more.
At that moment, I became part of the problem. One more inattentive, distracted, distant person whose empathy means little if it does not lead to action.
I awoke this morning to the guilt of my own complicity. And it’s painful.
There’s enough blame to go around. But blame won’t solve anything.
Nor will guilt. Guilt isn’t enough. It’s only useful as a motivator.
I hope the visual awareness that comes from that stunning photograph is motivation for millions to do more than feel guilty for a brief moment.
I hope, for example, that for those who, like me, try to follow the values that are in the teachings of Jesus, recognize that we are called to be citizens in a different way.
We are citizens of what Jesus called the kingdom of God. It is much greater than our neighborhood, state, region or nation.
To be in this kingdom is to be called to global citizenship, caring for and taking responsibility for how the dispossessed, vulnerable and voiceless are treated, no matter where they reside.
In this kingdom we are connected, and responsible for one another; even in the conflicted, messy, complicated, and difficult to understand world we inhabit.
The image of a lifeless child lying on a beach reminds us of the consequences when we forget this connection.
Jesus was clear about what it means to follow him. It means to live into this understanding of our global responsibilities and to act on them.
In explaining what is expected he said, “When you have done it (provided food, shelter, clothing, water, comfort) for one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done it for me.” (Matthew 25: 40 Common English Bible)
We have seen Jesus. His body washed ashore on a beach three days ago.
Making Personal Change
What must happen? First, I must change my interior.
It’s too easy for me to distance myself from the suffering of those an ocean away in a culture I don’t understand caught in a conflict so complicated I cannot fathom.
But I can understand the human suffering that results. This is a starting point.
In his current meditation series, Fr. Richard Rohr discusses the practice of tonglen as a pathway to interior change.
In tonglen we “breathe in” others’ pain, “so they can be well and have more space to relax and open, and breathing out, sending them relaxation or whatever you feel would bring them relief and happiness.”
This builds our awareness and also gives us insight into our own brokenness and need for wholeness. A quick read of his meditation gives a more complete description.
Championing Institutional Change
I believe I must advocate for a change in budget priorities including greater amounts for humanitarian aid and changes in foreign policies that seek peaceful resolution to conflicts over armed force.
In a commentary in The Guardian, Sabrina Hersi Issa writes: “To continue to under-fund, undermine and ignore humanitarian fallout from our military actions and foreign policy failings is moral malpractice. To do so because of xenophobia and Islamophobia is an even greater sin.”
There are many worthy organizations at work relieving the suffering. We can take immediate steps to support them with financial and material aid. Others are working on policy. And Pope Francis has called on Catholics across Europe to take in the refugees.
It’s clear that the systems that allowed Aylan to die are broken.
And it’s also clear that we who live in these systems are broken and must seek wholeness.
The way to healing is to seek change–individually and collectively.
We need not ask, as did those who followed Jesus centuries ago, “Lord, when did we see you?” We already know what we have seen. And who.