For the last fourteen months the crisis in Syria has carefully evaded the lives of most. There have been no successful viral campaigns to raise awareness of the events transpiring in Syria and while there have been a bevy of articles detailing the horrifying situation there, my twitter feed shows few non-reporters discussing the situation at all. Blogtown has been somewhat quiet on Syria compared to Kony, sex trafficking and last years Egyptian revolution. Recently CNN called the crisis in Syria “…the biggest news story in the world“. But the American public seems to be largely unaware, with “The Walking Dead” finale drawing more google searches than Syria recently. Which raises the questions: what is going on over there? And are we missing something?
It all started last January right around the same time that Tunisia, Egypt and others started to (mostly) peacefully, yet forcefully protest the regimes that held their homelands with an iron fist. As happened in Libya, when the Syrian government got wind of the protests they promptly sought to quiet the pesky protesters. In some places the government would compromise a few insignificant things, like the Egyptian cabinet’s resignation during the Arab Spring last year, in order to appease the protesters, but not in Syria, where somebody on the public relations team must have decided that slaughtering the opposition would have a similar effect. So that is what happened.
Prime Minister Bashar al-Assad came down on the resistance with a swift, heavy hand. What started as shooting and arresting protesters last year around this time has quickly degraded into a civil war where, as Time Magazine has noted, “rules of war do not apply and where civilians are facing a savage massacre”. While much of the gory details are unknown, since journalists are simply not allowed in and nobody is allowed out, many around the world are very concerned for the people of Syria.
Today, the Free Syrian Army (the army fighting against the Syrian dictatorship) and the Syrian military still loyal to al-Assad continue to beat each other to a pulp with little concern for rules of engagement or collateral damage. According to the most recent sources, the ancient capital city of Damascus is on the brink of erupting into chaos and bloodshed. All of this making for possibly the bloodiest civil war since Yugoslavia imploded about twenty years ago. Yet with the crisis in Yugoslavia and other global issues of the same time period and scale, public awareness in the United States was extremely high, since the war was well covered and a perpetual headline on top news networks during the worst of the conflict.
So what exactly is it that seems to be separating the devastating reports from the psyche of Americans like me? Some might say that Americans are just self-concerned, which may be true for some people, but it fails to account for spikes in activism and awareness in recent months (remember #kony2012?).
I think the answer is the exact opposite: Americans are aware of everything! Think about it: we not even need to search individual websites anymore to find our news; our twitter feed compiles everything right there for us. Most of us unknowingly consume more media, news, and culture in one day than the Boomers would (or could) in three weeks! And the reality is that we live in a truly broken world. Everyday there are reports of Treyvon Martin’s murder, drug violence in Mexico, child soldiers in Africa and finical meltdown in Europe being delivered to us on every news site we visit.
Naturally this exposure changes the psyche of the consumer (you and I); while most of us are not surrounded by violence physically, we grow in some ways numb to the horrors of humanity. We simply do not have the capacity to handle all of this bad news. We know something is wrong, but to become engrossed and involved in every single tragic news story would overwhelm us emotionally, spiritually and finically. Scholars have been studying this phenomenon for about half a century and recently with the advent of social media, the effects of this desensitization have only increased. A study entitled Comfortably Numb by scholars from the University of Michigan and the University of Amsterdam has come up with this chart (below) to understand the desensitization process.
While I do not agree with every step and outcome of this chart (I do not think that violence in media is new, nor do I think that leads directly to increased aggression) and it was designed to address predominantly fictional violence, this is a good place to start understanding why Americans are going numb to real violence around the world. What other options do we even have other than numbing ourselves towards humanitarian crises and war crimes? Nobody can handle all of the world’s problems emotionally nor can anyone be a great enough humanitarian to solve them all (or even raise awareness about everything!).
Many Christians are familiar with the verse in James that says “whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (James 4:17 ESV). Many feel the tension between this wanting to do right and being surrounded with wrongs un-rightable within our power. Most take one of two extremes to cope with this cognitive dissonance: law or license. The ‘law’ approach says that we must right the wrongs of the world and everyone must help us!! This manifests itself in pushy Christians that make you feel really terrible for pastoring in the U.S. and not in war-torn Sudan “because they really need it more”. It could also look like certain organizations producing viral videos that pull for a response based on emotionalism that leads to guilt for those that choose not to help and arrogance for those that do . This approach is all about ‘guilt to good’ and really just pushes people away from the good causes the person supports. While this approach may work for the Syrian crisis, it would not produce lasting awareness because it would not be based on fact, but emotion and guilt.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there is the license approach. This person is usually cynical about the state of the world, but in seeing the overwhelming need across the globe and their inability to help, they shut down. These are usually people who have failed to change the world by a ‘law approach’ and find the former to be quite unbearable. The licentious anti-humanitarian makes fun of the situations, making distasteful jokes about Africa being “Kony Island” or the ever-popular Facebook memes that ridicule the campaign (however terrible, this one is my favorite). What this person is really doing is seeking to hide from the issues that would (and should) break their hearts. The most hardened license practitioners will never even talk about negative issues, having perfected a worldview that encompasses little past their friends and family.
Today, both of these attitudes are forgetting the most important part of the Syrian crisis: the truth. The law says to be a humanitarian, to “open your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land”(Deut. 15:11), but when our land is now globalized and we are simply unable to physically, emotionally or spiritually, it is an irreconcilable moral curse. The truth is that Jesus has fulfilled the law for us, he “redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). This truth allows us to rest, despite the evil in the world, because we know that just as we have been reconciled to God, Jesus is in the process of “reconciling to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20). This brokenness is going to eventually give way to perfection. So in Syria, we are free to help, to raise awareness and to know what is going on, not because it is Up to Us to Save Them, but because Christ has freed us to take part in his work of worldwide reconciliation.
While many see the situation in Syria and will take a self-righteous ‘law’ approach and many more will simply let it harden their heart even more, the Christian is free to be informed and free to act. And while the situation in Syria will probably, sadly, get much worse, the truth is that eventually God has promised that it will get much better, “for this light momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17).