I’d started to write a post about going to the beach on our holiday here in intermittently sunny Northern Ireland, but my heart wasn’t in it. I could have written about the fantastic aviation display that happened here on our doorstep on Saturday, but it was hard not to see military aircraft without thinking of what’s happening in Gaza, Syria and Iraq. Then one article after another on Facebook – on Iraq especially – has taken residence under my skin.
First this Christian article, ‘Crisis in Iraq: Five things you can ACTUALLY do to help‘ encouraged me to think there might be some practical steps to take that are more effective than putting my head between my knees and waiting for it all to go away. I duly made a donation to Open Doors, signed a petition and wrote to my MP. It was the more washy-washy seeming of the five steps that proved the biggest challenge, though. Change your social media profile to the Arabic ‘N’ for Nazarene, it suggested; and pray.
For some reason, I lay awake for HOURS wondering if I’d chosen the right ‘N’. The point is to stand in solidarity with Iraqis identified as ‘Nazarenes’ – Christians – and whose houses were marked with the letter by Islamic State thugs to single them out for eviction or death. (I was going to say ‘or conversion’, but those who ‘converted’ apparently then got killed anyway). I’d gone for the nice gold one on a black background as favoured by the C of E’s Twitter account (yes, it does have one). Surely it would have been more effective, I wondered, to use a photo of an actual ‘ن’ spraypainted in red on a white wall? But either way, simply changing your profile photo doesn’t explain what it means or why you’re doing it. So I considered taking a photo of ‘I too am a Nazarene’ written in red on a piece of cardboard and using that instead. But would that look overly dramatic? I know fine well that nobody is going to persecute little old me around here whether I am a Nazarene, a Jehovah’s Witness or a Moony. It was about 2am by then anyway, apart from the fact that there was no cardboard to hand.
It did make me think, however, about how much symbols matter. To think of Iraqis of all faiths rallying together in t-shirts saying ‘WeAreN’ is profoundly moving. To think that I can link myself to a suffering fellow Christian by declaring myself ‘ن’ moves me, even if I might be deceiving myself. And why do powerful symbols often spring from persecution? I was struck by a necklace I saw at New Wine: a silver crown of thorns on a chain, except the thorns were barbed wire – a modern symbol of persecution that gets to you when you’re over-familiar with crucifixes. Then there’s the Icthus fish, created by believers who were oppressed by Romans. And of course the cross. I was in the ladies’ once in Karachi airport washing my hands and the cleaning lady, who didn’t speak any English, pointed at the cross round my neck and smiled at me with tears in her eyes. I assume it wasn’t safe for her to wear one herself.
‘And pray’. I accepted last night that really, valuable as it is to send money and make noise on Facebook, the uncomfortable nagging feeling was a call to prayer. Listening to Canon Andrew White, ‘Vicar of Baghdad’ and champion of all persecuted Iraqis – not just Christians – gave some direction to the nagging. He says that he and his helpers can do nothing unless others give money – and pray. Then his Foundation for Reconciliation and Relief in the Middle East (FRRME) Facebook page took me to pictures of Iraqis who had run from their homes with whatever they could carry – and the woman breastfeeding a tiny baby on the pavement undid me completely. It wasn’t hard to pray after that.
It comes naturally to pray for the victims. But what about the perpetrators? The Islamic State are like badly conceived villains in a second-rate Bond film, with their black clothes, black flags and complete disregard for human life (and for Islam). Their only goal appears to be ‘being as evil as possible’. So what do you pray for them: that the American bombs fall on them accurately and from a very great height? How does God see them? Are they an unstoppable force of overwhelming evil? Or the incarnation of God’s holy wrath?
Well, you can ask God yourself, and see what he says. Personally, what came to my mind as I prayed was smoke. I was reminded of Psalm 37, which says,
‘A little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found… the wicked will…be consumed, they will go up in smoke.’
I earnestly prayed that these evil doers will be like a bushfire – that however much they create a terrifying amount of smoke and damage in the short term, a change of wind direction, the passage of time and God’s grace enacted through good people will be enough to put them out. That though we look for them later, they will not be found. That the actions of those showing compassion and mercy outweigh their acts of murder and hatred. That the Iraqi people get to return to their homes and ‘inherit the land’ in peace.
I’m not suggesting that we don’t do the other stuff as well. But I think that for now, while giving what I can and praying for myriads of angels – both real and human – to be with those who are suffering, this how I am going to pray.