Behold, Your Little Ones

[Cross-posted from Letters from the Vineyard]

We set great wreaths of brightness on the graves of the passionate
who required tribute of hot July flowers—
for you, O brittle-hearted, we bring offering
remembering how your wrists were thin and your delicate bones
not yet braced for conquering.

The sharp cries of ghost-boys are keen above the meadows,
and little girls continue graceful and wondering.
Flickering evening on the lakes recalls those young
heirs whose developing years have sunk to earth,
their strength not tested, their praise unsung.

Weave grasses for their childhood—who will never see
love or disaster or take sides against decay
balancing the choices of maturity.
Silent and coffined in silence while we pass
loud in defiance of death, the helpless lie.

–Song for Dead Children
by Muriel Rukeyser

Aylan

My tears have been my food
    day and night,
while people say to me all day long,
    “Where is your God?”

–Psalm 42:3

Wondrously show your steadfast love,
O Savior of those who seek refuge
from their adversaries at your right hand
–Psalm 17:7

And he spake unto the multitude, and said unto them: Behold your little ones.And as they looked to behold they cast their eyes towards heaven, and they saw the heavens open, and they saw angels descending out of heaven as it were in the midst of fire; and they came down and encircled those little ones about, and they were encircled about with fire; and the angels did minister unto them.

–3 Nephi 17:23-24

I saw my little boy in the dead Syrian child, 3-year old Aylan Kurdi, that washed up on the shore in Turkey yesterday. They’re about the same age; my youngest, Galen, is 4. Their body types are similar, in that way that all small children are almost jarringly the same. Our quest to become ourselves as we mature means that we mark ourselves as separate from others in particular ways. But small children are so remarkably alike (not identical but alike) in their movements and their bodies, so nearly universally transparent and unguarded in their emotions and responses to stimuli. Perhaps that is one reason why it so easy to see the face of a child you know in a child you don’t. We understand that children are in need of particularly close protection and care because of their physical and psychological vulnerabilities, but perhaps in addition to that basic fact, this is a reason why images of children suffering and dying are so profoundly devastating: that to see one child suffer is to see all children suffer.

AbdullahThe image is dreadful, even (maybe especially) when you know that it is but a fractional representation of other atrocities that are right now occurring with regard to the Syrian crisis and other awful events going on all over the world. Perhaps you, like me, cannot stop thinking about it. Perhaps you, like me, find it difficult to work and to concentrate; the photo has almost literally arrested you and you find yourself in a state of semi-paralysis (and there are far more images of children from the Syrian crisis that will haunt you mercilessly). You find yourself obsessively searching for all references to the story. You learn that Aylan’s 5-year old brother and mother also perished in the sea, along with 3 other children. That his father, Abdullah, upon arriving on shore, barely a survivor himself, sat on the beach for hours, completely devastated. It’s not true that one cannot imagine being in Abdullah’s shoes. Surely most of us cannot speak from that kind of experience, but we all have broken, half-healed parts of us that reach out in solemn understanding to those who are being torn apart. It’s often the only way we can connect with those who otherwise are utterly alien to us.

There is a terrifying ordinariness about events like these. They occur with such frequency that if we could truly grasp all that is going on in the world just today we would surely lose our minds, to say nothing of all of human history. Mourning and lamentation are surely appropriate responses, and I’ve turned to these themes againand again in my writings.

But I also reflect on our obligations as human beings in the face of desperate suffering. We come to these stories as privileged, in the sense of relative immunity, experiencing the benefit of living as an audience for a narrative rather than being participants in the awful drama. And this distant observation deck threatens to devolve into a theatre of the absurd if we do not understand the full ramifications of what we are seeing and understand what our humanity (and in many cases our religion) requires of us, and why we cannot turn away–from these images, and certainly not from the events that produce them.

Syria’s crisis alone is a human disaster of enormous proportions. Its refugees are seeking asylum all over the world, and politically violent, state-destabilizing conflict has been on the rise for a number of years. But climate change is increasingly contributing to violence, and is often entangled in political factors that lead to violent conflict. As drought, scorching temperatures, and failed crops pummel certain regions of the world that are already politically unstable, refugees and migrants will become more and more the norm, not the exception. The coming world is increasingly a world of homeless migrants and refugees, like Abdullah and his family. And many of the same kinds of forces that have driven people from their homes in the Middle East are the ones pushing people from the southern reaches of the Americas northward. There are very good reasons to consider both groups in the same categories.

One response to this is to build our walls and shore up our cities and militarize our borders. This is a position purely constructed on a scaffold of fear, but it is also not tenable in an increasingly interconnected and entangled world. Nevertheless, for those of us called to follow Jesus Christ, this is an impossible response. For the follower of Christ, the homeless, the weary, the indigent, the weak and ravaged, these are our people. Those are our children. Those cries stir these hearts or we are traitors to the life of Jesus and the promise we have been called to keep again and again to live as he lived and make him live again on this earth. Enacting and staying faithful to such a promise will always be, at minimum, deeply uncomfortable, and at times even dangerous.

But the good news Jesus taught was not the good news of personal prosperity and increasingly inventive ways to become ever more physically and emotionally comfortable. The news was good because it announced to the world that the kingdom of God wasn’t what awaited us after death if we were worthy enough, but it had come here, to dwell among those who needed it most, bloodied, bruised, but with us down here, at the bottom of all things, determined to heal and save. Those angels in the above scripture, called by Jesus, encircling the children in rings of fire? They are us. We are such ministers. And if we, in our strength and luxury, do not create a safe space for them, who will? If others turn them away (and they have) where will they go? We cannot stand or kneel before our God with such hearts.

But it is more than simply responding to calamity after the fact. We must always inquire into the conditions that set the calamity loose in the first place. Military machines, the tools of capital in the hands of a relative few, inter and intra religious disagreement, etc. Our ministry will be to shake these structures from the inside while we also tend to the lives that were thrown into and caught up in their awful machinery.

“Where is your God?” He is here. These hands, binding your wounds. These shoulders, bearing you up. These feet, running to meet you. These eyes, weeping tears over the deaths of your little ones. They are yours but now they are ours as well. And you are our brothers and sisters. Our home is your home. Welcome home.

“Since that day till now our life is one unbroken paradise. We live a true brotherly life. Every evening after supper we take a seat under the mighty oak and sing our songs.”—Extract from a letter of a Russian refugee in Texas.

Comments

  1. I’ve been thinking about the Nephites and how they gave up the land of Jershon for the refugee people of Anti-Nephi-Lehi. Mormon unhelpfully abridges the part about how these people were established there and what happened to the Nephites who (presumably) gave up their own lands so they could have safe homes. I suppose what we’re seeing in Europe is sort of like what must have taken place. Is there a land of Jershon for the Syrian refugees, or for that matter for all the other refugees? Syrian babies aren’t the only ones dying. I gave a donation to Oxfam, but it seems like a really lame response and did nothing to ease my uneasiness at having such a comfortable and safe life. If a Syrian family knocked on my door right now, would I take them in? I’d like to think I would, but honestly, I’m kind of relieved that it’s not likely that I will face that decision.

  2. it's a series of tubes says:

    These horrors are inflicted by men, not by the indirect actions of climate even if influenced by men. The inclusion of the climate change aside smacks of a personal agenda and distracts from the important message in this post.

  3. Thanks for writing this, including hinting at some of the underlying causes of this misery. Thanks also for linking to the even more devastating additional photos at the Atlantic. Now that the western press has opened the door to admitting what is really happening on Europe’s doorstep, let the floodgates open and let’s deal with these issues head on. The publication of these images has already sparked a concrete response in Canada and Germany.

  4. Oh my word, I was whining about my own life today, then I read this. Never mind my complaints. My life is fine, good, safe and peaceful. God forgive me when I whine, I have a life the world is mine.

  5. Tubes,

    The climate change inclusion–tying climate change to violence –is not agenda-driven. It’s a measurable, documented phenomenon in many regions of the world, particularly India/Indonesia and other locations, even the Middle East, though political violence often obscures this fact. The point of including it was not to show that humans affect the climate (though this is demonstrably true) but to show that it’s not political violence alone that is creating migrations and refugees.

  6. So beautiful Jacob. So heartbreaking, true, and important.

  7. Thank you, Jacob. I also see my 4yo son in that picture, and it absolutely guts me.

  8. I found myself avoiding the photo at the top of the OP. Curiosity gnawed & I scrolled back to look. No words. Only this Yeats poem echoing through my mind:

    “Come away, O human child!
    To the waters and the wild
    With a faery, hand in hand,
    For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.”

  9. Yesterday was filled with intermittent crying jags. I have two sons, 4 years and 18 months, and I spent the entire day hugging them tight and thanking God for all that I have.

    Thank you for the reminder that it is up to us to help each other in times of need. It isn’t enough to wonder why God permits these things to happen – the question is, why do I permit it?

  10. Such poignant writing; such heartbreaking conditions. Thank you, Jacob. This event reflected so eloquently in your writing has created some serious soul-searching. It’s time to act.

  11. My best friend as a child was Syrian. They immigrated to the U.S. My friend was born in the U.S. Her father was a medical doctor and the doctor for the largest high school sports teams as he loved American sports. When I see what is happening in the Middle East I think of my friend from long ago.
    Having buried my own children that photo was gut wrenching for me. I believe God is weeping at what is happening to the innocent children.

  12. The suggestion that climate change is the reason for the Syrian civil war and the resulting refugee crisis is absurd.

  13. Thank you, Jacob.

  14. That is not suggested.

  15. Again, please read (or re-read) the post, Farside. I’m not suggesting that climate change single-handedly caused Syrian civil war, but that it has and will continue to be a major factor in migration and civil unrest. There are numerous sources for this.

    And actually, here’s a link from what might be your side of the ideological divide actually confirming an extensive study on what climate change did in Syria specifically to contribute to conflict there, namely, that major drought and adverse climatological conditions caused 1.5 million (largely impoverished) people to move to cities, thereby contributing to geopolitical instability.

    http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2015/03/03/study-links-violence-in-syria-to-climate-change-driven-drought/

  16. Anon for this says:

    It happens to be our anniversary today, another one without children. I think I quietly teared up four times today thinking about this picture and this man’s story, losing his children and his wife.

  17. Thank you for your poignant reflection on this tragedy. I also see my 3 year old in this picture. Truly heartwrenching.

  18. Josh Smith says:

    I realize the picture is important to the point you’re making. And, I realize this is a blog and not a public news source. And, I realize you’re not using the photo for sensational purposes. But, to my mind the photo is not a photo for the public. It is too private. Too devastating. I wonder if there isn’t another way to make your point without posting this photo at the top of your article. It’s really too much.

  19. Josh, it won’t be there forever. But for a time, it is appropriate for us to witness, to mourn, and to be called to action.

  20. Thank you Jacob. This was important and so well expressed. Here is a nice explanation of the real and genuine role that climate change played in the current crisis: http://www.upworthy.com/trying-to-follow-what-is-going-on-in-syria-and-why-this-comic-will-get-you-there-in-5-minutes?c=ufb2

  21. Jacob, don’t get sucked into trying to explain the destabilizing effects of climate change to these people. They are impervious to reason and hostile to facts that do not fit their predetermined worldview.

    Anyone who really wants to get freaked out about climate change, do some Googling of military analyses of its strategic threat.

  22. About what Steve Evans said above: I debated whether to include the photo as well. This is actually a debate today in the media, with most organizations defending their inclusion of the photo, partly on grounds of the fact that not all controversial photos are controversial in the same ways (there are differences between this photo and photos of people being tortured, for example). It’s definitely disturbing, even haunting, and as context for the post, appropriate for that very reason. But, I think at a certain point it could become voyeuristic, which would of course be inappropriate, which is why a limited time frame for it to appear at the top was probably best.

  23. That story has haunted me. The photos are devastating and last night after traveling for several days – I read this post during my flight home – I sat down with my own 2.5 year old daughter where she asked me to read some stories to her at bedtime. One of the books was Tasha Tudor’s “First Prayers” which left me dripping with tears as I finished this particular prayer from Charles Wesley “Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild”

    Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,
    Look upon a little child;
    Pity my simplicity,
    Suffer me to come to Thee.

    Fain I would to Thee be brought,
    Dearest God, forbid it not;
    Give me, dearest God, a place
    In the Kingdom of Thy grace.

    Put Thy hands upon my head,
    Let me in Thine arms be stayed,
    Let me lean upon Thy breast,
    Lull me, lull me, Lord to rest.

    Hold me fast in Thine embrace,
    Let me see Thy smiling face,
    Give me, Lord, Thy blessings give,
    Pray for me, and I shall live.

    Lamb of God, I look to Thee,
    Thou shalt my example be;
    Thou art gentle, meek, and mild,
    Thou wast once a little child.

    Fain I would be as Thou art,
    Give me Thy obedient heart;
    Thou art pitiful and kind,
    Let me have Thy loving mind.

    Let me, above all, fulfil
    God my heavenly Father’s will,
    Never His good Spirit grieve;
    Only to His glory live.

    Thou didst live to God alone,
    Thou didst never seek Thine own,
    Thou Thyself didst never please:
    God was all Thy happiness.

    Loving Jesus, gentle Lamb,
    In Thy gracious hands I am;
    Make me, Saviour, what Thou art,
    Live Thyself within my heart.

    I shall then show forth Thy praise,
    Serve Thee all my happy days;
    Then the world shall always see
    Christ, the Holy Child, in me.

    I can’t find the exact words from the book online but suffice it to say my young daughter turned to look at me with concern as my voice broke mid-read. I smiled at her so as to not frighten her and she reached out to dab away my tears with her little pudgy fingers. All I could see in my mind was that image of young Aylan lying in the sand and the fear that gripped him in his last moments and I prayed for his poor father and so many like him.

  24. Thanks for sharing that poignant hymn text, eponymous.

  25. Yes, thank you eponymous. And thank you to everyone who has gone to the effort to comment. These have been haunting days. May we do what we can where we can and continue to educate ourselves about the conditions and systems in the world that bring these tragedies about.

  26. When I saw the photo it jarred me, as it was supposed to do to everyone. It is being used and exploited for the wrong reasons. It is tragic the boy lost his life, but the death is on the boy’s fathers head. I know I will be attacked for what I say next.

    The dead boy, Aylan Kurdi, is being exploited by his own father, Abdullah Kurdi. Mr. Kurdi’s story is falling apart. He has been found to be lying. The family lived in Turkey for three years, food and housing provided by the Turkish government. The Kurdi family was not in a war zone. They were doing very well. Mr. Kurdi saw an opportunity to get to the West by abusing the “war torn, persecuted refugee” symbol. He sent his wife and children alone, from Turkey, knowing a single woman with children will get refugee status easier. He was not travelling with them, he was not on the boat. After the family got settled then he was to come.

    It has also been proven that thousands flooding Europe are not true war torn persecuted refugees fearing for their lives. Most saw an opportunity for a free ride to Western countries. There are reports from Poland and Hungary that the “refugees” refused and are refusing, the food and water because it comes from the Red Cross and not the Green Crescent. The refugees wanted Muslim food, and demanding Green Crescent supplies amongst other demands. They poured out the water and threw the food on the ground. Most are being very demanding. Now, would a starving, thirsty person, fleeing for their very lives, throw away good food and water and demand things? They should be relieved to be safe, and understand the strain all the people are putting on resources. Most stories are suspect.

    I believe the Coptic Christians and other minority Christians ARE being persecuted and tortured/killed. They need to be saved because being Christian makes them an easy target. I am not saying some Muslims are not suffering. But it is being shown that thousands are not true refugees escaping death and war torn areas. They saw an opportunity to get a free entry into the West, voluntarily left their country, playing victim, and are abusing it, and making things worse for the ones who really are in danger and lost every thing, and really need help.

    I am all for helping any one in need, regardless of ethnicity, race, religion, or country of origin. All of us come from immigrants. We have to be careful believing what the media reports, we have to look for the truth in stories before we act, we have to make sure everything we are told is accurate, and not a lie to further an agenda.
    A good example of media lying and showing bias is when the Ferguson shooting happened. Everyone jumped on the bandwagon that the officer was a cold blooded killer, shooting an innocent “boy”. The media did not exercise caution, did not wait for facts, and lied. Look how that turned out. And there are a lot more stories like it. There are countless reports in the media that are furthering an agenda, and the Kurdi story is one of many.

    So help the refugees, just be careful where you put your money, don’t believe everything you read from the media. Get the facts before reacting and giving money.

    Thank you.

  27. it's a series of tubes says:

    Jacob, don’t get sucked into trying to explain the destabilizing effects of climate change to these people. They are impervious to reason and hostile to facts that do not fit their predetermined worldview.

    Owen, with regard to facts that might not fit your predetermined worldview WRT ISIS: have a read through “The Terrorists of Iraq: Inside the Strategy and Tactics of the Iraq Insurgency 2003-2014” by Malcolm W. Nance. If/when you read it, you will have a foundation for reasonably informed discussion on these points.

  28. “A good example of media lying and showing bias is when the Ferguson shooting happened. Everyone jumped on the bandwagon that the officer was a cold blooded killer, shooting an innocent “boy”. The media did not exercise caution, did not wait for facts, and lied. Look how that turned out. And there are a lot more stories like it. ”

    Yes, look how that turned out.