In the Judeo-Christian tradition, God calls us to love and show compassion to the stranger, particularly those who suffer. But first, they must become real to us. And there is nothing more viscerally real, perhaps, than the face of a dead child.
Is it possible to let our hearts by broken by the dead children of our enemy? Is our God big enough to allow us to imagine that God loves those we fear and despise?
Not until, I believe, they have faces.
Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Israel, Gaza – though religious fervor is alive and well in these embattled areas, loathing, horror, and hatred seem to reign, darkness to rule. In the grim night, we cannot see each other’s faces.
In the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, there are numerous words for face. The face reflects emotions: reverence, submission, anger, happiness. With reference to God, sometimes the word “face” can connote “presence.”
In Exodus 33:20 God tells Moses that no one can see the face of God and live.
A few months ago I was paging through an album of photographs that I had inherited from my grandmother after my parents died. Glued unyielding to the brittle pages, my ancestors posed, less and less formally as the late-nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, an outdoor landscape here, a laughing toddler there.
As is my wont, I surveyed the photos carefully, mining whatever clues they could offer to the personality of the subject – until I came to a family portrait, most likely from the 1930s.
Just a man and two women in a Berlin park, apartment buildings behind them – the apparent essence of middle-class normalcy. Wearing coats, staring seriously into the unseen camera, they might be out on a stroll, enjoying the day. Perhaps they stopped to have a picture taken by a visitor from the states, or another relative.
On the back, written in my grandmother’s library-science handwriting, it says – “killed in the Holocaust." I put the picture down.
Because so many of my mother’s family came over in the 1880s and 1890s, we didn’t lose a lot of relatives in the Nazi death camps. But now, no longer an abstraction, they have faces.
No longer do I have the privilege of imagining that, in such a world, the soldiers would not have come for me, too.
From there it is but one step to wonder, hearing the accounts of death squads and drug lords, what it feels like to be young, and vulnerable, and terrified – like the children who brave starvation and violence to make it to our borders.
Not that I really had a choice: my grandmother, great aunt, and numerous human rights activists on my mother’s side of the family made sure we knew that black sharecroppers, Vietnamese children, merchant seamen, and immigrants were not objects of our charity, but equals in a society where inequality was the norm.
They might have been dubious about the existence of God, but they were sure about the imperatives of human justice.
A few days ago I heard a U.N. official in Gaza being interviewed by a journalist. Please don’t treat the Gaza casualties as mere numbers, he asked the reporter. Each one of them is an individual.
For a brief moment, a few weeks ago, the murder of three Israeli teens and the revenge killing of an Arab young man brought their families together in the profound grief of losing beloved children. For a moment, those of us who choose sides on the basis of dogma or clan were silenced in the face of their undeniably authentic bond.
For a few days, we could see. But now, the deaths of the children of Gaza are coming thick and fast, and we are all in danger of losing the compassion, terror, and understanding that comes with sight.
There are undeniably, men (mostly men) of blood, who rejoice in killing. Our indifference, prejudices, and blindness simply give them more power.
To them, one terrified face is like another, one corpse as good a prop as any.
In Jesus, God gave us a face, a glory, a presence that we could look upon – and survive. But in doing so, God also challenged us to see our world, including our adversaries, differently.
God was remarkable in part because God looked into the faces of the rejected and the outcast – each one of them.
Beyond their scars, beyond their families of origin, beyond status or lack of it, God lifted them up and affirmed them as holy (and wholly) children of God.
Even in the ruined face and stench of his dead friend Lazarus, the itinerant preacher saw the possibility new life, eternal beauty.
If his Gospel of healing and freedom was true for the derelicts and persecuted of his day, then it is still so for those today crushed under the feet of the powerful and the insane.
I wonder, sometimes, if we are afraid to allow ourselves to recognize the holiness, the fundamental humanity of our enemies – lest we see in their countenance one very like our own.
It is possible that the way we look at conflict, and peace, suffering, and love, at the faces of those we want to keep outside the circle of the human and the divine, might be utterly changed.
And what on earth would we do then?
Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans is an Episcopal priest and a freelance writer.