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Photos Not Taken

It’s been quite a week. The photo. The frantically updating news stories, the backtracking when the facts turned out to be less factual than we hoped, the politicking, the mud-slinging, the blaming and shaming and holier-than-thou-ing. The frenzied recirculating of the same articles from the same sources by click happy, guilt-ridden technophiles.  The endless liking and sharing that we reflexively do when we don’t know what else to do. The [shudder] piled up blog posts from anyone with an hour to kill and an opinion or two.

And, on a local level, it’s also been quite a week. Not surprisingly, our little ecumenical refugee project has received more phone calls, emails, Facebook messages, requests for radio interviews, and offers to help than at any point in our journey thus far. It’s incredible, what a photo can do.

But on this dreary, rainy Saturday morning, I have to confess that I’m feeling a little frustrated by it all. I’m frustrated by how long it is taking for the Canadian government to process the refugees bound for Lethbridge. I’m frustrated that our country isn’t doing more. I’m frustrated that this photo is being used to flog political parties and agendas.  I’m frustrated by how easily we slide into false dichotomies (either we open our doors or we address the problems in Syria!).  I’m frustrated that real human lives, real names and faces, real hopes and futures are at the mercy of mind-numbing bureaucracies, that people must wait for months and years for a few signatures on a few pieces of paper.

But maybe most of all, I’m frustrated that it takes a photo of little Alan Kurdi lying dead on a beach to get our attention. To get my attention. The photo didn’t really provide us with any new information, after all. It’s not like we didn’t know that people were dying in the Mediterranean in desperate attempts to escape desperate situations. It’s not like we didn’t know that some of those people were children. And it’s not like we didn’t know that the Syrian conflict had been laying waste to countless thousands before that photo on that beach showed up on our computer screens. We knew all of this.

But that photo…

And we also know that once the Internet moves on from Alan Kurdi—and it will, inevitably, move on—that there will be other children dying. There will be other frantic, desperate parents willing to face unimaginable decisions to get out of impossible situations. We know that right now—right now!—there is another little boy, or another little girl dying. But there won’t be a picture of this little girl. She’ll die anonymously. They’ll be no inspiring videos and share-able memes in honour of her. There’ll be no somber politicians using her as campaign fodder. She’ll die just as she lived—one face among countless others whose desperation barely registers on our radar.

Or, maybe not.

One of my deepest convictions as a Christian is that it matters a great deal what we do when nobody’s looking. Do not do your good deeds to be seen, Jesus said. But we’re not great at this. At least I’m not.  There’s little that we enjoy more than having our good deeds or our good opinions or our good whatever seen. This is especially true in an online world where it seems that somebody’s always looking, waiting to pat us on the back for our compassion, waiting to praise or condemn us for our politics or theology.

But maybe we can do better.  I think we can.  And we must.

The measure of our response—as Christians, as human beings—will be what we do when the image of Alan Kurdi’s little body fades from our screens and our collective consciousness.   What will we do when the situation seems less obviously desperate? What will we do when dying children and grief-stricken fathers fade into the category of generic human misery and suffering that provides the constant backdrop to our lives?   What will we do when the world’s gaze turns elsewhere?  Will all of this frantic good will still be around?

I hope so. I hope that we will be a people committed to doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly along with Jesus the refugee, even when there’s no heartbreaking photo to grab us by the throat, even when all we have to go on is the unheralded human suffering that never goes away.  I hope that we will have mercy to spare for the photos not taken.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Renita Hamm #

    Ryan, perhaps you’ve read this address by Brian Stewart. It’s from way back in 2004, but it gives affirmation to the individual and organized work of Christians around the world in very dark situations. Here’s the address:

    Your “little ecumenical refugee project” is a case in point. Thanks for consistently guiding us and everyone around you to look at those desperate places. Stewart writes: “I’ve found there is no movement, or force, closer to the raw truth of war, famines, crises, and the vast human predicament, than organized Christianity in action. And there is no alliance more determined and dogged in action than church workers, ordained and lay members, when mobilized for a common good.”

    I’m so grateful that a photograph can arouse a global empathic response. And I’m grateful I live in a country with a department of immigration, that is being called to action (especially before an election).

    But I think Stewart would argue that Christians, more than politicians or the media, provide the best possibilities for those wanting to act when they see images of a boy on the beach or a girl fleeing napalm bombing or a little girl dying of starvation in Ethiopia.

    September 5, 2015
    • I had not read this piece by Stewart, Renita, but I thank you for sharing it! What a great address. I was particularly struck by this quote:

      In my mind I was struck by some words tolling again and again, like a bell: “Even here,” churches seemed to say “Even here,” however remote or wretched or dangerous. “Even here” we will be by your side, even to the end.

      I can think of few better words to be spoken of the church. What inspiring words for all of us who name ourselves among Jesus’ followers, to be spurred on to doing good works, regardless of what the politicians decide, regardless of when the media moves on.

      Again, thank you. Appreciate you sharing this.

      September 5, 2015
  2. Thanks again for your wisdom. Shared on FB

    September 6, 2015
    • Thank you kindly.

      September 6, 2015

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