Aylan, an icon of our times

Many Christian traditions, including my own, have a practice of praying with icons. By contemplating an image, we are led into deeper truths and prayer.

But icons aren’t just things we find in churches. They’re in the world around us. The image of Aylan, the young migrant child who drowned off the coast of Greece, is an icon of our times.1548

I have spent a larger portion of my morning than I had intended staring at this icon. Here are some things I’ve seen:

  • officialdom and bureaucracy: I see the uniform—hat, vest, boots—though it doesn’t seem to be a terribly high-ranking official, merely a functionary making a note of this particular death and then (in other photos of this moment that are circulating) carting the child away. I’m not putting blame on the official. But it’s a representation of the collective (non-) response to mass migration we’re seeing: low-level officials on the front-lines are unable to adequately respond, while senior leaders are absent.
  • notebook: I see that the official appears to be making a note in a notebook. It is this glimpse of the notebook that I have kept returning to as a symbol of our response: make notes, file paperwork, make the right bureaucratic moves—and fail to prevent deaths.
  • detritus: the child is not the only thing washed up on shore. If you look in the background, you’ll see the usual bits of trash and plastic and driftwood you find on the beaches. And the child is just like that.
  • and, of course, the child: it’s a position that reminds me of the curious and amusing way that many children seem to fall asleep in the most uncomfortable position possible. Of course, he’s not sleeping—and it’s that truth that the photo draws us back to again and again.
  • last, but not least, the Bible: I thought of Lamentations: “Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass [scroll] by?” (1.12)

We live in an image-saturated world. We have apps that let us scroll through photo after photo of our friends and others going about their lives. We are never encouraged to slow down, pause, and stare for a long time.

There are no shortage of responses to this icon. It’s already a meme, a source of new (and understandable) outrage, a call to action, and a talking point in political conversation. We can have opinions about all of those things. We should also have an opinion about the sharing and viewing of this image. After all, Aylan is neither the first nor last child to die in this way. Just because someone was there to take his photo, does that change things?

But right now, I just want to contemplate this icon—not scroll past it, not add text to it—but simply be in its presence. By doing so, I am drawn more fully into the truth it reveals, a truth which indicts us all.

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