Small symbols of hope amid Myanmar cyclone devastation

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Nargis victimsAs the scale of death and destruction in Myanmar becomes clearer, the pervasive response is one of helplessness.

We feel the ordinary helplessness of being distant from those who suffer, and of being dwarfed by the scope of the suffering which we read about. We feel helpless because anything we can do is too little.

In response to the catastrophe in Myanmar we may also feel helpless rage at the callousness of its military rulers. They ought to serve their people but do nothing to help them. They even obstruct international efforts to help.

In these floods everything is out of joint. Nature is out of control; thousands of people must lose their lives rather than live them. Granaries leach grain to the waters rather than store it; international power is ineffectual before local resistance.

The challenge in the face of so much helplessness and so much contrariness is to keep alive the hope that things can be different, that shared humanity is more than a comfortable abstraction. That challenge is not logistical but spiritual. So although the Christian feast of Pentecost, celebrated yesterday, will do nothing concrete for the victims of the flood, it may suggest what is involved in keeping hope alive.

Pentecost is about large hopes. It asserts the Christian hope that when Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead, he reconciled all human beings with God and one another. This hope ran contrary to all available evidence about the power of Jesus' death and about reconciliation between human beings.

The story of Pentecost supports hope through small symbols. The large hope that all humanity will be reconciled is caught in the small story of people who are divided by language but who hear in their own tongues a single speech delivered in another language. This story keeps alive the larger hope. It also gives power to the memory of Jesus' death and rising.

In the face of the helplessness engendered by the flooding in Myanmar, it is also important to attend to symbols. Here too small symbols may support the hope that we can make a difference, that tyrannies are not forever, and that our common humanity is more than a nice metaphor.

Symbols are there to see in Myanmar: NGO's mobilising to respond to the crisis; the generosity of people giving to help others so distant; efforts of diplomacy trying to make an intransigent regime less inhumane; Buddhist monks enduring.

Symbols don't bury the dead or feed the starving. So they can be dismissed. But they can also encourage us not to lose hope.

Caritas response

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.


Flickr image by TZA




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Existing comments

Do a Google Image search of Senior General Than Shwe and there you will see a monster in a uniform that has never seen grime and suffering, loaded with medals and decorations which no doubt were all 'acquired' not earned. In the obscenity existing in Burma, it is timely to read Andy's Pentecost-linked piece.

Through our tears of anger, frustration, impotence and grief, what else can we do but wait, watch ... and pray the UN can put aside its appalling corruption, and DO SOMETHING?
Richard Flynn | 12 May 2008


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