Mercy and the Failure to Form Moral Imagination
Nichole M. Flores and Mary Jo Iozzio
Confronted by a classmate’s concern over the possibility of contemporary totalitarian regimes using genocide as a tool of political control, another student commented “I don’t think genocide is a realistic possibility today.” Contrary to the ongoing destruction of whole cities in Syria, for example –from infrastructure to housing and schools and hospitals and cultural artifacts and to life—the student argued that social media makes suffering and violence visible, thus reducing the possibility of the systematic killing of an entire population of people. Ah, the innocence of college privilege to think public shame via social media would generate social solidarity.
The comment reveals the assumptions of a naïve hope that by exposing regime-responsible suffering and violence social media is sufficient to garner international condemnation and swift cessation of hostilities. It is true that social media now plays a crucial role in publicizing news from around the globe with near instant speed. However, while social media –in commentary and images—can inspire a surge of sympathy, it fails to sustain compassion or prompt material support for those in the midst of a conflict with roots in the dynamics of colonialism as well as the fall of the Ottoman Empire within the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere.
Something more than social media-inspired-solidarity is necessary to expose the systems and sanctioned violence that empower the privileged over most everyone else. Something like an aesthetic-imaginative engagement with human suffering can provide an affective foundation for a social solidarity that responds to the scandal of genocide and other brutalities exposed in the media. Yet, at the culmination of a year of mercy, in which disregard and even disdain for human beings executed on video was common, images of that savagery fail to guard against systematic violence in Aleppo, Syria, or St. Anthony, MN, Tulsa, OK, Charlotte, NC, Chicago, IL, El Cajon, CA….
How do we account for the discrepancy between our visceral response to social media images and merciful action on behalf of the victims? What would it take for Christians to make mercy a political priority? This situation reveals a disconnect widespread among US citizens but not beyond hope between feelings of compassion and the failure of policies that extend mercy to the world’s most vulnerable people. To prioritize mercy requires the cultivation of moral imagination. The moral imagination forms by connecting discursive ways to sensory ways of engaging moral sensibilities to act. This formation can be engaged with the images available through social media and other outlets –such as those of Syrian Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body (Bodrum, Turkey, September 2015) or the dazed, dusty, and blood encrusted Aleppo 5-year old Omran Daqneesh (August 2016) or the women and men, teenagers, and young children crossing borders to hoped-for refuge in Lebanon, Turkey, and beyond—must be framed by considerations of mercy, justice, and responsibility. Imagination formed in the crucible of our sisters and brothers experiences of chaos in their battle-weary lives as displaced persons, refugees, sojourners, mourners, and dead must hasten influence on thin policy and hasten results toward a thick social solidarity.
In North America, many have felt moved to compassion by disturbing social media images of the genocidal crisis in Syria. Whether images of migrants making their way to Turkey or others left in Aleppo’s rubble, these images have been sign posts for the conflict, evoking shock and concern over the human costs of this six-year conflict. For many observers the images touch home: for anyone who has ever cared for a young child, tender memories of little shoes, little clothes, and little bodies belie the chaos that is Syria today. These kinds of memories underscore the basic humanitarian character of the crisis—children wearing little shoes and whom have barely begun to live remain dangerously vulnerable in their homes and homelands, slaughtered or denied refuge by neighbors and social media voyeurs who could help. These kinds of memories sound the imperatives of solidarity.
At the end of the year of mercy, we witness a world –a people—lacking formation in the moral imagination that enters into the chaos of another, which fails to be merciful like God and to respond in kind. The year of mercy unfolded against a backdrop of brutality around the world, fueled by the enduring pride and greed of the most powerful with the costs falling to the world’s most vulnerable, perhaps most evident in the humanitarian chaos destroying Syria and her people but true also in the Central African Republic, Greece, Iraq, Nigeria, Pacific Islands, South Sudan, Yemen… Even further, the United States electoral process yielded a president elect averse to the chaos of most people’s lives and who has advanced an anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, and anti-Muslim policy platform.
Mercy calls us to shed the global indifference, apathy, and fear of those who have been downtrodden by systems of oppression, manipulation, and unexamined privilege as contrary to if not diabolically opposed to the encounter God wills for us all. Social solidarity offers a way to enter the lives of the people projected by social media into our virtual communities. And the moral imagination can succeed where the burdens of justice are met with responsibility for neighbors near and far.