Today, I had my first class on the Trinity, one of the theology units I’m taking this semester.
In it was a young Iraqi Christian, a Chaldean Catholic who is studying for the priesthood.
As we went around and introduced ourselves, you could feel the heaviness in the room when he spoke.
We are suffering, he said simply, and no one will help us.
In that moment, I felt shame, helplessness and defensiveness all mingled together. All I want to do was to look away — it was too much to even think about. Because that’s what we do best, isn’t it?
Pretend it isn’t happening.
I felt ashamed of how we Christians have responded or rather, haven’t responded. I felt ashamed of how comfortable my life is and how narrow-minded my Christian faith is. I felt ashamed because in my comfortable and indeed privileged life, persecution is the furthest thing from my mind… while my brothers and sisters suffer it daily, moment by moment.
Their homes, churches, livelihood, and cultures destroyed…
And I wrapped in cotton wool, I willingly pull the wool over my own eyes.
I tried to think of what I could do to make it better but everything seems so little. How could anything ever be enough?
But today, I also read 1 Corinthians 4 where St Paul writes of his apostolic sufferings:
To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless, and we grow weary from the work of our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day. (1 Co 4:11-13)
But then he adds…
I am not writing this to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. (1 Co 4:14)
It started to sink in.
This sense of shame and helplessness has nothing to do with the Spirit of God.
This is a big part of the problem. We feel helpless to do anything and often that helplessness creates guilt or shame. There is godly guilt and a right sense of shame but these always lead to repentance, to peace and to doing good.
But if our shame paralyses us then it is not from God. It’s that simple.
A paralysing shame means it’s all about us: what I can do or can’t do in my own power.
As Fr Jacques Philippe notes in Searching for and Maintaining Peace often “we cannot bear the suffering of others because we are afraid to suffer ourselves. The reason is that we, too, lack confidence in God.” (If you are at all prone to anxiety, I can’t recommend this book highly enough. I bought the Kindle version about 6 months ago and I’m still re-reading it every week. (It’s also available in paperback.))
It was exactly what the devil wanted. He’s knows he can’t get us not to care so he goes in for a more cunning plan. He uses compassion against us and convinces us that if we can’t do a great good, then there is no point in doing any good at all.
He doesn’t care why we don’t do good as long as we don’t actually do it. Whether it’s heartless apathy or paralysing shame makes little difference to him as long as he can keep us distance from the peace and power of God.
As Christians we are helpless in and of ourselves but — and this ‘but’ is everything — we have a mighty Helper.
I lift up my eyes to the hills —
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth. (Psalm 121:1-2)
St Paul wrote not to shame the Christians but to admonish them as beloved children whose help is in the Lord.
What if, instead of focusing on me, I chose to trust my Father and started acting like a beloved child in the household of Love?
What if I knew I shared the one Father with countless beloved brothers and sisters? What if I truly believed that God hears the cries the oppressed, can bring peace and healing in horror and redeem even the greatest suffering? How then would I respond to their suffering?
I would do what I can, however tiny it seemed.
- I would change my profile picture to the sign of the Nazarene. It might seem pointless and that no real good can come from it — but “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” If we are Christians then we believe it must.
- I would go to a protest like the one happening in Sydney on Saturday, 2nd August at 9am beginning at Central Station because if anything is worth protesting, surely it’s this.
- I would give money, however little, to the Assyrian Church of the East Relief Organisation’s Mosul Appeal or the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.
- I would pray, for example the Way of the Cross or the Rosary. I would pour out my heart for these brothers and sisters of mine.
- I would fast and offer up my tiny sacrifices, knowing that my efforts might be infinitesimally small but my God is infinite and almighty.
And I would honour my persecuted brothers and sisters. I would replace this shame for myself with honour for them.
Because truly, they deserve to be honoured as do all who suffer for sake of Christ. Theirs is the kingdom of Heaven, theirs the rejoicing with the saints, theirs the glory and blessing and theirs the life eternal in the arms of the Father who will never forsake them.
In all this, let’s not forget that on that Final Day, it won’t be we who will be praying for the persecuted Christians of the Middle East.
They will be interceding for us.