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Escape from Syria: 45 days and counting….

June 15, 2015

Matthew 5: 38 – 42                                       Monday 15 June 2015

Last Wednesday at a meeting in Birmingham City Centre I met four young men who were refugees from the dreadful war in Syria, seeking sanctuary in our own country. Not so long ago the idea that Syria would be such a cauldron of hatred and violence would have been inconceivable. But the poor souls who live in that country have seen a downward spiral of anger and hatred go completely out of control – completely mindless and brutal killing in a civil war, now taken over by warring factions from outside the country, who use the country just a giant battlefield. The ordinary Syrians are completely forgotten in all this.

I’d say those young Syrians were in their mid-twenties to thirties. I suspect they had either deserted the military in the face of its brutality against the people it was supposed to defend, or escaped from the certain death threatened by Islamic State.

I asked them how long they had been in England. One of them answered very precisely. “45 days.” How many of us would know so precisely how long we had been somewhere? It was clear to me that despite the difficulties they face in this country, it was infinitely preferable to the horrors they were facing back home. They were clearly traumatised. What experiences they had had back in their own country I dread to think. Despite all this, they were gracefully respectful. Despite clearly being very hungry, I noticed that they had politely taken just a couple of the cakes from the piles on the refreshment table – but then I saw them wolf them down. Incidentally, that is why our Parish collects food every month for refugees. Asylum seekers often desperately need the basics even after they have made it to safety in this country.

How could a centre of historical culture and civilization like Syria be reduced so rapidly to the nightmare of warring factions? And remember, it happened even closer to home – only 20 years ago there was a similarly brutal war in the Balkans, when events had slithered out of control very rapidly in what was a relatively wealthy country in the heart of Europe.

I’m haunted by what happened there. When the Yugoslavian politicians originally started to whip up hatred and began to mobilise into armies, mothers in Sarajevo took to the streets to demonstrate against their sons being conscripted into the army. Within months….. within months…. everything had changed. The young men had been called up and the killing started. And it was then the same mothers who demanded blood vengeance. Very, very rapidly, the whole country was engulfed in a vicious civil war of hatred and retribution.

Today’s gospel is about conflict. And conflict resolution. We all know how such conflicts start. With the small things. In our own communities, even in personal interactions, once mistrust exists, it is very difficult to bring people together again. Our natural inclination is to dig in, to become defensive; to begin to look for evidence that other party is unreasonable and wrong.

The events in Syria put our own petty squabbles into perspective, but at the lowest level, how do we react if we think someone has been unfair to us? Do we fester and then try to get our own back? Oh yes we do! The urge is very strong. And once the tit for tat starts, it can rapidly lead to a complete breakdown in relationships, and everyone suffers.

Today’s gospel shows us how Jesus taught us to deal with such situations. He reveals to us how God wants us to react to difficult situations, especially those occasions when we feel badly treated. He makes clear that we must not retaliate in kind. Easier said than done. And even more demanding on us – having overcome the desire to retaliate we must then go even further, by trying to respond with kindness to those who accuse us, even if we feel just as angry as they do.

Christians should try to follow Jesus’ teaching – defusing conflict using kindness and forgiveness – even if our every instinct tells us to strike back, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, insult for insult.

Uncontrolled conflict like that found in the Balkans and in Syria must eventually come to an end. It is complete madness, the warring parties, each convinced they are right, fighting to the death until, as we know, both sides end up exhausted, defeated and impoverished. And then, in the quiet after the storm, the reconciliation and peace-building has to start again. Jesus teaches that the oh-so natural feelings of being ‘hard done by’ can be prevented if we avoid over-reaction and instead turn the human rules upside down by following God’s way – loving our neighbour rather than becoming the proverbial ‘neighbour from hell’.

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