Is it five or six or seven years now? As the years roll on in the Syrian conflict, dates and anniversaries grow vaguer. We’re losing count of just how many years it’s lasted. It just starts to feel like a long, long war that’s been going on for a long, long time and is never going to come to an end. What’s the point in even counting the years any more?
And yet, here we are six years on, still despairing at a country torn apart by a civil war playing out on our TVs, laptops and iPads. At times we can feel like a passive audience watching a Shakespearean tragedy, as the scenes unfold, death and destruction pile up; and all we can do is helplessly look on.
I feel I barely have words left. I’ve written articles, signed petitions, marched against the UK bombing of Syria and hosted prayer vigils. I’ve read what feels like hundreds of stories of those on the run, displaced and forced to live in temporary camps across the Middle East and Europe. I’ve met Syrian refugees at the camp in Calais desperately searching for a life free of fear and conflict. I don’t think I can write much beyond what has already been said about the pain and horror; I probably can’t move you more than you have already been moved.
Maybe we are beyond words.
The opening of Pete Greig’s significant and popular book on suffering, God on Mute always powerfully struck me. In it he describes the pain he and his family endured when his wife was diagnosed with a brain tumour. He writes about praying like a man falling downstairs; when the only words he could get out were, ‘Oh, God’. It reminded me that all those times when I’ve cried myself to sleep over heartbreak or watched a news report that has left me speechless or screamed out to God, ‘Why?’ Those ‘Oh, God’ prayers were just possibly the deepest and most honest kind I could have uttered.
Perhaps in the same way that the Spirit intercedes, now is the time for groans not words: ‘In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans’ (Romans 8:26).
‘Wordless groans’ seem like an apt way to respond to the seemingly endless nightmare continuing to evolve in Syria.
Beyond words, images may help us grieve, lament and hope in a country which could well be hell on earth. And yet, however dark and overwhelming the situation is, surely we can cling to this powerful image: ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it’ (John 1). If ever there was a verse for these times, could this be it?
Can we look for the dimmest, flickering light in a country cast into blackout, where millions have no access to even the most basic necessities like food and electricity? The light, we are told, can never be put out. Never. Not even after six years of a bloody war, leaving 13.5 million in desperate need in their own country and five million refugees searching for sanctuary around the world; where children are being forced to man checkpoints, trained to use weapons or trafficked out of refugee camps and into exploitation? Do we have the courage to look into the abyss for long enough to see the light?
It’s not easy; and we’ll have to dig deep for different images and stories from what we see and hear rolling out on the news channels every day. But just in the last few months I’ve heard of churches on the ground in Aleppo, in spite of the dangers, distributing food to the most vulnerable, of young Syrian peacemakers being trained to help bring long-term reconciliation in their communities and the generous love, welcome and compassion shown to refugees living in Lebanon through local Christians. The Church is rising up and responding with profound acts of mercy: that surely is a reason to give thanks.
‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’ It might feel like a dim light, a pathetic one even – but it does shine and I chose to look for where God is working in Syria. Today, six years on, I refuse to believe all hope is lost.