What Syria, Ancient Rome, and Explosive Diarrhea Can Teach Us About the Kingdom of Heaven
I wrote a post last week about hell, and while identifying theoretical acts that might qualify as “hell on earth,” I blatantly left out the atrocities in Syria.
Which is, quite literally, hell on earth.
Or maybe worse. After all, we can safely classify chemical-attacks-on-children as something far more sinister than anything the Hands of an Angry God could ever conjure.
The images shared on social media and CNN are tragedy defined. Like the bodies of drowned refugee toddlers washed ashore, or Omran sitting dust-covered in the back of an ambulance, we have reminders that something in this world is very broken.
We see it.
We can feel it.
We’re inherently aware of it.
All of which brings us to the first Christians, intestinal explosions, prefab homes and your cable-internet package. And third century Rome.
It was about that time when a smallpox (or measles, no one is quite sure) epidemic wiped out sizable portions of third-century Rome, and ultimately played a role in its fall. The “plague of Cyprian” was so fierce, so brutal, so unforgiving, it killed around 5,000 people a day and left many others deaf and blind.
Some writings from the day described bowels dissipating “in a flow,” or intestines shaking “with continuous vomiting” that would set the eyes “on fire” with blood.
Or, in a word, hell.
It was so hellish, in fact, that some scholars believe medieval and even some modern depictions of the Christian “hell” originated from the many accounts of the horror, such as the burning of corpses.
But it was in that misery, in that place of hopeless despair, in hell, that a small start-up, a spiritual Jewish off-shoot, took root. These were your Christian ancestors.
In the face of certain, agonizing death, these Christians, followers of “The Way,” walked among the suffering,
caring for them,
providing proper burial.
Even if it meant their own death.
As the pagan cowered in fear, confident the wrathful, angry gods were making known their displeasure, the Christian walked through the literal valley of the shadow of death — suffering as Christ en route to martyrdom.
Because their God doesn’t cause the suffering. Their God enters into it.
They entered hell — and brought the Kingdom of Heaven with them.
(Side note: Many scholars believe the acts of these Christians was a major spark behind the movement. Basically, you’re a Christian because of their sacrifice!)
Fast forward to today, and hell is still very real. Syria being the most visible example. This time it’s a different type of enemy — a human-invented atrocity we call “war.”
Sometimes, it’s easy to feel helpless.
Like when you’re sitting several thousand miles away in a recliner, watching the horrors unfold on cable news, while the slow, steady hum of forced air reminds you, ‘You’re OK. You live in a pretty decent subdivision. Thank God you aren’t there. What’s on Netflix this month? #SoBlessed.’
And none of the above is necessarily a bad thing.
Unless, of course, you’re a Christian.
Because you can’t have it both ways.
In the United States, we’ve recently had an opportunity to open our doors to Syrian refugees. Yet the majority of American Christians were among those who battened down the hatches, voting in Donald Trump and his vehement anti-refugee stance, and voting down any attempt to love our neighbor.
Well, we have really important lives.
And we have really important stuff.
And we don’t want to jeopardize our stuff!
And the majority of American Christians were among those who supported Trump’s missile attack on a Syrian airbase, aggravating an already dire situation, and continuing the cycle of violence Jesus sought to end at the cross.
Now, no one is compelling you to go to Syria. In fact, don’t.
It’s the 21st century, and we have education and we have resources and we have medicine and we have modern communication and we have nonprofit groups and we have democracy.
In fact, we have many more tools at our disposal than our Christian forefathers — we’re just doing a lousy job at using them. We’re distracted. And we’re selfish. And maybe most importantly, we’ve lost The Way.
Thankfully, we have a blueprint to remind us.
Photo: A Syrian refugee mother living in Amman, Jordan, shows the wounds on the face of her young daughter after she was hit by a neighbour. /UNHCR/O.Laban-Mattei/June 2013