Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Herod’s Willing Accomplices: Celebrating Christmas in the Shadow of Aleppo

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Everyone has their breaking points, the moment when all consideration of decorum, diplomacy or dialogue, simply ends.

In 1994, Canadian diplomat Louis Gentle reached his.

Gentle worked in Banja Luka in Bosnia for the UN Commissioner for Human Rights.

The Serbian military, along with their Bosnian Serb paramilitary allies, were ploughing through the country in a storm of atrocity, ethnic cleansing, theft, rape, torture, and killing.

Gentle had been relaying reports to his superiors in Geneva and New York of events on the ground- horrific, pornographic events, as only events in the context of the former Yugoslavia’s disintegration could be horrific and pornographic.

He was beginning to get the impression that he was being ignored.

Every day, he looked his Bosnian Muslim neighbours in the eyes and tried to communicate that he knew, he understood, but that his position demanded that he observe, document, report, relay… but not take sides.

And it was making him spiritually sick.

Finally, on 14 January, he wrote a letter to the New York Times:

The terror continues, terror of attacks by armed men at night, rape and murder, children unable to sleep, huddling in fear behind boarded up doors and windows. The latest victims were three Muslim residents of the Banja Luka suburb of Vrbanja on December 29. In broad daylight, four armed men (two in uniform) entered the home of a couple, 58 and 54 years old. The man was shot in the head and killed, his wife was shot in the hand and then beaten to death with a blunt instrument. A Muslim neighbour, who had the courage and misfortune to inquire what was happening when the murderers left carrying a television set, was shot in the heart at point-blank range…

To those who said to themselves after seeing ‘Schindler’s List', “Never again”: it is happening again. The so-called leaders of the western world have known what is happening here for the last year and a half. They receive play-by-play reports. They talk of prosecuting war criminals, but do nothing to stop the crimes.

May God forgive them. May God forgive us all.


Banja Luka was over 30 years ago.

Aleppo is today.

And this is my breaking point.

The war in Syria, and dictator Bashar al-Assad’s brutal crackdown of those taking to the streets during the ‘Arab Spring’- remember the ‘Arab Spring’?-  crawls inexorably toward its sick conclusion.

Now, with the unlimited aid of the Russians and the silence of the American public- who just voted into office a man allied with the Russians and utterly indifferent to Assad- the end is all but inevitable.

And the city of Aleppo is being systematically killed off today. Today…

It seems both futile and absurd to try to convince people of the hell in which others are living; the very attempt just seems stupid, and I feel stupid doing it.

Aleppo is being destroyed, and everyone in the city is slated to die. The few remaining pockets of rebel-held areas endure shelling and airstrikes;

Doctors and other civilians continue to beg the international community to do something- anything- to stop the fighting.

They’re wasting their time, of course;

The ‘international community’ does not care. Actually, they can’t manage the effort to ‘not care’; they simply shrug. The most the Syrian people can hope for is that we’ll shrug in a mildly frustrated way…

They are trapped in a small area with no food.

(Jesus, could any American even imagine having no food? Not even Bread? Pringles?)

No water, no functioning hospitals…

What’s it like to have nowhere to go while your daughters broken leg goes septic on Monday, goes black by Wednesday, and she can’t speak with fever by Friday, is comatose by Saturday, and stops breathing Saturday night?

The last road out of the city has been continuously shelled. No one’s allowed to get out. Iranian-backed militias and Syrian regular forces- all with Russian weapons, intelligence, and endless aid- are going house to house, rounding people up, or summarily executing those they find.

Understand: the Syrian regime wants there to be no survivors. They want an historic victory over any and all who opposed them.

They want these people dead, publicly dead. And they’re killing them.

What’s it like to be waiting to die? What’s it like to have to choose between staying where you are and being killed by the shelling, or give yourself up to government forces and be tortured to death?

The UN is calling the situation a ‘meltdown of humanity’. The US ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, told the Security Council late on Tuesday that the Syrian government, with unlimited aid from Russia and Iran, bore almost full responsibility for the rape of Aleppo. ‘Are you incapable of shame? … Is there no execution of a child that gets under your skin? Is there literally nothing that shames you?’

The short answer is no.

‘Save us, people. Save us, people, world, anyone who has even a bit of humanity. We beg you, we beg you, the dead and wounded are in the streets and people’s homes have collapsed on top of them. Save us. Save us.’

That was from a doctor still in the city.

I cannot leave because I’m medical staff which means a terrorist in the eyes of the regime. I cannot forgive. It is better that God takes my life than to live in humiliation under those who murdered most of my family and my neighbours, and destroyed my country and street and robbed my home.’

That was from a nurse. Her father and brother- both civilians- were killed by artillery shells within a few hours of each other. 

People have been posting farewell messages on social media. Abdulkafi al-Hamdo, a teacher, begged on Twitter for the international community to at least do something to save the remaining children in the city:  

I can tweet now but I might not do it forever. please save my daughter’s life and others. this is a call from a father. (This is) the last massage [sic]. Thanks for everything. we shared many moments. The last tweets were from an emotiomal [sic] father.
Farewell, #Aleppo.

Why am I writing this? Why am I writing this now?

Honestly, I hope to ruin your Christmas.

There’s nothing to celebrate. How can we celebrate the coming of Emmanuel – ‘God with us’- in the shadow of Aleppo?

Do we expect God to help the people there? When we won’t? When we won’t even make the pretense of helping?

How do we celebrate Advent and the words of the Hebrew prophet-

‘The people who lived in darkness have seen a great light…’-

When the only light in Aleppo is the glare of shell fire?

How can we celebrate the birth of Jesus when the majority of white American Christians voted for a man who made keeping Syrian refugees out of the US a campaign promise?

Every word, and every proposed policy and action of our President Elect and every man he thus far has put around him leads inevitably to the assumption that he read the Gospel narratives of Jesus’s birth and concluded that Herod was the hero…

Do those American Christians who voted to keep refugees of war and atrocity out of the US honestly believe that Jesus is alive? That Christ lives?

That he sees us?

That he was a refugee? That his parents fled a butchering dictator? That he grew up with the stories of other families who ran as well, as men with weapons went house to house, butchering children as they went?

After Christmas comes the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the solemn remembrance of Herod’s victims. But how can we remember them when we refuse to remember Assad’s?

Who would have the blasphemous audacity to praise the name of Jesus and support non-intervention when the atrocity that almost killed him happens again?

To even try is to make ourselves Herod’s willing accomplices.

How do you do that? Honestly, are you insane?


‘God’, wrote Mexican theologian Elsa Tamez, 'is not indifferent to situations of injustice. God takes sides and comes on the scene as one who favors the poor, those who make up the masses of the people... God identifies with the poor to such an extent that their rights become the rights of God: ‘He who oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is kind to the needy honors him’ (Prov. 14:31)...'

Tamez roots the theological struggle for liberation in a prophetic vision that God himself makes a choice. Latin American liberation theology called that choice a 'preferential option' for the poor.

Now, at this historical moment, a good chunk of American Christianity is opting for the diametric opposite.

They have opted for the well off, the influential, the famous, the healthy, the strong...

'We are not in favour of a God who lavishes affection on the lost and the lazy!’

‘We spurn this God who opts for those to whom we have decided to be ruthless!'

I'm not sure who they think they're worshiping, but make no mistake, it's not the God revealed in the person of Jesus. It's a very different god altogether...

That is idolatry. It is blasphemy. It is anti-Christ…


What do we do?

How do we do theology;

How do we do Western corporate, consumerist, capitalist Christianity;

How do we celebrate Christmas;

How do we shop for gifts, choose the latest gadgets, cook mountains of food, drink gallons of drink;

While the death squads kill everyone in Aleppo?

And even if they escape, we don't want them living next door to us? 

I don’t think we can.

I hope that we can’t.

Armenia. Auschwitz. Ayacucho. Mi Lai. Sabra and Shatila. Halabja. Banja Luka. Srebrenica. Rwanda. Darfur. South Sudan. Aleppo…

How many times can we say, 'Never Again’, before God condemns us as liars?

In the shadow of Aleppo, there is nothing to do but turn our celebration into mourning.

In the shadow of Aleppo, there is nothing to do but turn our fetish for God’s blessing into a spirituality of confession… of repentance… of conversion… of begging forgiveness…

Take your money and give it to the International Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, Human Rights Watch…

The mercy of ‘Jesus the Refugee’, ‘Jesus the Survivor of Atrocity’, is our only salvation.

Renounce Herod. Be converted to God.

Embrace the God of life, liberation, and transformation.

We can no longer pretend. It’s criminal. It is blasphemous.

It’s got to stop…

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