I woke this morning to news that pro-Assad forces were leading an assault on the city of Aleppo in Syria, in the hope of wresting control away from rebel forces who have held part of the city for nearly four years. There were reports of civilians, including children, being murdered in the streets and widespread brutality and carnage. NPR reported that there may be as many as 100,000 people still in the devastated city. And across social media, citizens who remained in Aleppo filmed farewells, unsure if they would ever make it out of the city alive. The UN has been unable to act to evacuate survivors because of Russian dissent, and the unwillingness of Western governments to commit troops to the effort, though it seems that a few hours ago, (as of this writing) a tentative cease fire was reached, and a plan for the evacuation of civilians from the remaining rebel-held areas was called for. I am praying that those people remaining will be safely evacuated, and that most of those farewell videos won’t be necessary.
As I watched video from Aleppo, and listened to the reporting on the ground, I was struck suddenly with an image of Jericho, that story in Joshua of the Israelite’s “victory” and the subsequent slaughter of all the city’s inhabitants. It seems to me that the narrative in Joshua, and the description of the toppled city walls, must have looked something similar to present day Aleppo in the minds of the authors. From Joshua:
“On the seventh day they rose early, at dawn, and marched around the city in the same manner seven times. It was only on that day that they marched around the city seven times. And at the seventh time, when the priests had blown the trumpets, Joshua said to the people, ‘Shout! For the Lord has given you the city…” … As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpets, they raised a great shout, and the wall fell down flat; so the people charged straight ahead into the city and captured it. Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys.”
I heard this story told as one of triumph when I was a child. I was instructed to look at the miraculous victory God had provided for the Israelites. I don’t remember reflecting too much on the divinely sanctioned genocide that follows the tumbling of the walls, but such is the way these stories are told. But, this is the story that suddenly jumped into my mind as I watched the coverage from Aleppo this morning. I imagined the fear of the citizens of Jericho; that their families outside the walls might never see them again, that they may not make it through the day. I thought of the shock and terror a parent must feel at the sight of their murdered child. Suddenly, this story felt monumentally different, because I was now confronted with the real horror of the story in the images from Aleppo. But, there is no message about a benevolent God taking sides in Aleppo. There is no meaning to be plucked from the very real apocalypse being faced by the Syrian people. There is only abundant and continuous violence.
At a staff meeting this morning at the congregation where I work, we reflected on the Christmas story, and on the name Immanuel; God is with us. We were asked to consider what these words mean for us. God is with us. All I could think about was Aleppo, and the Syrian people. I thought, “I have no idea what meaning these words have for me in a world where that level of violence can take place”. I considered all the answers that I was supposed to give. God is with us when we care for our neighbor. Or, God is with us when we forgive someone. Or even, God is with us in the midst of tragedy. But, I couldn’t bring myself to say any of those. They felt wholly inadequate. They felt like lies. I’m not attempting to get into some kind of “problem of evil” conversation. For me the problem of evil belongs to humanity, not to God. What I was troubled by was the language of God is with us, when the world just simply doesn’t seem to allow for that.
I’ve mentioned before that in the season of Advent there is a tacit admission that the world is not right as it is. If it were, we wouldn’t await the arrival of a savior with such fervor and anticipation. A savior simply wouldn’t be necessary. Our world is hurting, and as such we await the coming of Christ, trusting in the hope of a future world of possibility. But that waiting isn’t necessarily going to be joyful. Not only that, but as we wait for Immanuel, for God is with us, we may actually feel instead the utter absence of God. The abandonment of God. The Bible is loaded with language for this feeling of lack. The Psalmist cries out, “How long O Lord? Will you forget me forever?”. And in Habakkuk, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?”. Even Christ on the cross cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. There is a fear among Christians to admit that often in our lives we are feeling abandoned by God, and that we experience a world that routinely reflects the seeming absence of meaning of any kind.
This is the absence I felt as I watched the coverage from Aleppo this morning, the modern-day Jericho. I cannot imagine the absence the people of Syria are collectively feeling as the fighting continues, and more and more people are killed or displaced. Not only that, but so many refugees face rejection and persecution in those places that are meant to provide sanctuary. The U.S. has been locked in a political battle for years about whether or not to allow Syrian refugees into the country, based on some irrational fear that we will inadvertently smuggle in terrorists along with them. Are the Syrians supposed to express some kind of feeling that God is with them in the midst of all this suffering? Are we, from a distance, truly comfortable professing that God is present despite the reality on the ground? What might happen if we allowed ourselves during this season of Advent to experience that feeling of absence, of abandonment. What if we forgo our need to avoid the troubling theological implications of suffering, oppression, and injustice? What if, rather than quickly reminding everyone that things will be OK once Christ appears, we put on ash and sackcloth and cry out “Where are you God?!”.
We are living in a frightening world, and in some ways this season of Advent is perfectly timed. The world is broken, as it has always been, and we need saving. We await the coming of Christ, not as some magical repairman, but as a vision for the future world of possibility that we hope for. We remind ourselves that “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30). This is our hope, but our hope must not suppress our true feelings of absence and abandonment, but must spring from them. This absence may also remind us that the world’s brokenness does not mend with our inaction and our silence. We can lament God’s distance while bringing ourselves ever nearer to our neighbor, and the victims of violence and oppression. We can cry out “How long, O Lord?”, while creating safe spaces and sanctuary for those who have been displaced here and now. Let us offer comfort and safety, to the best of our ability, if it seems that God is not, and in this way, we may get a glimpse of the hope we are waiting so desperately for.