On October 13, 2001, I took my eight-month-old daughter to the farmers market in Moncton. It was a beautiful fall morning. It was warm, colourful, and good. My daughter bounced joyfully on my back as we made our way into the market for coffee and sweets.
The market was full of people, laughing and chatting. The mood was light and lively. Buskers were playing music, children were running around, it was a good day.
There was almost nothing to suggest that six days earlier, the United States had launched operation “Enduring Freedom.” As I glanced around the market, however, eventually I came across a grim face; a man in his late fifties selling Afghani food. He looked like he had not slept in days. His skin was grey, and his eyes were sunken. Like many traumatized people, he had the “thousand-yard stare.”
I remember feeling angry that morning. A war had begun. The most powerful military in history unilaterally decided it had the right to drop bombs on Afghanistan, and no one seem to care. This man suffered in silence, surrounded by a people indifferent to what this aggression might mean for his friends and family back home. My anger led to alienation as I wondered what sort of world my daughter was growing up in.
Those feelings of alienation returned in 2003 when the United States began its invasion and occupation of Iraq. I remember trying to articulate the idea that unilateral aggression would only serve to make the world less stable. I was convinced that operation “Shock and Awe” would result in innumerable civilian casualties and terrorism would proliferate. I tried to argue that the phrase “collateral damage” was a vulgar euphemism that papered over grotesque evil. Often, when I tried to share my concerns I was met with indifference. Sometimes people would respond with racist remarks, and I would shut down with anger and resentment simmering in my heart.
Since 2003 those bad feelings have returned again and again. When the United States, or one of its allies, engages in aggression, inadvertently killing civilians through drone strikes, cluster munitions, or the use of white phosphorus, I’ve grown accustomed to encountering indifference. Often the people I talk with accept official justifications for state violence. There is a pervasive sense that “this is the way of the world.”
For those reasons, when I saw the outpouring of compassion for the people of Ukraine, in response to Russian aggression, it did not warm my heart. I felt anger. I remembered the indifference I saw on October 13, 2001. I thought about the man selling Afghani food and how he suffered in silence. I thought about the last 21 years of lawless aggression. I thought about the 26.4 million refugees in the world today; precious human beings, devastated by empire. When I thought about this, I felt anger, and my anger made me resent the compassion I saw on display.
When I reflect on this, I see how none of us really escape the brokenness of this world. To some degree, we are all tainted by violence, myopia, and the tendency towards moral posturing. My resentment over compassion for the people of Ukraine is an expression of how the brokenness of this world lives in me, and how I perpetuate that brokenness.
And yet, despite the overwhelming brokenness in the world, and in me, I am optimistic. I believe that moments of crisis can be revelatory. The story above is one example of how a crisis can help someone understand themselves better. During a crisis, if we pay close attention to our feelings, if we excavate the personal histories that shape our responses to the world, we can learn so much about ourselves, and our biases. A crisis will reveal who we are inside, if we remain open, mindful, and willing to follow the thread of compassion as it weaves its way through the complexities of our feelings.
Similarly, if we listen critically to what our leaders say, if we carefully review the historical record, a crisis can also disclose salient and essential features of our world. The contradictions at the heart of our economic system, the violence and coercion needed to keep this system going, the lawless tyranny that determines the international order, the horrific human cost this situation imposes on people; a crisis will reveal so much about what is broken, if we remain open, mindful, and willing to follow the thread of compassion as it weaves its way through the complexities of this world.
Chris Walker is an MDiv. student at the Atlantic School of Theology and a candidate for ordination with the United Church of Canada