A picture of a young girl soaking in napalm, burning in flames during the Vietnam War. Dorothea Lange’s famous Depression-era photo of a mother staring intensely, while her two young children huddle against her. Chinese tanks lining up to challenge a single protestor in Tiananmen Square. A single body falling from the crumbling World Trade Center’s North Tower during the 9/11 attacks. U.S. soldiers committing torture at Abu Ghraib.
And more recently, the picture of a lifeless boy washing ashore on a Turkish resort on the Mediterranean.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Pictures change hearts and history.
The picture of three-year-old Alyan Kurdi changed responses to the massive throngs of migrants fleeing war in Syria.
I had heard about the picture of Alyan, but I did not want to see it. I refused to look at it for several days. But I was pushed by the words, “do you have eyes, and fail to see?” (Mark 8:18a)
So I looked at the picture, and it will haunt me forever. It will haunt us all.
Because the death of that baby didn’t have to happen. Aylan died as a result of the policies of people and nations.
After I finally looked at the picture, I read an article by Kevin Clark called “On Not Looking At Dead Syrian Babies.” It compelled me to look at more pictures of refugees who had drowned, fleeing the madness behind them.
I knew I needed to look at pictures of migrants who died trying to reach and cross our borders.
I saw photos of mothers remembering their sons who were lost as they sought sanctuary from violence, poverty and disaster. I saw pictures of unspeakable human suffering.
I did not want to see those pictures.
I thought about other things I didn’t want to see.
Michael Brown’s body lying in the street for hours, his family unable to tend to his lifeless body. Police suffocating Eric Garner in a chokehold, leaving him unable to breathe. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice shot dead by police with a toy gun. Sandra Bland so full of life one day and then somehow dead the next.
No one wanted to see those pictures.
Yet, I know if we hadn’t seen those pictures, we could have refused to see the miserable truth of suffering and injustice in our country.
If we hadn’t seen the pictures of the Syrian toddler who drowned, we might have closed our eyes to the massive suffering of migrants in Europe.
We rarely see pictures of the countless people maimed and dead, seeking refuge in our country. Without witnessing the violence, it makes it easier to turn a blind eye to the suffering we have had such a large hand in creating.
We rightly see desperate Syrian refugees crowding Europe’s borders as victims who urgently need help. If we were willing to look, we would see the same desperation on the faces of refugees fleeing to the U.S. from the mad violence and crushing poverty of Central America.
We celebrate people in Europe meeting the throngs of migrants with food, blankets and toys. We are glad for signs in bus stations saying, “Refugees Welcome.”
Yet when migrant children fled to our borders seeking sanctuary last summer, were they met with blankets and toys? Hardly. Three busloads of migrant mothers and children were met in Murrieta, California with pickets, threats, and angry mobs rocking their bus. Screaming protesters waved signs saying No New Illegals, America Has Been Invaded and Return To Sender.
We have incarcerated mothers and children in Family Detention Centers where U.S. District Court Judge Gee recently found “widespread and deplorable conditions” in holding cells that “failed to meet even the minimal standard” of “safe and sanitary.”
The Guardian just reported that in the last year, the U.S. has turned 80 people away from our borders and back to their deaths in their home countries. Eighty people whose claims for asylum were denied – and that number is believed to be just the tip of the iceberg.
Innocent people with death at their heels have been treated not as victims of war, violence and poverty, but as purveyors of disease, violence and threats.
It hurts to see all this.
I have to remind myself that Jesus always walked into the heart of suffering with open eyes.
If only we had such eyes to see.
Surely, we would have a more humane response to human tragedy.
Surely we would recognize the desperate people at our borders as our own kin.
Surely we would find a way to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, liberty to the oppressed and sight to the blind.
Oh, but we are the ones who are blind.
If only we had such eyes to see.
Rev. Angie Wright is the Associate Director for Greater Birmingham Ministries. She has served as the founding pastor of Beloved Community United Church of Christ in the inner-city of Birmingham since 2000. She is former chair and current treasurer of the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice.