‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ Luke 4:18-19
Debates about intervention in Syria are raging right now. Thankfully, it seems as if a diplomatic solution may be at hand. While we can be cautiously optimistic about this, it is far from a perfect answer to the problem of suffering in Syria. In the midst of the argument about whether Syria should be punished with military strikes or chastened with diplomacy, one key fact is lost. Whatever the response is, the poor will most likely lose.
From the prophets’ sharp words against those who mistreat the needy (see Isaiah 10:1-2; Amos 8:4-6; and Ezekiel 22:23-31), to Jesus’ proclamation in Luke, the Bible witnesses to God’s particular concern for the lives and well-being of the poor and needy. Whether we look at the law in Deuteronomy 15, the Gospel of Luke, or the commands of Christ in Matthew 25: 34-40, the Bible is also clear that Christians are likewise called to show this concern.
What does this mean practically? It doesn’t mean that we must shout from the mountaintops that wealth is wrong and all rich people are evil. Nor does it mean that we believe all poor people are godly. Instead, having a special concern for the poor means that when we think about justice and consider the right thing to do as a society or country, Christians are called to ask first, “How does this affect the poor?”
Since the conflict in Syria began in Spring 2011, the median salary in Syria has fallen 41%. The costs of goods like food, fuel, and electricity, meanwhile have increased exponentially. The UN’s World Food Programme reported in July 2013 that nearly 4 million Syrians are unable to secure food for themselves, a situation made worse by economic sanctions against the Syrian government. Farmers are not able to obtain parts for machinery or export their goods. Oil production is down almost 80%, while inflation due to a lack of foreign investment is up almost 50%. Sanctions have also made it difficult for Syrians to obtain medicines and vaccines.
The diplomatic solution offered by Russia may ensure that chemical weapons are no longer used in the conflict. A military strike may do the same. But we should not be so optimistic as to believe that the status quo of economic sanctions is without its own form of suffering. Is it really a victory if we prevent children from being “gassed to death” only to allow them to die a slower death from hunger or disease?
As we ask the pressing questions about intervention and diplomacy, we, as a church called to serve “the least of these,” should ask a different question of ourselves: What is the “good news” we are called to reveal to the poor in Syria? We join with other people of goodwill in debating the US’s response to the crisis, but our focus must be on what else the international community is going to do to protect the poor, who are most vulnerable in this situation. The Lutheran World Federation is trying to do this in Jordan by managing a large refugee camp there. The 120,000 refugees in that camp are few, given the 2 million refugees from Syria, but they are still greater in the number than the merely 2,000 Syrian refugees that the US has invited in to our country. Does being concerned for the poor mean asking our government to increase the number of refugees it will allow in? Perhaps. Does caring for the vulnerable mean looking for ways to lift sanctions and control inflation in Syria? Maybe. Though the solution is uncertain, the challenge is clear: protecting the vulnerable must mean more than merely solving the problem of chemical weapons. How will we bring “good news to the poor” and “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” in the midst of this conflict?
To support the work of the ELCA and its companions in Syria, please visit www.elca.org/Syria.
Ryan P. Cumming is the Program Director for Hunger Education for ELCA World Hunger.