In the week that Donald Trump tried to ban Syrian refugees from the USA I was struck by the story of Omar Al-Shogre who survived in Assad’s infamous prison system. Omar was only 17 when he was arrested. When he was released 3 years later he weighed only 35 kilograms. In prison he saw and endured torture, and saw others tortured, raped and killed. Two of his cousins with whom he was arrested did not survive. Yet horror is not the dominant theme in his story.
At one point in the story it is reported that Shogre recounts that “he also saw the best of humanity while in prison. Other prisoners helped to save him, giving him their food rations so that he could live, and paying guards not to kill him. Although practising Islam was banned in Sednaya, he silently memorised 18 chapters of the Quran during his time in confinement, taught in whispered exchanges with other prisoners.”
These acts by other prisoners are acts of grace. In them we see the hand of God. There is no superhuman miracle. There is no superhuman deity who can save all the prisoners. Many succumb to torture, death and despair. This is unspeakably sad. Yet, the actions of the prisoners are a miracle that helps save this one person.
Shogre realised that in prison, in seeing the best of humanity “he learned how to live.” That is not to say that Shogre does not still suffer psychologically from his time in prison. Anxiety especially persists. Yet there is a thankfulness for living which many of us who are more fortunate often forget.
The challenge for us in Shogre’s story is to copy the behaviour of his fellow prisoners who did what they could to save this young man. Their options to help were small and what they did was at great personal risk and cost. Yet they responded to a call, what the theologian Jack Caputo might have termed an insistence, to help their fellow prisoner. The insistence to behave humanely is a weak thing. Unless we respond, no humane activity takes place.
In this time, when the powers of selfishness, fear and terror grow, Christians need to listen intently to what is being insisted. We have far more options to act justly and compassionately than did the Syrian prisoners. Yet many Christians appear deaf to issues of justice or compassion. Especially in the west we have become complacent as our wealth and security have increased and many have accepted the myth of individualism and the heaven of personal prosperity.
One of the pivotal points in the coming years will be how we address the growing numbers of refugees. Our Christian traditions remind us that in our mythic past we once were refugees, strangers in a strange land. This is part of our identity and is forgotten at great personal cost. Sadly, Scott Morrison has refused to criticise Trump’s recent travel bans which stop Syrian Muslim refugees like Shogre from travelling to the USA. In fact, Scott Morrison has claimed that the world is now “catching up” with Australia’s harsh deterrence policies. In many ways, Scott Morrison represents the hard right that has been growing in power in recent years. Along with Pauline Hanson, the Reclaim Australia Party and the hard right of the Liberal Party, there has been a concerted effort to demonise refugees and asylum seekers. For many progressive Christians, these people and their supporters in the right wing fundamentalist fringe of Christianity have seemed too silly to be taken seriously. However, as recent events in the USA have proven we cannot afford to be complacent. Progressive Christians will need to step up and become more involved. In doing so, they won’t have to experience the same risks as Shogre’s fellow prisoners, but they may discover that elements of the Christian story make more sense than ever before.