Saturday was a Day of Prayer for Syria. I got the news from several sources – from our own denominational Council on Christian Unity out of Indianapolis, and from an Eastern Rite Roman Catholic Church here in the Metroplex with whom I have had some dealings in the past. The priest from that Eastern Rite Catholic Church made some interesting points in his pastoral letter to his congregation –
Pope Francis has issued a special call to all Christians, peoples of all faiths, and every person of goodwill to join him on Saturday, the Vigil of the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos (Mary – the Mother of our Lord), observing it as a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria. I ask everyone in our parish family to join this call and participate in some way, through fasting and prayer, on behalf of the suffering people of Syria. This call is especially pertinent to us, since – even as you read this – our own government is debating the possibility of entering the conflict. We Byzantine Christians should also have a special concern for the people of Syria. In ancient times, Syria was an important center for the development of our own Byzantine religious tradition. Many of our saints, including St. John Chrysostom, were Syrians. Even the beloved Paschal hymns which we sing at Resurrection Matins came to us from Syria. The descendants of these Christians are still maintaining an important Christian presence in Syria and the very existence of that community is now threatened.
Biblically, Syria was where the Apostle Paul was heading when he got converted (Damascus), and it was where he first ministered as a Christian (Acts 9:1-25; Galatians 1:15-24). Many of the Eastern Christian theologians whom I have been reading in recent years as part of my own spiritual development have been Syrian – especially the writings of St. John of Damascus who wrote extensively on two subjects of particular interest to me, icons and Islam, and those of St. Ephrem the Syrian whose Lenten Prayer guided our own spiritual journey as a church through the 40 days of lent earlier this year –
O Lord and Master of my life, give me not the spirit of sloth, meddling, lust for power and idle talk. But grant unto me, Thy servant, a spirit of chastity (integrity), humility, patience and love. Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see mine own faults and not to judge my brother. For blessed art Thou unto the ages of ages. Amen.
Syria may seem remote to us, a world away. But spiritually, Syria is an important part of Christianity’s native soil, and there is a sense in which who we are and what we believe as a church today is the fruit of a tree whose roots, at least in part, are Syrian. And so, the great suffering of the Syrian people these days is the suffering of some of our distant spiritual relatives. The horrors of what they are going through right now should affect us generally as fellow human beings. They are people with whom we share the image of God, and it is part of the Divine Order of Creation that we guard the image of humanity against all the assaults of inhumanity because it bears the image of God (Genesis 9:6). But in a deeper sense, because of our spiritual kinship in Christ, at least historically, what is happening in Syria is happening to our brothers and sisters.
I have been challenged by what the Wesleyan theologian Howard Snyder wrote in his book A Kingdom Manifesto (IVP – 1985) ever since I first read it more than 30 years ago –
A commitment to the Body of Christ, the church throughout the world, surpasses our allegiance to our own nation, political, or economic system or ideology. …Today too many Christians put their national, racial or economic identity above their identity as citizens’ of Jesus’ new order. This is simply wrong. It always leads to supporting nationalistic or economic priorities over Kingdom priorities. We must come to an awareness of God’s kingdom community as one people, one nation, one new race throughout the world, with one primary allegiance to Christ our King. National, military and economic conflicts look much different from this side of the fence. …When we identify more with suffering Christians in Africa, or El Salvador, (or the Middle East) than we do with (our fellow Americans), we will know that we are beginning to catch a kingdom vision. (119)
I remember when Bob Stewart our Area Minister for so many years here in North Texas went to Rome with his good friend, Bishop Charles Grahmann, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Dallas, for a meeting of the Focolare Movement, a movement committed to the visible unity of Christ’s church just as Jesus prayed for in John 17:21. At this meeting Bob was assigned the Roman Catholic Bishop of Baghdad in Iraq as his daily prayer partner. They spent time together each day in prayer as Christian brothers from different churches and from different countries. A spiritual bond was created between them that changed Bob’s perspective when the first and second Gulf Wars with Iraq broken out. Because Bob had a spiritual “brother” in that war zone, he could not be a disinterested or dispassionate spectator to the conflict that was being waged there. Bob’s concern for the Bishop of Iraq and the people of his flock was personal. It wasn’t “them” that was facing the shock and awe of our nation’s military might, it was somebody who was an “us” to Bob: somebody with a face that Bob had beheld, a name that Bob had spoken, and a hand that Bob had held in prayer, and that gave Bob pause in the drumbeat of the build up to that war and its prosecution. And praying for the people of Syria these days, while not as personal as Bob’s experience, has the same feel to me spiritually.
I don’t know what we should be doing as a nation about the atrocities that are being committed by both sides in the Syrian Civil War. All I do know is that spiritually these people who are being slaughtered by conventional and chemical weapons are my brothers and sisters, and that their suffering both horrifies and diminishes me. God, have mercy on us all. DBS+