Images and videos of dead bodies are not meant for consumption. And it does not make you more empathetic or, in some twisted sense, spiritually stronger if you can view those images while others must turn away. The lives of the oppressed are not lived to make us better persons or more compassionate Christians.
What a shame it was, during the first week of September, when posting and sharing the body of a dead, three-year-old, Syrian boy to social media became a litmus test for progressive Christian empathy.
His name was Aylan Kurdi and he drowned, along with his older brother Galip and his mother Rehan, attempting to flee the privation and destruction brought about, in the greater part, by the military adventurism of the United States into the Middle East. Aylan, like all children, was possessed of infinite potential – grief and rage are the only acceptable reactions to his death.
Aylan’s body is not a tool to be used to feed our own need for spiritual vindication or even to reinforce the much-needed work of aiding the oppressed. His image was splashed across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram where it became fodder for finger wagging and self-aggrandizing proclamations. Part of justice work is the necessity to speak for the dead, but at all times, we must protect the inherent dignity of life and be mindful of those holding out in daily struggles against suppressed trauma.
The continuing influx of migrants into Europe testifies to the terror of their conditions. They showed a willingness to suffer in internment camps and to subject their children and loved ones to dangerous circumstances in order to seek a new life. With them, they brought tearful testimonies and the memory of those left behind.
Their tears were denied until some material proof of agony was provided – until there was something that could feed into the Western spirit of mass consumption.
How dare we not listen to their tears? How dare we demand proof of their oppression? How dare we use said proof to amplify our own voices and cries for social justice?
Remember the story of Thomas, one of the Twelve Apostles, who refused to believe the claims of his fellow apostles. Thomas demanded evidence – his empathy required that he experience the bloodied flesh of the oppressed with his own hand – the story of the resurrection could not become reality until it was intermingled with his own narrative. Thomas needed something that he could feel, hold, and in some sense consume, before he could believe.
And let us remember Christ’s response to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe (John 20:24-29).” We as Christians are called to believe the persecuted and abused.
We do not reserve our love in the face of pain.
And Paul calls us in Hebrews 13:1-2, to approach strangers with both hospitality and humility. Belief is our sacred duty and we must rebel against the materialistic call of the world when it comes to the needs of the migrant. We can never be sure when God is present among the dispossessed.
My favorite folksong is called “Wayfaring Stranger.” In it, the narrator expresses the universal experience of woe, sickness, and danger that is the world we live in. The narrator then expresses the heavenly hope of deliverance, and that the life of the Christian is a pilgrimage to a freedom beyond measure.
The second verse of the song goes:
I know dark clouds will hover o’er me
I know my pathway is rough and steep
But golden fields lie out before me
Where weary eyes no more will weep
I’m going there to see my mother
She said she’d meet me when I come
I’m only a-going over Jordan
I’m only a-going over home
I believe that Aylan will see his mother again and that his brief life had meaning before his body was commodified and that his spirit of hope will persist long after the shock of his image is replaced by a fresher example of brutality.
Our compassion must be grounded in the shared human experience of separation from the Divine. Ego and certainty are the enemies of the incarnational work of providing hope and refuge. We are all strangers and migrants on our way home.
Foster J. Pinkney is a writer, student, and organizer from Columbus, Ohio. He is a recent graduate from Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York and started attending the University of Chicago Divinity School in September 2015, to study for a PhD in Religious Ethics.