No Words

In November 2005, Tom Fox, a member of Langley Hill (Va.) Meeting, and three other members of the Christian Peacemaker Team in Iraq were kidnapped by a group calling itself the Swords of Righteousness Brigade. Their lives were threatened if all Iraqi detainees were not immediately released. Messages of support for these peacemakers came from around the world, including many from the Muslim community. On March 10, 2006, Tom Fox’s body was recovered in Baghdad. On March 23, his three fellow peacemakers were rescued by multinational forces without a shot being fired. The following excerpts are from Tom Fox’s online journal, starting with the most recent first, and ending with his clear perception about what nonviolence required of him. —Eds.

tuesday, november 8, 2005

There are No Words

"The ongoing difficulties faced by Fallujans are so great that words fail to properly express them." —Words from a cleric in Fallujah as he tried to explain the litany of ills that continue to afflict his city one year after the U.S.-led assault took place.

"All the men in the mosque were from my neighborhood. They were not terrorists." —Words from a young man who said he left a room of men who were either injured or homeless 30 minutes before the raid on his mosque, the same mosque shown in the now-famous videotape of a U.S. soldier shooting unarmed men lying on the mosque floor.

"There haven’t been any funds for home reconstruction available since the change in Iraqi government last January." —The words of a civic leader from Fallujah as he showed CPTers the still-devastated areas of his city.

There are no words. A city that has been demonized by Americans and many Iraqis, using the words "the city of terrorists." A city that its residents call "the city of mosques." A city that even its residents have to enter at checkpoints, often taking up to an hour to traverse. A city that is being choked to death economically by those same checkpoints.

CPTers and a member of the Muslim Peacemaker Teams came to Fallujah to meet with friends and contacts to ask them if the city was planning on doing something in remembrance of the tragic events of last November when U.S. forces attacked their city of 300,000 to root out, by U.S. estimates, 1,500 terrorists.

What we heard in response were words of remembrance, resistance, and resilience. The cleric said that a number of civic leaders had come to him with a proposal for an action in remembrance of the anniversary. Their proposal was to raise funds to contribute to relief efforts for the victims of the earthquake in Pakistan. He said that a teaching of Islam is to always look to aid others in need before asking for
aid yourself.

The cleric said that he recently traveled to another Middle Eastern country and during his visit he met with a cleric from Libya. The Libyan cleric said that in his city, and in other places in Libya, parents are naming newborn girls "Fallujah" in honor of the city. The cleric said that more than 800 girls had been named Fallujah in his city alone.

Words are inadequate, but words are all we have. Words like "collective punishment" and "ghettoize" come to mind for the current state of life in Fallujah.

What words or deeds could undo the massive trauma faced by the people of Fallujah every day? Everywhere we went during the afternoon young boys listened to our words and the words of those with whom we were meeting. I kept wondering what was going on in their minds as they relived the events of a year ago and the ensuing trauma. What effect will these events have on their lives as they grow up?

There are no words.

tuesday, august 30, 2005

This Sad Wearing Away of the Heart

"I must have something in life which will fill this vacuum and prevent this sad wearing away of the heart."
—Elizabeth Blackwell

This was the quote today in my planner as I considered the tragedies both great and small, personal and global we are all dealing with. Within one week my Quaker meeting has lost two great souls. Both showed exceptional courage facing medical conditions that took their lives. One faced them all his life and the other faced them over a number of years.

I don’t have a television but the images on the Internet and newspapers of the devastation in the Gulf states are almost beyond comprehension. How what was a glorified thunderstorm off the coast of Africa several weeks ago could transform itself into what we have called Hurricane Katrina is beyond me.
I was planning on sending out the Christian Peacemaker Team in Iraq update from last week but it was simply too much bad news—a suicide bomber in our neighborhood; a friend of the team with typhoid from the drinking water in the city; the uncle of a colleague who died from the intense heat due to lack of electricity. It went on and on.

And then today the incredible tragedy on the bridge leading into Kadamiah in Baghdad. A solemn religious processional turned into chaos and death. An event that would not have happened had not the events of the last two-and-one- half years driven almost everybody in Iraq to the edge of the precipice of uncontrollable fear.

Is there something in life that will fill this vacuum and prevent this sad wearing away of the heart? I have no idea but I do know that my heart feels differently when I consider the unknowable realms of disease and natural disaster compared to the man-made disasters that bring about death and destruction.

I say "man-made" intentionally. We have seen again and again in the last 100 years the evolution of warfare to the point now when the first two parts of war that have been in play for centuries, that of middle-aged men sending out young men to fight and die to keep the middle-aged men in power, has added a third component. Still the young fight and die to retain the power of the middle-aged men but now most of those who lose their lives in the conflict are women and children.

Four months ago the UN commissioned a study to look at Iraqi casualties since the beginning of the U.S.-led invasion. The organization that undertook the study was a Swiss group that studies what they consider to be the true weapons of mass destruction—rifles and automatic weapons. Weapons using bullets have killed the vast majority of human beings in Iraq and everywhere else wars are being waged. The study stated that 40,000 Iraqis have probably died from violence since March of 2003. That includes death from U.S., Iraqi, and insurgent violence. And 70 percent of those casualties were innocent noncombatants, mainly women and children.

The only "something in my life" I can hold onto is to do what little I can to bring about the creation of the Peaceable Realm of God. It is my sense that such a realm will always have natural disasters. It is the "man-made" disasters that we are called upon to bring to and end.

thursday, august 18, 2005

Country and God

This is the end of my first week of living in Frederick County, Virginia, which is situated in the northern part of the Shenandoah Valley. While I’ve spent time there before working at Opequon Quaker Camp, it’s the first time I’ve really had a chance to interact with local citizens and get a sense of the community. I would have to say my first impression is that folks here operate under two main themes: love of country and love of God. I’ve lived in the Washington, D.C., area for over 30 years, known as a bastion of patriotism, but even then I was not prepared for the plethora of red, white, and blue that is part of the landscape here. Bumper stickers, flags on lawns, billboards; the colors of the U.S. are in evidence everywhere. As for love of God, this week marks the first time in my life (I think) that I’ve been approached three different times by folks giving me bookmarks and other materials concerning salvation, Jesus, and God.

As I was unpacking I came across a Pendle Hill Pamphlet I forgot I had. It is entitled The Practice of the Love of God. It is actually a transcript of a lecture that Quaker economist and peace activist Kenneth Boulding gave right before the outbreak of World War II. He directed most of the talk to concerns he had regarding the conduct of the German people during the 1930s. I’m hoping I’m way off base on this but as I took a break from moving and sat down to read it again I had a strong sense that much of what he had to say was applicable to my country, the United States, in 2005.

One passage jumped out at me when he said, " Those who love their country in the light of their love of God, express that love of country by endeavoring to make it respected rather than feared, loved rather than hated. But those who love only their country express that love by trying to make it feared and succeed all too often in making it hated."

I think it would be fair to say that a survey of opinion taken from news sources in various parts of the world would find people using the words "fear and hatred" much more often than they would use the words "respect and love" when it comes to describing the United States. This is the case not only in the Middle East but in Europe and in much of Asia and other areas as well. We are seen more as an empire than as a beacon of hope to the oppressed and downtrodden. We are seen more as a militaristic superpower, bent on imposing our will on others, rather than the keeper of the flame of the hope and promise of democracy.

Perhaps the only way out of this is to claim the true relationship of God and country as described by Boulding. We must come from a spirit of love and compassion to help our leaders and many of our fellow citizens come to see that if we truly love God then we must make a drastic change of direction in the course of our country. The only way we will gain respect is by showing it to others, even those we disagree with. The only way we will gain love is by giving it to others, even those we disagree with. Love of country must always be subordinate to love of God. Love of country alone sets us on a course towards the disasters that have befallen other counties over the centuries. Charting a new course must begin now, before it is too late.

tuesday, june 21, 2005

For the Sake of Our Children

A colleague and I walked to a shop to pick up an order. The shop owner told us how very depressed she is regarding the ongoing security and infrastructure crisis in Iraq. She feels, as do many Iraqis, that things are getting worse, not better. She said she is beginning to feel as if her life has no meaning beyond working nine hours a day, six days a week. A co-worker did not dispute her assessment of the situation but made an impassioned plea never to give up hope for a better future. And even more importantly: to never stop working to help bring that better future to come to pass. The co-worker concluded by saying, "Things probably won’t get better in my lifetime but I will keep working to make things better for the sake of our children."

Our apartment is across the street from a park. Many evenings around the time we are gathering for supper a mother and her three children walk by our living room window. The western sun illuminates her face and the faces of her young children. I don’t know her but in a way I feel I do. She looks tired. So many, many people here in Iraq are so very tired. She looks a bit fearful. Will today be the day when the insurgents set off a car bomb near the park? Will today be the day when the young men of the Iraqi National Guard, riding like cowboys in the back of their pickup trucks, get trigger- happy and start shooting with her and her children in the line of fire? Yet day after day I see her taking her children to the park. Underneath the fatigue and the fear I can sense the hope and the courage in her heart. It reflects on her children as does the setting sun reflect on the nearby Tigris River. She gives me courage to face the overwhelming difficulties of life in this broken land. She is living in the present moment fully aware of the dangers and uncertainties and yet she has not given up hope, she has not given in to despair, she has not let herself be driven into hiding by men with guns and bombs. She is my teacher. She teaches me how to live fully conscious of the horrors of today and still be able to envision a future of promise, peace, and plenty. I would pray that we all live each day, no matter where we are, "for the sake of our children."

monday, june 06, 2005

Tunnel Vision

"Iraqis always seem to have lots of guns in their houses." A U.S. Army colonel was making reference to how prevalent gun ownership is in Iraq. We were meeting with him in his office in the Green Zone. Draped across his high back chair was an ornate leather holster with his service revolver.

"Our young technician can barely keep up with the demand." The colonel described the work of a sergeant who is an expert in constructing artificial limbs. The colonel said proudly that no one in Iraq has the equipment or expertise that this young man has. Yet there did not seem to be an acknowledgement of why there is such a demand for artificial limbs in Iraq at this time.

"The Iraqi NGOs we work with have a lot of trouble developing a level of trust between them." He noted that when his office organizes a conference of NGOs in the Green Zone often they don’t want to follow the set agenda but need to express their lack of trust for the U.S. military and for each other. Yet he failed to mention the years of totalitarian rule by Saddam followed by two years of anarchy, neither of which would tend to develop trust in any institutions.

"All of us took a nine-hour seminar on understanding Iraqi culture when we got here a year ago." The colonel said his unit would be going home at the end of the month after a year in Iraq. As is the case with many U.S. military and civilians working in the Green Zone, the colonel said he has never set foot on a street in Baghdad. He has never been inside the home of an Iraqi family, nor has he seen any of the historical or cultural sites of the country.

It would seem easy to characterize the colonel as hypocritical and bigoted. I am not the greatest judge of character but I kept having an image of him on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon holding up a tube from a roll of paper towels and describing what he saw. We are all finite creatures with a very limited field of vision. But what I do (and it is my sense that the colonel does this also) instead of opening up my field of vision to include things that I don’t understand or agree with is to make my field of vision even narrower. "Out of sight, out of mind" is an old saying that seems rather apt in this case. The colonel seemed very confident that the vision of the world he described was an accurate and complete one. And this was true. Within his extremely limited worldview, his vision was indeed clear. But what about the vast universe he was not seeing? What about the vast universe I’m not seeing? How do we all expand
our vision to see things we don’t want to see? How do we stop putting "out of sight" things we don’t agree with? I wish I had an answer but I don’t even know where to start.

wednesday, april 27, 2005

The Middle of Nowhere

The ability to feel the pain of another human being is central to any kind of peacemaking work. But this compassion is fraught with peril. A person can experience a feeling of being overwhelmed. Or a feeling of rage and desire for revenge. Or a desire to move away from the pain. Or a sense of numbness that can deaden the ability to feel anything at all.

How do I stay with the pain and suffering and not be overwhelmed? How do I resist the welling up of rage towards the perpetrators of violence? How do I keep from disconnecting from or becoming numb to the pain?
After eight months with CPT, I am no clearer than when I began. In fact I have to struggle harder and harder each day against my desire to move away or become numb. Simply staying with the pain of others doesn’t seem to create any healing or transformation. Yet there seems to be no other first step into the realm of compassion than to not step away.

"Becoming intimate with the queasy feeling of being in the middle of no-where makes our hearts more tender. When we are brave enough to stay in the nowhere place then compassion arises spontaneously" (The Places that Scare You, by Pema Chödrön). Being in the middle of nowhere really does create a very queasy feeling and yet so many spiritual teachers say it is the only authentic place to be.

Not staking out any ground for myself creates the possibility of standing with anyone. The middle of nowhere is the one place where compassion can be discovered. The constant challenge is recognizing that my true country of origin is the middle of nowhere.

saturday, december 25, 2004

Candles in the Shadows

At a team worship time soon after the kidnapping of Margaret Hassan [a CARE staffer who was subsequently killed] I had a very clear image. It was of a land of shadows and darkness. But within that land candles were burning; not many but enough to shed some light on the landscape. Some candles disappeared and it was my sense that their light was taken away for protection. Other candles burned until nothing was left and a small number of candles seemed to have their light snuffed out by the shadows and the darkness. What was most striking to me was that as the candles that burned until the end and as the candles whose light was snuffed out ceased to burn, more candles came into being, seemingly to build on their light.

I have been reflecting on two very bright and powerful lights I have had the privilege of getting to know in Iraq over the last several months. One is a an Iraqi who is a member of the Dominican Order. The other is a teacher who also works for a human rights organization. Both have no illusions regarding the dark times their country is facing. But both have a vision of a land of peace that they are working to bring to fruition. As for the current situation in his country the Dominican Father says, "I am prudent. I try to be wise. But I have no fear. This is my rule—I have no fear but I seek prudence and wisdom." The human rights worker said, "I believe that the foundation of all major religions (Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism) is peace. But it is a peace from within, not a peace imposed from without."

For a number of years our friend the human rights worker has had a vision of what he now calls an Islamic Peacemaker Team (IPT). He credits his contact and partnership with CPT over the last two years with giving him some concrete ideas to work with. He feels that there are two major hurdles to overcome in the formation of IPT: one is the tension between Sunni and Shi’a people (and leaders), and the other is the issue of what we in the West call "redemptive violence" as an acceptable way of resolving conflicts. The Dominican Father has many projects going at this time. He is working on a translation project because, he says, "Arabic people make up over 5 percent of the world’s population but only l percent of the world’s literature is available in Arabic." He is also starting the Open University of Baghdad. Renovation is beginning on an existing building that was used as a convent. It will be open to all, Christians and Muslims. Payment will be on a sliding scale with an emphasis on technical skill building and language courses.

Fearless, prudent, and wise. We in CPT need to work to find a balance between all three of these character traits. But it is my sense that removing ourselves from the shadows and darkness will never create the capacity for those living in the shadows to grow in the light.

friday, october 22, 2004

Fight or Flight?

"If an attacker inspires anger or fear in my heart, it means that I have not purged myself of violence. To realize nonviolence means to feel within you its strength—soul force—to know God. A person who has known God will be incapable of harboring anger or fear within [oneself], no matter how overpowering the cause for that anger or fear may be" (Gandhi speaking to Badshah Kahn’s Khudai Khidmatgar officers; A Man to Match His Mountains, by Eknath Easwaran, p. 157).

When I allow myself to become angry I disconnect from God and connect with the evil force that empowers fighting. When I allow myself to become fearful, I disconnect from God and connect with the evil force that encourages flight. I take Gandhi and Jesus at their word—if I am not one with God then I am one with Satan. I don’t think Gandhi would use that word but Jesus certainly did, on numerous occasions. The French theologian Rene Girard has a very powerful vision of Satan that speaks to me: "Satan sustains himself as a parasite on what God creates by imitating God in a manner that is jealous, grotesque, perverse, and as contrary as possible to the loving and obedient imitation of Jesus" (I Saw Satan Fall Like Lighting, R. Girard, p. 45).

If I am not to fight or flee in the face of armed aggression, be it the overt aggression of the army or the subversive aggression of the terrorist, then what am I to do? "Stand firm against evil" (Matthew 5:39, translated by Walter Wink) seems to be the guidance of Jesus and Gandhi in order to stay connected with God. But here in Iraq I struggle with that second form of aggression. I have visual references and written models of CPTers standing firm against the overt aggression of an army, be it regular or paramilitary. But how do you stand firm against a car bomber or a kidnapper? Clearly the soldier being disconnected from God needs to have me fight. Just as clearly the terrorist being disconnected from God needs to have me flee. Both are willing to kill me using different means to achieve the same end. That end being to increase the parasitic power of Satan within God’s good creation.

It seems easier somehow to confront anger within my heart than it is to confront fear. But if Jesus and Gandhi are right, then I am not to give in to either. I am to stand firm against the kidnapper as I am to stand firm against the soldier. Does that mean I walk into a raging battle to confront the soldiers? Does that mean I walk the streets of Baghdad with a sign saying "American for the Taking"? No to both counts. But if Jesus and Gandhi are right, then I am asked to risk my life and if I lose it to be as forgiving as they were when murdered by the forces of Satan. I struggle to stand firm but I’m willing to keep working at it.