Epiphany literally means “to shine a light upon.” As we enter the Epiphany season, let’s shine a fun light on the Middle East, since the Epiphany commemorates, among other things, the journey of the Wise Men from Iran across much of the Middle East to Bethlehem, led by the light of a star. We read the Gospel story of a couple forced by an oppressive foreign occupier to travel despite advanced pregnancy, so the occupier could have more accurate tax roles to exploit the occupied. The couple and baby are then forced to become refugees due to the cruel, violent action of the local despot. Is it surprising the same alliance of authorities later executed the young man who had been the baby, since he became a troublemaker who told inconvenient truths about them? Reading the story, it is only “gospel,” i.e. good news, because of the action of God in these events, transforming this sordid account into wonderful news.
We thus can only trust that the earth, even the Middle East, is the Lord’s, and like the Prodigal Son’s father, we can trust him to save us, in his love, even when human behavior is rotten, as were the Prodigal and his brother (see Luke 15:11-32). You can also trust that human behavior has not changed in the intervening 2000 years.
With that in mind, since America is now immersed in the area, we begin by shining a light on the U.S. involvement in Syria. Hang on!
The U.S. is opposed to the government of Syria, which in 2011 was a secular (i.e. not Islamic) republic providing reasonable prosperity for a strong middle class with pretty good schools and total religious freedom. Why is the U.S. really opposed? We are not told. But the situation our government has led us into is clear even if the motives are not, and would be comic if not for the awful impact it has had on millions of people.
So keep hanging on as we take a wild spin through who is “on first:”
1. Our opposition puts us on the same side as the Turks, fellow NATO members but with a fundamentalist Muslim government.
2. It puts us on the same side as the secularist Kurds, who the Turks violently oppose and internally oppress and are fighting against in Syria.
3. It puts us on the same side as ISIS, who are also fighting to overthrow Assad (the Syrian President).
4. The U.S. is simultaneously fighting ISIS, as are our allies, the Kurds, Turks and Saudis.
5. Fighting ISIS likewise puts the U.S. on the same side as the Iranians and Russians, both of whom make Americans phobic, as well as the Syrian government and the rebels against the Syrian government, the “Free Syrian Army,” which is dominated by “al Nusra,” a fundamentalist Muslim force a little less violent than ISIS.
6. The U.S., together with the Turks and Saudis, supports the “Free Syrian Army,” in trying to overthrow Assad. Our other allies, the Kurds, as well as the Iranians, Russians, and the Syrian government, plus the Lebanese Hezbollah are fighting these rebels.
7.The rebel group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, a former al-Queda affiliate, is fighting everyone.
Thus, the U.S. is in the middle of what Mexicans call a “lucha libre,” a free-for-all.
All this has caused millions of mostly educated, middle-class Syrians, to flee, first to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and then to Europe and Canada. The U.S., which bears its share of blame for the crisis, refuses to accept more than a tiny number. It is part of the American popular mantra that all Syrians are Arabs, all Arabs are Muslim and Muslims are terrorists, or wish they were. Little noted in the U.S. is the suffering of the large 2000 year old Syrian Christian community, well represented among the fleeing millions.
Are you confused by this brief overview? Good. That means you grasp the situation. Nor will this be clarified for you on the evening news. Americans are more comfortable with clear delineation between “good guys” and “bad guys.” But think again of the two brothers in the Prodigal story. There are no “good guys” in the story except the father, who represents God. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”(Romans 3:23). There is no “good” side, including our side. But real people are being hurt. Someone has to speak for them, even if it is not politically correct to do so. U.S. policy in Syria is so confused it could help most at this point by leaving it to others, who better understand the dynamics. “If you are in a hole, at least stop digging.”
This “epiphany” is offered in memory of Archbishop Hilarion Capucci, a Syrian who died recently, one-time Melkite archbishop of Jerusalem (Melkites are Arab Christian Uniates, part of the Roman Catholic Church, but with their own liturgical and cultural traditions). Most of us would not see him as a total “good guy.” But, to quote Hannan Ashrawi (a Palestinian Christian and member of the PLO Executive Committee); “He embodied the activist church- spiritual leaders who were prepared to translate their principles into action and struggle against injustice. He became an icon to Palestinians.” When you act, you enter the fallen world. The imperfections of martyrs and saints (all of them also sinners) should neither be excused nor allowed to detract from what they achieved. Many people act from flawed or evil convictions. This is not about them, be it Hitler, Stalin or garden-variety local apostates. Instead, this is the story of an imperfect human being who nevertheless served his Lord, as an orthodox believing Christian.
Martin Luther commented that it is better to “sin boldly and ask for forgiveness even more boldly.” Modern martyrs and prophets such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemoeller, Martin Luther King (whose memory we celebrated Monday), and the thousands of “new martyrs” in Russia during the Soviet years, to name a few, took Luther’s advice. God does not place us on earth with a call to vegetate. Action, even when imperfect, is better than turning your back when the Father’s children are being hurt. Archbishop Hilarion, thank you for caring enough to try to help the least of these.