By: Dr. Sharon R. Fennema, Curator, Join the Movement toward Racial Justice
So we exhale sighs to deep for words as we read headlines with the latest death toll, we lift up prayers for our kin across the globe, we contribute to disaster relief funds, and we hope that somehow our contributions and prayers will ease the burdens of the survivors and help them rebuild their lives. When the hurt is so far away, what else can we do?
As the world community tries to make sense of the incredible destruction this earthquake caused, some analysts have pointed toward existing factors that made this natural disaster even more catastrophic. The regions in Syria that have suffered the earthquake’s effects are also the regions where much of the civil war in Syria has played out, resulting in buildings, infrastructures, and communities already weakened by years of bombings and fighting. And the most impacted areas of Turkey are also regions where huge numbers of refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria have made homes in whatever ways they can. (Of all countries, Turkey houses the most Syrian refugees, with 3.6 million people seeking a safe haven in the country.) So when an incredibly damaging earthquake met communities already made precarious by war and violence, the result has been ruinous.
While we might be aware of the Syrian refugee crisis and the conflicts that have caused it, we may be less aware of the ways the United States has been a part of those conflicts. As one AP news article put it, “The U.S. involvement in the war-torn country has shifted from working quietly behind the scenes to support rebels to overt displays of U.S. force and a gradually widening footprint in an attempt to shape the fight.” (Learn more about US interventions in Syria here and here.) No matter what opinions you may have about the variety of US interventions in Syria, the truth is that we have contributed to the violence experienced by communities there and have played a role in increasing their precarity. If we have had a stake in the conflict and a role in the violence, then I believe we must also consider our responsibility for these impacts and deepen our commitment to addressing them. We are intimately connected to these kin and their suffering.
Moments like these offer us an invitation to deepen our practices of transnational solidarity. While our prayers and direct aid are important and work to reduce harm, moving toward justice asks more of us. More than care, empathy or altruism, solidarity is an embodied form of mutual responsibility and reciprocity. As Rev. Mark Pettis, Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Manager for Wider Church Ministries suggests, “Our faith reminds us that we are connected with all of God’s people and the whole of creation. In the United Church of Christ, we are committed to living more fully into that connection.” Solidarity as a practice of connection requires relationships and understanding, going beyond a sense of “I want to help you in your struggle,” toward “I want to know you and follow you in taking up your struggle.” Transnational solidarity implores us to delve more deeply into our interconnectedness, recognizing the interdependence of our liberation and our shared roles in creating a just world, beyond borders and national identities. This is our calling as members of the Body of Christ and the human family.
Many of us are familiar with the fierce and tender oath that Ruth offers her mother-in-law Naomi at the beginning of the story of Ruth in our sacred scriptures:
“Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people
and your God my God.”
Often used at weddings, these words give voice to the kind of commitments or covenants we imagine between two people who love each other. But if we look more closely at their context in the book of Ruth, we can recognize that they are actually a passionate expression of transnational solidarity. Naomi is an Israelite, a refugee in the land of Moab, now returning to her homeland in the hopes of surviving. Ruth, as a Moabite, will be not only a refugee herself upon their return to Israel, but also a somewhat despised foreigner. There was a deep history of animosity between Israel and its neighbor Moab. But despite this history, despite the borders and national identities, Ruth stays with Naomi in her struggle to survive, knowing that her own liberation is bound up with Naomi’s. Her oath promises a kind of deep reciprocity, a profound knowing that will continue to be the heart of Ruth’s practice of solidarity. And this practice of transnational solidarity becomes part of the lineage of salvation, part of the unfolding story of redeeming love.
In the coming days, months and years, as we continue to bear witness to the mounting tragedy in Turkey and Syria because of this earthquake and the increasing needs of our kin to survive and recover, I wonder what it would be like to ask ourselves, what would Ruth do? Perhaps we can start by not turning away from the tragedy, even as media outlets and attention are quick to move on. And maybe we can take on the responsibility of learning more about the regions in Turkey and Syria that were impacted by the quake and the people who live there, listening to their experiences and stories and believing them. Perhaps Ruth’s example would lead us to learn more about our Global Ministry Partners in the region and the efforts of our church to continue to journey alongside them. And maybe we can follow our kin and take up their struggle by telling the Biden administration to lift sanctions on Syria to support earthquake relief efforts.
The movement toward racial justice is global in scope. The justice we imagine must be for all of us, across borders and national identities. Our struggles are intimately interwoven with the struggles of others for survival and flourishing. Joining the Movement means practicing transnational solidarity. How will you be part of this lineage of salvation, this unfolding story of redeeming love?
When we immerse ourselves in the struggle for justice and practices of transnational solidarity, it can be heartbreaking to pay attention to the enormity of tragedies and the scope of harms we encounter. These breath prayers are for those moments of overwhelm, for those moments when we want to withdraw or retreat into our privilege, for those moments when it seems like too much for a heart and spirit to hold. Take some time to breath deeply and center yourself, so that, grounded in the Breath of God, you can keep returning and leaning into this struggle and practice.
Inhale: God is my refuge and strength.
Exhale: A very present help in times of trouble.
Exhale: O God, I can’t. This is too much.
Inhale: Love me back into the struggle.
Inhale: Spirit hear my sighs.
Exhale: En-courage my breaking heart.
In Buddhist traditions, there is a practice called Metta or Lovingkindness meditation that invites practitioners to direct compassion or lovingkindness toward ourselves, and then in a series of expansions, to others and ultimately to all beings everywhere. The following communal prayer is inspired by this practice of ever-widening circles of compassion as a spiritual grounding for the work of transnational solidarity. (Learn more about metta practice here. There’s also a lovely sung version of Metta practice in Sing! Prayer and Praise #32)
[Led at a measured and meditative pace, with space for breathing]
In the name of all that is Holy, Just and Compassionate,
we lift prayers for ourselves: May God…
Bring peace to my spirit.
Open my heart.
Empower me to remember my belovedness.
Free me to know liberation.
We lift prayers for our friends, family, community: May God…
Bring peace to your spirit.
Open your heart.
Empower you to remember your belovedness.
Free you to know liberation.
We lift prayers for our enemies, those we struggle with, those who are hard to love: May God…
Bring peace to your spirit.
Open your heart.
Empower you to remember your belovedness
Free you to know liberation.
We lift prayers for all beings everywhere: May God…
Bring peace to all of our spirits.
Open all of our hearts.
Empower us all to remember our belovedness
Free us all to know liberation.
In the name of all that is Holy, Just and Compassionate, we pray. Amen.
Also, check out the song One Voice by the Wailin’ Jennys for a similar expression in a different way. (There are great arrangements of it for choirs!)
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