I have a long list of tasks that require my attention this afternoon, but like many others no doubt, my mind keeps drifting back to an image of a little boy on a Turkish beach. A little boy who, along with his brother and mother and father set out on an unsteady boat toward an unsteady future. A little boy who, along with his brother and mother, never made it to his destination. It shouldn’t take a picture like this to move us all, I know. There are horrible things happening around the world every day. And the image of a little life cruelly cut short should never be used as click bait.
But that picture… Christ Almighty, that picture!
Speaking of Christ Almighty, I’m thinking often these days about the words that he spoke about who and how his followers are supposed to love. I think about some of his most famous words, which were actually words that he borrowed from the Torah: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
It sounds so simple, but there’s a lot going on in those few words. For starters, based on other things that Jesus teaches, we can come to a few conclusions about what’s included in that important word “neighbour.” We can quite safely assume, for example, that…
- My neighbour does not need to look or sound like me.
- My neighbour does not need to be someone who I feel nicely disposed toward.
- My neighbour does not need to demonstrate an appropriate level of industriousness or measure up to some standard of “worthiness” as defined by the ones who get to make the rules and control the purse strings.
- My neighbour does not need to share my religious convictions.
- My neighbour does not need to occupy the same rung on the socioeconomic ladder.
- My neighbour could easily be my enemy.
Basically, Jesus doesn’t give me much wiggle room when it comes to defining who fits into the category of “neighbour.” Which is not always very convenient. But Jesus is pretty clear about this. My neighbour is my fellow human being.
My neighbour, today, is Abdullah Kurdi.
And so, how might I love this dear neighbour as myself? Well, for starters—a bare minimum for practicing what James describes as the “royal law” (James 2:8)—it would seem to require an ability to place myself in Abdullah Kurdi’s shoes, to imagine what the world looks and feels like from his perspective. I cannot love my neighbour as myself unless I am able to imagine that my neighbour and I are, on some level at least, the same—that my neighbour is not some curious incomprehensible “other” but a human being just like me.
So, let’s give this “as yourself” business a try. Abdullah Kurdi and I are the same age. We are both husbands and the fathers of two children. We both love our families very much. So far, so good. Abdullah comes from Syria. I come from Canada. Abdullah’s country and his hometown has been devastated by a “civil war” (an idiotic term, if ever there was one). Mine has not. So I must do some more intentional imagining here…
I imagine my hometown devastated by bombs and gunfire. I imagine my house reduced to rubble. I imagine trying to decide what I would do if I had no home. I imagine the streets that I have walked for long years being patrolled by soldiers. I imagine the local grocery store a few blocks away with little food on the shelves. I imagine suddenly having to compete with other desperate citizens of my town—people I had grown up with, played soccer with, attended community events with—for scarce resources.
I imagine leaving home with my wife and my kids. I imagine leaving behind family and friends, trying to figure out where we would go, what we would do, trying to understand which options were open to us and which were not, trying to navigate complex and labyrinthine government regulations about who gets to go where and when. I imagine roads being closed and gas stations having no fuel. I imagine looking anywhere and everywhere for some kind of refuge.
Abdullah and his family ended up on a beach in Turkey. They ended up in some inadequate boat trying to get to some uncertain shore.
And then, they were in the water.
And then they were drowning.
And so I now have to imagine myself in choppy waters listening to the screams of my two children, children with names like “Nicholas” and “Claire”—children with smiles and stories and futures—who are thrashing around in the water, gasping for breath. Children who are screaming, “Dad, don’t die! Don’t leave us!” Children whose last memory will be of their dad being unable save them. I have to imagine looking over at the body of my wife, floating nearby.
I can’t imagine these things without taking deep breaths and gulping for air. But I have to imagine all of these awful scenarios if I am going to understand this “as yourself” business Jesus is always talking about. I have to imagine these unspeakable things happening to me if describing Abdullah Kurdi as my neighbour is to be anything more than convenient lip-service offered from behind an untroubled fence of comfort and privilege.
And, of course, I have to do more than imagine things to fulfill this royal law. I am going to have to do something. I am going to have to play some part, however small, in loving this neighbour of mine and countless others like him. And to know what I might do, I am going to have to imagine what I would want my neighbour to do for me if I was in a desperate situation like the one faced by Abdullah Kurdi.
I imagine that I would want people with power and influence to do what they could to bring peace to my country. I also imagine that I would want my neighbours to open their doors and welcome me in. I imagine that I would want my neighbours—whether near or far—to understand that I am a human being just like them, that I am not trying to take what’s theirs or screw their government or drain their economy, but that I simply want to be somewhere safe, for my children to have a future. I would want them to know that I was desperate and grief-stricken, and that I wouldn’t be doing this unless I was out of other options. I would want them to know that it’s not easy to ask for help, but that I had no other choice.
It doesn’t take much imagining along these lines for it to become quite evident that the “royal law” that Jesus is always going on about isn’t some arbitrary external imposition that makes unexpected and unwelcome demands upon us. It is rather an invitation to pay attention to what actually can be as natural as breathing. It is to look at a picture of a boy on a beach and to see your own child. It is to look at the tears of a father and imagine they were your own. It is to look at the pain of another and imagine it was you.
Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
— Jesus of Nazareth
This article is part of a September Synchro-Blog on the Middle-Eastern Refugee Crisis at: http://mennonerds.com/special-blog-series/mennonerds-speak-on-the-refugee-crisis/