Chris McDonnell: Was I sleeping whilst others suffered?

Was I sleeping whilst others suffered?

Chris McDonnell March 25th 2022

La Croix International

There are occasions when a powerful image disturbs us so much that it alters our understanding in a significant way. The photos of Kim Phuc as a small girl in 1972 running naked and screaming from the searing pain of a napalm bombing in Vietnam; or Fikret Alic, an emaciated Muslim in a Bosnian refugee camp in war-torn former Yugoslavia some 20 years later, when conflict returned to Europe, remain with us.

Back in 2015, the media carried pictures of Aylan Kurdi, a 3-year-old boy being carried limp and lifeless from the sea onto a Turkish beach. That tragic picture showed with a clarity that would defy a thousand pages of text, the pain of exodus from homeland risking the seawaters in a small unseaworthy boat.

Different images from different conflicts in different times. Now we face again the same questions following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. How do we meet the consequences of war, the plight of refugees and the injuries to civilians, how do we face the causes of war and pacify the antagonism between peoples? In the end it is summed up in the two words inscribed in the outer wall of the bombed-out remains of Coventry Cathedral, where, behind the altar are inscribed the word ‘Father Forgive’.

Hard to contemplate in the heat of conflict, harder still when you see your own relatives suffering extreme privation. In the end, the only road that leads to a resolution of such strife, is the road of forgiveness. Yet we must ask how does a people forgive when they have been so badly hurt, when tragedy has been built on falsehood, when lives have been needlessly wasted?

Just how many have died we will never know, how much military hardware has been left, burnt out by the roadside, how many aircraft have fallen in pieces from the winter skies of Eastern Europe, all the wastage of war. The constant fear in the West has been of escalation, be it into the chemical or nuclear option. Only this week, Joe Biden was warning Putin not to consider chemical warfare. Caught in this turmoil are the Orthodox Christian churches and the Ukrainian and Russian Slavic people at odds with each other.

The history of humankind is littered with wars and stories of wars, with conflict and anguish, loss and grief. Yet this has to be reconciled with the Christian expectation of forgiveness and hope. For a Christian to love without hope is to live without trust in his Lord. Without forgiveness. The words inscribed on the walls of Coventry Cathedral, echo the words of Jesus from the cross- “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”.

The Gospel narrative rings throughout its pages with the echo of forgiveness stories, of making wrong right by going away and not repeating your mistakes again. Even the failure of Peter to acknowledge Jesus is forgiven over breakfast by the side of the lake. The words of forgiveness implied an action, ‘Feed my lambs, feed my sheep’. It is not enough to say ‘I’m sorry’- we have to prove it by doing something.

In Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, the two protagonists, Vladimir and Estragon, wait at the crossroads under a tree. At one point, Vladimir asks Estragon: “Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today? That with Estragon my friend, at this place, until the fall of night, I waited for Godot?”

We continue to wait as dawn follows the darkness of night and we wake to a new sunlit day and we busy ourselves with jobs and tasks hurrying here and there. Others wake in chill basements unable to leave for fear of another wave of destruction from rockets and tank fire, women caring for children, men conscripted in the defence of their towns and cities as yesterday is repeated today and is likely to be repeated tomorrow. They wait for Godot but Godot never comes.

There is courage to be found in facing change, hoping in the future that emerges from the months and years of journey.

Faith succeeds doubt when reality is faced. Recently I wrote these few words.

Morning Departure

Once, it demanded little to rise early

and begin the day in quiet, solitary stillness,

a flickering candle flame,

breaking Dawn-touched, icon-silence.

Patterns change, heaviness of sleep now endures,

empty echoes of a lost time.

Memories contained in a small space,

a long loneliness as pieces of a broken jar

lie scattered by the open door.

Gather the sharp-edged fragments,

patiently rebuild the form of faith

even if all the parts do not fit neatly

but struggle for wholeness.

the gaps that are left give access to the heart.

And there lies the rub; the expectation that faith remains constant and its form unchanging only leads us into a barren cul-de-sac where the challenge of present reality cannot be met with a tired response. Faith, like the bud on the bush, requires nourishment, in order that doubt may be overcome. We need to have faith in the depth of our being, even if we haven’t it on the surface. Just as faith and its demands run through the Gospels, so too does the confrontation with doubt.

In many parts of the world, faith is being challenged in an open and often brutal manner. In such places it is not only expressed in comfortable words and phrases but in the reality of the marketplace, home and church, synagogue and mosque. There the conviction of faith over doubt is both stark and costly. It is a high price that is paid by many.

War challenges our faith and shakes our conviction. Those who suffer its immediate consequence need our care and our prayers to support them in their tribulation just as we who ask why need patience as we wait for an answer.









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  1. Kevin Walters says:

    Chris McDonnell: Was I sleeping whilst others suffered?

    “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.”

    Jesus Christ lived under the Jackboot of the Roman Empire (Equivalent to the Nazis) and in this teaching, we are given an understanding of how we are to bear ‘witness’ to injustice, as in yield to it and go a step further and expose it for what it is.

    “There is a reason the word martyr literally means “witness,” and there is a reason why the greatest witness to the heart of God was precisely God himself becoming a martyr — accepting death at the hands of the oppressors to overturn not only the system of empire, but also sin, death, and oppression everywhere”.

    Please consider continuing via the link

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  2. Veronica Clerkin says:

    Chris McDonnell: Was I sleeping whilst others suffered?

    Thank you so much for your article Chris, its challenge and hope. “The gaps that are left give access to the heart.” I have read the paragraph “and there lies the rub” over and over. I wondered what had become of Kim Phuc. In 1996 at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington she said, “I have suffered a lot from physical and emotional pain,” she continued,
    “Sometimes I could not breathe. But God saved my life
    and gave me hope. Even if I could talk face to face
    with the pilot who dropped the bombs,
    I would tell him, we cannot change history, but we should
    try to do good things for the present and for the future to promote peace.”
    Reverend John Plummer, a Vietnam War Veteran, who took part in coordinating the airstrike which caused her suffering met with her and was forgiven. Peace be upon you Chris and thank you.

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