Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Call Me Ignorant and Insensitive

We're sending someone to teach peacemaking in Darfur. I realized that I didn't have the slightest idea where "Darfur" was. Is it a country? (I was pretty sure it wasn't). So it must be a city? Nope, it turns out that Darfur is a region in Sudan. One that is devastated by genocide and is, by most internet accounts, a humanitarian disaster.

Forgive me if you're much more in tune with world events than I am (and please overlook the fact that I have "international" in my job title). I simply can't believe that 5,000 people per day die in Darfur and I couldn't place it on a map until yesterday morning (100 people probably died during the time that it took me to google Darfur, while sitting in my ergonomically correct chair, sipping my coffee and eating my cranberry scone). History doesn't just repeat itself in epic cycles over centuries; history seems to be repeating itself in the amount of time it takes for a kid to go through college and get a degree in "international relations."

Did you know that the word "genocide" was invented during the Holocaust? According to Wikipedia, it was invented by a Polish Jew who thought that if he named this atrocity, people/countries would be too ashamed to do it. It hadn't worked for "murder," but he figured he'd give it a try with murder on a bigger scale. It didn't, because since the Holocaust, history has repeated itself throughout Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe and Africa. Of Uganda in 1972, Kefa Sempangi says, "While the western world dismissed stories of genocide as wild exaggerations, Idi Amin had systematically exterminated 90,000 people in three months. In a few short years Uganda's death toll would stand at over 300,000 and all hope for rescue would be dead." (A Distant Grief 13).

As in Germany, so in Uganda, and so in Darfur. Death tolls mount while The Comfortable have difficulty wrapping our minds around the staggering numbers. If Katrina was a "disaster" with around 2,000 deaths, what sort of word do you use to describe intentional, systematic and malicious slaughter (by the sword or starvation) of 5,000 people per day? "Evil"? "A disaster of epic proportions"? Perhaps, provided you define "epic" as "happening-much-more-frequently-in-our-lifetimes-than-we'd-like-to-admit-but-barely-making-the-news."

Another thing that I find it difficult to wrap my mind around is the impotence of The Comfortable, The Rich and The Enlightened to do anything about it but our ongoing insistence that we can. The United States can only play cops&robbers in so many places at once. And keep in mind that when we stick our noses into other people's business, we're vilified. Quite frankly, we're damned if we do (as evidenced by such movies as The Constant Gardener) and damned if we don't (evidenced by such movies as Hotel Rwanda). And, as our valiant efforts in the Middle East have shown, we're Rich and we've got Guns, but we can't suppress the creativity of the evil that bubbles out of the human heart, and we can't overcome the effects of the Fall, such as disease and starvation of millions in Saharan Africa.

Humanitarians would like to convince us that if we sign enough petitions, we can get G-dubbya or the UN to feed all 3.5 million hungry people in Darfur. Perhaps we could make a dent, but I'm quite frankly a little cynical about mankind's ability to eradicate poverty and violence (and justifiably so). We can and should try, but it seems that nothing has changed since The New York Times reported in the 1970s, "Nearly 30 years after the foundation of the United Nations, there is still no mechanism to protect citizens from the arbitrary madness of governments; mass murder in Uganda and elsewhere remains, for the United Nations and the United States government, a distant grief at best" (A Distant Grief 13).

A distant grief. I was 14 years old when Hutus in Rwanda slaughtered almost a million Tutsis. I was busy getting my driver's license and trying out for the basketball team, blissfully oblivious to the fact that the world contained suffering beyond having to run an extra set of lines because someone missed a free throw. I ask myself now how I can be so narrow-minded and sheltered; I also ask myself if knowing would have made a difference. In Hotel Rwanda, one photojournalist tells another, "I think if people see this footage, they'll say Oh, my God, that's horrible. And then they'll go on eating their dinners." Tis true, because it is a distant grief, at best.

After composing these thoughts, I spent some time yesterday contemplating and asking God how I can become someone who -- though separated from these griefs by thousands of miles and what seems like light-years in terms of experience -- does not say "Oh my God that's horrible" and then goes back to eating my dinner. I don't know. I don't want to be a James 2:15-17 "Be-warm-and-well-fed" meaningless well-wisher. How do I realistically (I'm not their savior, and I recognize the realities of living in a sin-ravaged world) develop a heart for God's world? I don't know. But I want to. And I guess that's a start.


goodnight moon said...

Well said. I'm with you.

melpmoore said...

check out www.savedarfur.org - you can get a bracelet and learn a lot about the crisis there.

Anonymous said...

I just saw Hotel Rwanda last night for the first time -- here at a library in Portland, Oregon. No one could ever forget that.

Randommother said...

The Economist (Aug 5, page 42)had an interesting little article on Sudan and Khartoum in particular. It points out the dichotomy that exists and the economic boom that is going on in the capital. The Western aid workers mainly discuss the latest depredations in Darfur while the Arabs talk about new traffic lights and privatisations (sic)(It's British). "Both views of Sudan, Africa's largest country, are valid. It is just that the Western focis on Darfur, where about 2m people are living in refugee camps as a result of a still unresolved war in the region, has obscured another fact about Sudan: the country is booming. ... Oil undoubtedly plays a big part in this boom. ... However, it is almost exclusively the Arab heart of the country that is benefiting from the boom. ... In the past year hotels, telecoms companies, light industries and even a Thai massage parlour have opened in the city that is still nominally ruled by sharia law. ... However, for all the new prosperity in Khartoum, evidence of the boom outside the capital is hard to find. Progress toward improving the lot of the majority of poor Sudanese is plodding. For most people, electricity is still rare and most schools still hold classes under trees. And, crucially, Sudan's improved economic outlook has not had any discernible impact on the mainly Christian and animist south. Hundreds of thousands of displaced southern Sudanese are leavaing their refugee camps in the north and returning to what remains one of the poorest areas in Africa. Indeed, the pace of recovery in the south is so slow that some aid agencies report that villagers have started throwing sticks and stones at their passing convoys as a form of protest. The inequitable distribution of the country's wealth has always been a large factor in stoking rebellions in the south, in Darfur and in the east against the central government of Khartoum. If that remains true of this current boom - which may last only as long as the high price of oil - it will be a huge missed opportunity to reduce some of the inequalities that still threaten to pull the country apart, with disastrous consequences for all Sudanese."
May we have compassion - and action!