Chemical weapons. Napalm bombs. School children slaughtered. 100,000 dead. Violence in a most raw way pierces our otherwise sanitized media reporting and shakes world consciences as collectively we ask, “How did this happen, again?”
Talking with a close friend in the anti-mass atrocities community, he has repeated these past months that no one in government, no one in nonprofits, no one anywhere knows how to respond. All the writing, scholarship, plans, programs, funding, and political will conjured up by those who cried, “Never Again!” after the Holocaust, Cambodia, Rwanda, Serbia, Darfur…the litany is unending, and all this is for nothing. The Syrian regime and the Syrian rebels persistently assail life without true challenge.
We simply cannot think up, never mind agree on, a viable solution to end the killings and begin a path to peace. This war and violence a world away brings spiritual turmoil in my deepest recesses. I am terrified with my personal inaction, with America’s apathy for three years, with a world paralyzed in the face of evil incarnated in massacres and gas attacks. What to do? It seems simple to affirm military intervention because it is something, rather than nothing. I know that it won’t lead to peace though, only greater destruction. The haunting question, “How to promote peace and nonviolence in Syria?” remains.
For guidance, I turned to the Sisters of Loretto. First called the “Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross,” compassion is an enduring trait of this religious community who have been present on margins of all types. The word “compassion” is rooted in the Latin for “co-suffering” or “suffering with,” and this is precisely what so many Loretto sisters and co-members have offered to the world for two centuries. Educating ourselves is a first step, but we must follow by entering into others’ suffering through prayer and spiritual companionship. This is how we can be like Mary at Christ’s Cross, unable to cease his pain or to prevent his death, but radically present as he endures suffering. It is what I hope to offer to the people of Syria in my prayers.
Yet, Loretto members would fault me for ending there. Prayer has implications that lead us to work for justice and act for peace, and the African proverb “When you pray, move your feet” is one lived out by these sisters and co-members. Coupling compassion with practical plans to seek change is not optional. But how to act when Syria is oceans away and my limited voice cannot change the course of an Obama administration bent on making war? Again, I look at the Loretto Community for guidance.
Many sisters are now retired (technically, because nuns never stop witnessing to God’s love) at the Motherhouse in Kentucky, leaving behind careers and communities that altered our world for good. New circumstances have not stopped them from living peaceful witness, building up sustainable lifestyles, speaking out for justice (see their campaign against the Bluegrass Pipeline). These sisters educate me deeply in how we can live at the foot of others’ crosses even from a distance. Instead of focusing on my own impotence regarding Syria, I must focus on what I can do in this moment, this day, this weekend to create a peaceful planet.
Here’s what I conclude from all of this. Tonight, as I follow reports on Syria and keep pestering government leaders to walk us back from war, I will continue with my weekend plans. I will switch over from chemical cleaning products to homemade green ones. I will build up relationships with some new friends over dinner. I will join other Catholics at Mass on Sunday and pray, pray, pray in every moment. I will celebrate past labor victories this weekend, present of how much work remains. I will act for justice and work for peace where possible, and where I cannot I will sit like Mary, like the Loretto Community, at the foot of the Syrian people’s crosses in prayerful, present witness.
It is not a perfect fix, nor a solution to Syria (or the larger problem of mass atrocities and political violence), but it is what I can offer in this moment. I welcome your thoughts, criticisms, and suggestions on how we respond to suffering when we cannot directly alleviate it or work to combat injustice.