Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Myth of a Safe Distance

Then the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people . . . and I have come down to deliver them (Exodus 3:7-8)

Last month during a two week pilgrimage in the Holy Land, our itinerary took us to a site referred to in the New Testament as Caesarea Philippi. Today the site is called ‘Banias.’

Traveling to Caesarea Philippi takes you into the mountainous region of extreme northern Israel called the Golan Heights. On this day our guide and driver navigated a narrow road that led to a scenic overlook, allowing us an expansive view into Syria. This place is designed for tourists, complete with a gift shop and refreshment vendors. Signs marking the Syrian border were only a few yards away from where we stood.  

What we saw from that mountain belied everything I had been hearing in the news about Syria. The day was bright and warm, the skies were clear, and the view that stretched out in front of us appeared calm, even inviting.

The view was beautiful. Until we heard the explosions.

Our Desire for Distance
Initially I wasn’t sure I had heard what I thought I had heard. But soon the sounds came again, and then again, and on the far horizon a plume of smoke was rising. This otherwise picturesque scene was marred by the sights and sounds of war. What had previously been only a brief news report was now very real to us. We were looking at a ravaged land. What Americans regard as a horrific anomaly happens every day in Syria.

I’ll never forget the sights and sounds of those explosions. And I’ll never forget my reaction to what I heard and saw. I wasn’t afraid. None of us were directly threatened by what was happening. Some of our group spoke with UN observers there who were watching with stoic and objectified interest.

More than fear I felt a sadness, quickly followed by a strong desire to leave. I just wanted to get away from that place. I wanted to get back to the calm waters of the Sea of Galilee, the comfort of my hotel room, and ultimately back home. I wanted to put as much distance between myself and Syria as I possibly could.

Of course, millions of Syrians are trying to do the very same thing.

The Enemy of Justice                      
Distance can take a variety of forms. The most obvious is literal physical distance. Damascus and Atlanta are separated by a large ocean and more than six thousand miles. I can hear about what’s happening there, feel concern and sympathy, while also feeling removed and grateful that it isn’t happening here. Distance can also be emotional. You can be right in the middle of something and yet be disconnected, aloof. You’re there, but you’re not present.

The Hebrew prophets admonished God’s people for failing to do justice. Distance doesn’t look like hostile disregard for others, but it allows us to be aware without being impacted. For this reason, distance is the enemy of justice.

The attacks in Paris over the weekend disturb us not only for the tragic loss of life involved, but for the loss of our imagined distance from the reach of threat and danger. There are awful things happening in this world, and we want all the distance from them that we can get.

But to truly do justice requires getting close, getting involved, getting in the mess of our unjust world. That’s not to say you need to go to Syria. There’s plenty of mess right where you live. Our God is not a distant God. God sees the plight of his people and hears their cries. God may not act as speedily as we wish – but neither will he remain aloof and removed from this world.

Distance is the enemy of justice. How will you walk with God through this day, drawing near to what is broken, bringing wholeness, doing justice?

Merciful and just God, you draw near to those in affliction and those who walk with you must do the same. We confess that we prefer a safe distance that lets us feel concern without getting involved. Grant us the courage we need to draw near to our broken world, bringing the wholeness and justice that comes through Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.   


Mimi said...

Thank you. I have been telling my friends to read Exodus since Paris bombing and shooting. You drive the point home.

Mimi said...

Thank you. I have been telling my friends to read Exodus since Paris bombing and shooting. You drive the point home.