Thought for the Day - 14/10/2013 - Canon Dr Alan Billings
On Saturday the Maltese Prime Minister called the Mediterranean Sea a cemetery. His comment came after another boat carrying refugees from North Africa sank off the coast of Italian Lampedusa. This time some passengers were from Syria; because increasingly people are fleeing from a country where so far the Arab Spring has yielded only sectarianism and bloodshed.
Every section of Syrian society has suffered during this past two years, not least the Christian minority. Like all Syrians they are forced to make a choice; but it's not a simple choice for democracy and against tyranny. Democracy is not guaranteed; and in any case might result in an Islamist government, hostile towards Christianity. Meanwhile, the human cost is rising. Syrian Christians must wonder what to do.
In times of crisis Christians turn to their scriptures, not for answers – scripture rarely works like that – but for some wisdom that might help them understand better their present predicaments and find practical ways forward.
Syrians will recall how immediately after the time of Christ the earliest Christian communities – which were in their part of the world - faced similar choices. They too lived under a repressive dictatorship – Imperial Rome. They too sometimes had to make decisions about whether to join some bid for freedom, some local insurgency, or not.
Against that background Christian leaders wrote to congregations, and some of their letters form part of the New Testament. They give very sobering advice. They tell Christians to obey the authorities and honour the Emperor. The argument is this: if rulers keep the peace and maintain order, enabling people to live their lives in reasonable security, they are doing what God wants and should be respected. The Emperor might be a tyrant but he has brought relative peace to the places under his control, the Pax Romana. Given the propensity of human groups to be at each other's throats, that is no small matter.
In other words, in the real world, a fallen world, choices are rarely about the unambiguously good, but rather, the least bad or the good enough. For those whose dreams are utopian, that's a hard lesson.
But there's one further passage that Syrian Christians will also call to mind. It's a story Jesus told about a man possessed by a spirit of evil. The spirit was cast out; but nothing positive was put in its place and into the void rushed seven other spirits more deadly than the original. So, said Jesus, the last state of that man was worse than the first.
When a tyrant falls, a vacuum is created and any number of forces will try to fill it. That has been the case in every country where there has been an insurgency. It is something that we should always remember and something Syrian Christians dare not forget.