A Moral Awakening Inspired by a Child

Human beings have an inspiring moral fiber marbled into the sinews of our consciousness, yet very rarely do we put it on display. Recently, the tragic picture of a fallen young Syrian boy lying face down in the sand on a Turkish beach challenged this shared moral fiber and brought humans together to an awakening about right and wrong. The photograph of Aylan (Alan) Kurdi’s tiny body in the sand, and then in the arms of a somber Turkish officer walking across the beach set off a firestorm of soul-searching by many Europeans in late August. By chance, I happened to be traveling through Italy, France, England, and Ireland when it happened, and it was something to behold. As a note: if you google key words corresponding with these events, you can find several powerful photos. Interestingly, I found the American view of Google search results makes the images much harder to find than when I was searching while in Europe. The Wall Street Journal actually has an image of the front pages of many newspapers using pictures of Aylan….

RefugeeBoatThree-year old Aylan (Alan) Kurdi’s body washed up on the shore of a resort area after he drowned in his family’s failed effort to seek asylum on the Greek island of Lesbos. Aylan’s 5-year old brother, Galip, and their mother, Rehan, also drowned, along with at least 12 of the 23 people riding in two shoddy inflatable boats provided by four Syrian human traffickers. The Kurdi family paid the smugglers about $4,400 for 2.5-mile sea crossing. With more enlightened immigration policies and practices in nations around the world, the same amount of money could have purchased airline tickets for the whole family to Vancouver, Canada, which had been their ultimate destination. But, our planet’s understanding and response to immigration is anything but enlightened.

The massive numbers of people trying to emigrate from war torn or impoverished nations like Syria and Iraq, along with those looking for a life with more opportunity, have precipitated the biggest immigration challenge faced by European nations since World War II. But, Aylan’s death served as a catalyst for a dramatic international conversation about immigration issues as a matter of morality, not just politics and economics. Aylan’s small dead body, in its red t-shirt and blue shorts, put a face on a largely invisible problem for most of us in the western world. As the prophet Isaiah noted in the Old Testament, “a little child will lead them (11:6)” and it seems that Aylan Kurdi is that child.

RefugeeWelcome1When it comes to the competing values involved in a messy topic like immigration, whether through legal or undocumented means, most of us tend to have “universal principles” buried deep in our unconscious that form our position long before we have all the facts. Some of us are positively disposed to the issue of immigration, making room in our common life for those in search of safer lives and better opportunities for themselves or their children. Others jump naturally and immediately to a sense of threat at the possibility of “others” crossing the moats of our lives and nations because they might unravel our national identity and disrupt our cultural practices. Both are grounded in a strong sense of obligation to community, but the latter has a more narrow understanding of community as primarily me and mine . Both orientations are also committed to a common good-it’s just that the definition of the commons is very different in each, one expansive and diffuse, the other limited and focused.

In Joshua Green’s best-selling book, Moral Tribes, he explores our default positions for moral issues dealing with the commons based on decades of interdisciplinary cognitive science studies. Green contends we all have the same hardware in our brains for discerning right from wrong, but because of centuries of cultural conditioning we use the hardware to come to different conclusions. The conditioning predisposes us toward certain decisions when it comes to moral issues about our common life, says Green, and only then do we work backward in our thinking to find justifications for what we have already unconsciously decided is the right path. Some researchers might say we “feel” what is the right conclusion, and after the fact marshal intellectual arguments to prove the rightness of that feeling, much as a lawyer goes about trying to convince a jury. This process is buried deep within us and it has taken humans a long time to draw attention to this act of moral rationalization.

You can see this subtle process at work in Donald Trump’s simplistic comments about the so-called murderers, drug dealers and rapists crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico, and his later justification of these careless comments with an immigration policy position that reeks of biased appropriation of support (See here: http://www.theguardian.com). A similar self-justifying process is seen more directly in Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban’s repeated statements that he does not want to make room for the immigrants flooding his nation, because too many Muslims might change Hungary’s comfortable “Christian” ethos. Orban goes further by insisting: “Our Christian obligation is not to create illusions, hopes in people who will risk their lives in the hope of something that we know is not real.”

RefugeeFence2To suggest, as he does, that the Christian tradition values forcing other people to embrace their desperate and hopeless conditions as their true lot in life is theologically absurd. Christianity stands for telling the truth of things, but it also holds out a radical hope for salvation and liberation in this life, as well as the next. Over the past century, Christian denominations have been retrieving this ancient belief that God desires to relieve human suffering in the here and now as well as the hereafter, and it is now central to the belief systems of most Christian believers. After all, Jesus, the founder of the religion, and his parents, were immigrants fleeing from Herod’s persecution to Egypt. A similar process is happening in many other religious traditions that are connecting to their roots, and this common re-discovery is a part of the most exciting advancements in interreligious dialogue. But, Green might argue, Orban is just doing what we all do with our moral instincts about things in our common life-we try to find arguments that prove our instincts are right. In Orban’s case, and those of many others, you can’t find a better justification than by convincing yourself that your faith tradition, and by extension, God, also wants you to reject humans in extreme need in order to help them embrace the full desperation and hopelessness of their existence.

The people who are the most simplistic about border restrictions have a justifying narrative of the average immigrant that is more fiction than fact. Their internal moral intuition seeks justification so bogus generalizations like Trump’s seem reasonable to them. But, most migrants are not seeking to live off of social welfare systems in the West. Most worked in their country of origin, and dream of doing so in a new home. More than a few had professional positions as store owners, architects, lawyers, police officers or healthcare professionals. And, contrary to what some people are led to believe, those who emigrate are not doing so out of greedy motivations-immigrants, legal or otherwise, are a generous lot. The amount of money migrants sent back to their country of origin to help their families and friends last year is estimated at $167 billion. This is more than all international aid combined.

Trump and Orban are not alone in marshaling arguments for their moral decision making process. An exaggerated instinctual drive in the opposite direction on the immigration issue is equally problematic. Those calling for open borders with no consideration of cost are operating out of a culturally conditioned instinct for how to manage our shared commons, rather than a factually based decision-making process. There is a legitimate argument that allowing a large number of immigrants into a nation will create profound and perhaps unmanageable pressure on certain local and national resources, such as health care, security, educational and social services. This is particularly relevant when many nations have cut their budgets as a fiscal response to real or perceived economic limitations. It is also fair to assert that large populations of displaced people can attract a criminal element seeking to prey on the vulnerabilities of a moment of crisis.

However, Aylan’s photographs certainly shifted the perception of a large number of Europeans (and many others in the world) concerning the nature of most of the people fleeing dangerous regions of the world like Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Sudan. More men and women from privileged nations have intuited that the majority of the world’s immigrants are more like the Kurdi family than the shadowy Islamic State terrorist or the drug dealers, murderers and rapists portrayed by Trump. Green, a supporter of a form of utilitarianism he calls “deep pragmatism,” would suggest that humanity’s pathway to a moral sensibility with a wider angle lens on who constitutes our tribe will come through greater use of our higher cognitive powers, rather than a potent image. From my position on the ground in Europe, he looked more like an emotional reaction than a carefully weighed assessment of doing good for the most number of people (a basic premise of utilitarianism).

RefugeeFence1Either way, the facts suggest a more positive intuitions of immigrants are correct. Most of those fleeing their nations of origin have stories similar to Aylan’s parents. Rather than stay within reach of ISIS insurgents, the Kurdis wanted to escape a war torn city of Kobane, Syria, to build a better and safer future for their two young boys. Like many of those crowded into refugee camps around the world, the family’s original plan was more safe and logical, but it was thwarted by deficient immigration policies. They attempted to seek asylum in Vancouver, Canada, where Abdullah has had a sister living for the past 20 years, and had the funds for the passage. But, the Canadian government rejected the application. It was desperation that forced Abdullah and Rehan to chance the dangerous ocean crossing to Greece. Human traffickers, charging exorbitant fees for passage, were eager to accommodate.

The image of Aylan Kurdi’s dead body seemed to help a lot of Europeans make a leap from their narrow tribal orientation to something bigger-a harbinger, perhaps, of Green’s final hypothesis of a gradually emerging new tribalism that is global in nature. Like those who rebuilt Europe after the devastation of World War II, a significant number of Europeans decided that the moral imperative of taking care of other humans overrode the societal costs. Perhaps we are beginning, and just beginning, to think of our tribe as everyone (and perhaps everything) on the blue planet we share.

The tragedy of the Kurdi family has proven to be a test of Joshua Green’s thesis that we are developing a moral instinct with a bigger, more expansive tribe and has spotlighted a massive global crisis that has been going on for a long time. The number of international migrants moving from developing nations to developed nations had already reached 191 million in 2005. Although most people moved for economic reasons to escape poverty, many immigrants flee their nations to avoid torture, the threat of injury or death from wars, and multiple layers of oppression.

Aylan’s death set in motion a cascading series of events that are resulting in an international shift in immigration policies. The photos of Aylan inspired many citizens to launch social protests against their government’s treatment of people fleeing from life-threatening circumstances. Some citizens set about gathering thousands of signatures on petitions that called for basic reform on immigration policy and practices in their country. In Ireland a number of the parents of young families actually went on television news programs to offer to share their own home with a refugee family. Germany announced they will take 500,000 immigrants per year for an undisclosed number of years, and have begun to speak of these immigrants as new blood for the greying traditional German population. This will result in a profound cultural transition for a nation that has prized its heritage, and will set in motion significant changes in the descriptors for national identity.

Meanwhile, leaders in the European Union have become emboldened by the humanitarian sentiment arising in the citizenry of less generous nations to immigrants, and have proposed a dramatic policy that would actually set immigration quotas for every nation in the Union. Those countries refusing to accept their goals would be fined, sending money to the other nations fulfilling their moral responsibility to the humans in need. Under pressure within the United States, the Obama Administration also raised its Syrian immigration number to 10,000 in the next year, which constitutes nearly six times the total number of Syrian allowed entry into nation in the previous year.

However, the seeming ignorance some of us in the U.S. have of our own national demographics is vexing. In 2013 it is estimated that there were about 41.3 million immigrants living in the US, an all-time high. By 2015, the number reached 42.1 million. We now are home to about 20% of the world’s immigrants, and one quarter of the U.S. population is a first or second-generation immigrant (migrationpolicy.org). And, we should not feel as if we are unique with this challenge; virtually all nations with more economic or political stability than their neighbors have immigration challenges on their borders. There are camps of 3,000 to 5,000 immigrants near Calais, France, with all of them trying to sneak onto trucks or pay truck drivers to give them entry through the Channel Tunnel into the United Kingdom. While more than 1.6 million Afghans have taken up residence in Pakistan, Spain is inundated with migrants from Morocco and North African countries (See, http://www.globalissues.org). Massive numbers of humans are on the move within their own countries as well. Nearly 3.1 million Iraqis, for instance, have been internally displaced within their home nation due to violence and the collapse of social infrastructure. This is our new world. Humans long to breathe the air of freedom and self-determination in an environment of peace. Most of all, they burn with the desire to live as human beings.

RefugeeWelcome2It is heartening that Europeans are taking the immigration issue seriously, and increasing numbers are coming down on the side of compassion, mercy, and generosity to the stranger. Personally, I hope Green’s thesis is proven correct and our tribes are getting bigger. But, it is more likely that this will not last long-large-scale displays of corporate moral clarity rarely do. In the United States, we saw such collective moral awareness after 9/11, after Hurricane Katrina, after the Sandy Hook massacre of young children. But, alas the outpouring of moral clarity fades quickly and we move on to other concerns.

The women and men who transform cultures know that moral sensitivity to complex and systemic issues has a short shelf life, and they get busy when they see the opportunity for moral awakening, an expanding sense of who is in the tribe. Therefore, ever since the pictures of Aylan went viral organizations serving refugees and immigrants have been hammering on governments to respond to the millions of people herded in inhumane conditions. Let’s hope the moral sensitivity that this little boy’s body awakened in Europe sustains long enough for developed nations to create permanent humanitarian policies for those who seek to flee to their shores for protection.

“Something new is growing under the sun,” Green summarizes optimistically at the end of his book, “a global tribe that looks out for its members, not to gain advantage over others, but simply because it’s good.” It is ironic that a little boy set all of this in motion. Or, perhaps it isn’t at all. The full passage of Isaiah 11:6 hints that the evolution of our moral sensibilities will come from an unlikely source: “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together, and a little child will lead them.” Is it possible Alyan’s death is helping to move the human race toward this broader understanding of who is a member of our tribe?

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Do Not Let This Suffering Be Normal

Last month, after being kidnapped by one of the world’s most feared terrorist groups, the world learned that 26-year-old Kayla Mueller died at the hands of ISIS.  Kayla’s tragic death brought her into the attention of the world. If ISIS had not taken Kayla Mueller in Syria, we may not have known anything about her. However, the nature of her death gave us a chance to catch a glimpse of an inspiring young woman—a refugee and aid worker that followed her call to sit with people in extreme suffering.

Of course no one is perfect, but Kayla clearly exhibited a profound depth of compassion and self-sacrifice at a young age. She took enormous risks, working in some of the most desperate and dangerous parts of the world, and did so with a sense of joy and deep purpose.  She felt a vocational call to alleviate the suffering of people without hope and to stand in solidarity with them. As a girl growing up in Prescott, Arizona, Kayla Mueller demonstrated a distinct sensitivity to the poor and suffering, especially those ravaged by society’s injustices. The depth of her identification with those on the margins of society is revealed in a letter she wrote to her father on his birthday in 2011. She was 23 at the time:

mueller-kayla_vert-176962cb347a5b83106e3a279426d61ca73f525b-s800-c15_CreditNPR“I find God in the suffering eyes reflected in mine.  If this is how you are revealed to me, this is how I will forever seek you.  I will always seek God.  Some people find God in church.  Some people find God in nature.  Some people find God in love; I find God in suffering.  I’ve known for some time what my life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.”

(Kayla pictured right, source: www.NPR.org)

In high school, Kayla was active in the Save Darfur coalition, took part in environmental causes, and even won a local award for her volunteer work with organizations like Big Brothers, Big Sisters and AmeriCorps. After graduating in 2009 from Northern Arizona University with a bachelor’s degree in political science, she decided to embrace the pain of the world in a more direct way, moving to India and Israel to work with refugees, and later in 2012 to the Turkey/Syria border.  In August of 2013, Kayla was kidnapped by ISIS as she was leaving a hospital in Aleppo, Syria. She had been spending time in a Spanish Doctors without Borders hospital, sitting with patients and hearing their stories.

Some of us stumble through life looking for our life’s mission; others seem to know what they are destined to do from the time they are born. It appears Kayla knew at a young age that she had the brass ring in life (compared to the world’s standards) and decided to leave it behind and dedicate her life to bringing comfort to those with less security, comfort, and opportunity. A local Arizona paper quoted Kayla as saying:

“For as long as I live, I will not let this suffering be normal …. It’s important to stop and realize what we have, why we have it and how privileged we are.”

As a young altruistic woman getting her hands dirty in the depths of the world’s pain and violence, Kayla didn’t demonstrate youthful self-righteousness.  She didn’t challenge others to sell their positions and make the kind of radical commitment she did. Rather, in a world marked by the crucifixion of hope and opportunity, she recommended that everyone stop and recognize their privilege. It appears she had already learned the complicated spiritual truth that gratitude and thanksgiving, rather than guilt, is the pathway for the deepest personal transformations, the kinds that crack us open to feel the suffering of others.

After years of working in the world’s most despairing places, Kayla still managed to see a sister and brother in almost any face. Despite growing up in divided times, and coming from a state known for discriminatory laws, she cultivated an almost unfathomable ability to forgive. She even managed to engage her ISIS captors in basic acts of shared humanity. In the last days of her life, Kayla spent more time worrying about her loved ones than herself:

Barack-Obama-Confirms-Hostage-Is-Dead-Us-President-Barack-Obama-Confirms-Us-Hostage-Is-Dead-252219“I wanted to write you all a well thought out letter (but) … I could only but write the letter a paragraph at a time, just the thought of you all sends me into a fit of tears. If you could say I have “suffered” at all throughout this whole experience it is only in knowing how much suffering I have put you all through; I will never ask you to forgive me as I do not deserve forgiveness. I remember mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one you really have is God. I have come to a place in experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator b/c literally there was no else…. + by God + by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in free-fall. I pray each day that if nothing else, you have felt a certain closeness + surrender to God as well.”
(Kayla’s letter pictured left, source: www.express.co.uk)

As soon as her death became public, the media flocked to Arizona to piece together a story that might explain Kayla’s journey from her comfortable middle class life to a war-torn place like Syria. Blog sites exploded with tidbits of information about a humanitarian who always knew she wanted to pour out her life for others.

In the midst of these news stories, I became curious about her mother and father. I wanted to know how her parents introduced her to a world filled with the tension of both great blessings and horrible suffering. How did they raise a daughter with this kind of love for the downtrodden of the world? Where did they get the strength to let go when she decided to march into harm’s way? How would they cope in the future, especially in those silent moments of desolation and grief that is only known by parents who have buried a child? We all want our children to be good – but maybe not too good.

kayla-mueller_Aunt0I also wanted to know more about the people who influenced the inner dynamics of thought and feeling that shaped her ability to look at the agonies of the world with an unblinking gaze of compassion. I wanted to interview her ministers, her teachers, all the people who watched her grow up and helped her form the ideals that fueled her belief in a personal agency to transform the world around her. I wanted to meet the people who gave her early opportunities to experience the joy of serving others and witnessed her capacity to hold the wounds of the world in her heart and hands. I wondered how our students at the School of Theology and Ministry might influence others in the same way. Here at the school we take the time in our class sessions, in community groups and in other gatherings to name the inequity and inequality that we find in our world and reflectively engage real-world problems. Many of our students echo the sentiments that Kayla penned in her own words. They seek to use their own tools to relieve suffering—to work for a more just and humane world—and holistically develop as grounded, authentic ministers that encourage others to also live into their own potential.
(Kayla Mueller’s Aunt pictured right, source: www.Newsweek.com)

There are millions of young people setting off for adult life with a dedication to do something beyond themselves. They seek to find ways to contribute to society, carrying a lifetime of memories of human suffering that will never allow them to let the world’s problems become “normal.” Some, like Kayla, will have their young lives flame out like Roman candles—flaring brilliantly for a short time before they disappear.  We may never hear about most of those daring souls. However, we should never think that an interrupted life like Kayla’s fails to accomplish as much as those who live “long enough.” Often through history, the stories of young altruistic lives lost too early shape the moral imagination and inspiration of dynamic future leaders who bring the world to an entirely new place.

Aloysis Gonzaga, Stanislaus Kostka, and John Berchmans were Jesuits who all died young – Gonzaga at 23, Berchmans at 22, and Kostka at 17.  These three Jesuits, sometimes referred to as “Christ’s cadets,” stood out from the crowd because of their care for others, and became role models for generations of young people trying to decide what to do with their lives. They inspired others forming their ideals to dare to do something different than follow the status quo. Although their lives were short, they inspired a revolutionary pope to transform the Catholic Church. Pope John XXIII’s vision for the Church began with his youthful meditation on the lives of these three “cadets,” young men known more for their promise than the accomplishments of their short, interrupted lives. As the leader of the Catholic Church, he called into session a worldwide council of reformation.  The Second Vatican Council opened Catholicism to ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, put the Church’s social justice commitment into hyper-drive, and set loose a chain of events that has transformed the lives of millions and millions of people across the world.

All Saints Day Ceremony at Kabul International AirportAs shown by the lives of these young Jesuits and Kayla Mueller, if someone sets out to notice and diminish suffering in the world, you never know (and they may never know) what they will accomplish. But, more importantly, you never know who they might later influence by the witness of their life. After her death, Kayla’s parents issued a statement:

“We are so proud of the person Kayla was and the work that she did while she was here with us. She lived with purpose, and we will work every day to honor her legacy.”

We can take inspiration from the way Kayla lived her life. How easy it is to let suffering become normal. We are inundated with tragedy and suffering on the news, in our cities and maybe in our own lives. We are faced daily with the choice to let ourselves become jaded by the hurt of the world. Yet we are also faced with opportunity—the opportunity to welcome those on the margins. Like Kayla, we can choose to see a sister or brother in the stranger and treat them with dignity—to seek and encounter God in the face of suffering. Yet, in our ministry we are called, like Kayla, to find strength and urgency in our vocation. We are challenged to recognize the places of privilege in which we find ourselves, commit to deep transformation, and break ourselves open to the deep joys and sufferings of others.

I hope Kayla’s parents are aware that their child’s legacy is not just the work she did in trying to lessen suffering in Arizona, India, Palestine, Israel and Syria. Because the world knows about her, Kayla may change the world even more through her death than the great works she accomplished in life. That won’t heal the hole in her parent’s hearts, but maybe they’ll find some comfort in imagining Kayla’s fingerprints in the work of all the people inspired by a girl from Arizona who loved the suffering people in Syria enough to lose her life for them. Following in Kayla’s example, let us not allow this suffering become normal.

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