Tragedies that occur throughout the Late Modern world tend to create “worthy” victims who occupy public attention and sympathy, and dehumanized “unworthy” victims who are less deserving of our sympathy. This essay attempts to arrest attention to the unworthy victims of Yemen, where 14 million people are on the brink of starvation. God’s definitive self-revelation in the crucified and risen Messiah from Nazareth calls into question the world’s economy of human worth.
By Joshua Heavin
In their 1988 classic Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of Mass Media, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky outline one of the more grotesque and banal features of America’s public liturgies: the recognition of “worthy” and “unworthy” victims on the world stage. Events such as school shootings or internationally-led terrorist attacks on predominately-White victims tend to receive vast and immediate public attention, huge outpourings of grief, and widespread charitable aid. Although every situation is unique, tragedies against “worthy victims” tend to necessitate a familiar, grim, public ritual: government officials hold press conferences outlining what occurred, and express condolences to victims’ families and the desire for justice. Sometimes, they take action. But other tragedies and atrocities happen to “unworthy victims,” an appropriately bizarre notion. Among historically-marginalized or -disenfranchised peoples, these tragedies and atrocities garner much less public interest, almost regardless of the comparable scale or severity.
One of the more radical actions that can be taken by followers of the crucified Messiah from Nazareth is to refuse to accept or be normalized to this state of affairs. Victims and their dignity are not discriminatorily worthy or unworthy of our empathy, compassion, and mercy in a moral imagination formed by the food and drink of Christ’s broken body and shed blood.
Jesus of Nazareth was not a worthy victim. An impoverished Jew—and one from Nazareth at that— Jesus was spat upon, mocked, and ultimately lynched by an empire obsessed with prestige and power, and behind them, the powers of Sin and Death (1 Cor 2:8).
On August 9, 40 boys between the ages of six and eleven died on a school bus in Yemen. Eleven adults also died and 79 others were wounded, including 56 children. They were struck by a laser-guided, 500-pound MK-82 bomb made by Lockheed Martin, supplied along with intelligence and refueling by the United States to Saudi Arabia’s coalition in the ongoing conflict in Yemen. In a separate incident on August 24, another bomb was dropped, killing 22 children and four women.
The Saudi coalition supported by the U.S. has caused a humanitarian crisis of an almost unfathomable magnitude in Yemen. As of October 24, the United Nations reported that 22 million people were in dire need of humanitarian aid and facing “pre-famine” conditions in addition to extreme scarcity of clean water. The near-collapse of Yemen’s healthcare system has caused shortages for all medical needs in Yemen.
To be clear, the native Houthis have been accused of their own egregious crimes, but the country’s children have not been regarded as “worthy victims,” as noted by the Guardian:
More than three years into Yemen’s war, the horrifying statistics induce a sense of hopelessness: 57,000 people killed, 14 million at risk of famine, 10,000 new cholera cases each week. Save the Children estimates 85,000 under-fives have starved to death. That’s an average of 77 a day since 2015. If 77 children died from avoidable causes on a single day in the UK or US, the roar of grief and anger would be heard around the world.
The story of Yemen’s war is a story of international indifference, self-interest and cynical manipulation. World leaders at this year’s G20 summit mostly paid lip service to the issue, if they discussed it at all.
It is not the case that we simply need to send aid to a famished region undergoing natural disasters; the U.S. has actively supported Saudi Arabia’s blockade that has directly caused the famine, and which is preventing food from entering the country to alleviate this suffering. According Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times, “Our tax dollars are going to starve children.” Children, like 12-year-old Abrar, whose name we should know and whose photo we should not turn our eyes away from.
“The story of Yemen’s war is a story of international indifference, self-interest and cynical manipulation.”
The connection between American citizens and the humanitarian crisis in Yemen cannot be morally reduced to taxes. But it is not insignificant, as The Atlantic reports, that “U.S. taxpayers have been footing the bill for a major part of the Saudi-led campaign, possibly to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.”
The scale of potential starvation in Yemen are numbers of holocaust proportion. Why are we not losing our minds about this? Why are we tweeting about Jimmy Butler’s drama with the Timberwolves and 76ers, or Kanye West’s latest marketing spectacle? Perhaps it is because we would prefer that these horrifying realities did not exist.
Far too many American Christians are not looking at what our government is doing to the most vulnerable humans on the planet. In the case of Yemen, as Mohamad Bazzi has argued, the U.S. could end the war in Yemen if it wanted to. President Obama was rightly criticized for killing innocent civilians with drone strikes in Yemen; currently, President Trump has increased drone attacks even if it means tolerating more civilian casualties. Although the U.S. Senate has voted to revoke U.S. support for the Saudi coalition, it is unclear when that decision will have any real consequences, let alone restorative aid for victims.
Importantly, the Senate on December 13 was able to pass the same resolution that previously failed in March, calling for an end to American involvement in Yemen. However, the day prior, a farm bill was passed in the House of Representatives that will prolong American support for the war in Yemen at least through the end of the year. One representative, when asked why he supported this measure, said about the war in Yemen, “I don’t know a damn thing about it.”
Such blatant disregard for human life is unacceptable.
As Christians exiled in this present Babylon, liberal democracy affords us the luxury of a strange expediency; we can take credit for everything we appreciate that our government does, but also distance ourselves as feeling unrepresented by anything we disapprove of. But we should resist such opportunism. We must not extricate ourselves from the responsibility of seeking accountability for the actions of our government in relation to the children of Yemen, who bear the image of God and whose blood is crying out for justice. Are we seeing them? Are we hearing them?
“We must resist the world’s economy which values human worth apart from God’s saving action in the crucified and risen Messiah from Nazareth…”
From border separations to police shootings to enduring public symbols of racial terror and white supremacy, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless by all that is wrong in America, in Yemen, in Myanmar, and in other places around the globe. But we can and must have hope. “Hope” and “disappointment” recur throughout Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” and must recur throughout our present uncivil worship and witness. Refusing a cynicism unto inaction and the moral paralysis of despair, followers of the risen Christ testify by their present actions of a coming city whose maker and designer is the God of inexhaustible compassion and relentless grace (Heb 11:10). Hence, we have theological resources for imagining better, more just relations between ourselves and the world’s vulnerable; imagine someone acting about these matters—and imagine that someone being you and me.
We must resist the world’s economy which values human worth apart from God’s saving action in the crucified and risen Messiah from Nazareth, whose grace radically calls into question all other evaluations of human worth. We “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). By no means is this a call to undervalue the severity of events that directly affect our immediate communities. But this is a call to question why, for instance, some horrors seem to be unimportant to us.
The 9/11 terror attacks, which killed at least 2,977 Americans, are tragedies that loom large in the American social imaginary. But it is unacceptable that, by contrast, there is such blatant apathy and disregard for the 2,975 people who died in Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, or for the 2,600 bodies exhumed in Raaqa, Syria, as a result of “an offensive that killed many more civilians than it did ISIS members, and where the majority of those civilians likely died in American airstrikes.”
Loving our neighbor requires us, to whatever extent we are capable of, to at least attempt to be informed about how our government relates to the most vulnerable human beings on the planet, perhaps by following organizations such as Amnesty Internal or International Justice Mission. We can only give our finite selves to so many causes in a world of infinite need, and it is far too easy for us to arbitrarily or expediently only care about and keep up with causes that immediately affect us. But if we are “in Christ,” we have been crucified to the world and the world to us (Galatians 6:14); we have necessarily entered into solidarity with the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and imprisoned (Matthew 25:31-46). We have a moral responsibility to not only end our complicity in starving Yemeni children, but to amend their wrongs as those who bear the image of God.
Joshua Heavin is a Ph.D candidate at Trinity College Bristol, University of Aberdeen, writing a dissertation on Paul and Participation in Christ. He lives in Dallas, Texas, and you call follow him on twitter @JoshuaHeavin.