Learning to Love Paul Wolfowitz, and Other Impossible Tasks

My activities that Sunday morning were supposed to be Christmasy and result in life actually improving in some small way for 2,000 people. Instead, I was staring at Paul Wolfowitz and tripping over my own—um—let’s be kind and call it ambivalence. Doesn’t that sound nicer than hypocrisy?

I was standing in the middle of the Friends Meeting of Washington’s basement, trying to direct the Shoebox Project. Every year, our meeting organizes this activity, the object of which is to fill, wrap, and donate a shoebox full of goodies to each of 2,000 homeless people in Washington, D.C. The project is funded by donations from World Bank employees.

My job at this event is to stand in the middle of the room and unsnarl snarls: figure out what’s slowing down the line, what needs to be prepared for the next step, and whether we have too many or too few people wrapping, packing, or folding T-shirts, bandanas, and socks. We pack the children’s boxes first, with their books and games; women’s boxes next, with the smaller gloves and hats; and men’s boxes last.

I have to keep an eye on which supplies are getting to the tables and into the boxes, and when we’re close to completing each segment. This sounds hard, but the whole thing runs pretty much like an anthill—most people figure out which job they feel like doing and just pitch in. Usually, someone brings a boom box and we listen to Christmas carols. People chatter cheerfully. Everyone is beaming with generosity. Isn’t this what Christmas is supposed to be about, pretty much?

During December 2006, in the middle of all this, I noticed a fellow in the room who looked an awful lot like Paul Wolfowitz. At this point, Wolfowitz was head of the World Bank, the organization whose employees donate all the funds for our project. But he’s better known as one of the chief architects of the war against Iraq—a war he began advocating in 1977. This was his vision.

And what a vision it’s been!

Okay, I’m now standing in the middle of my nice Quaker meeting, looking at one of the major architects of a war that, at that point, had cost (according to a highly respected study by Johns Hopkins University) roughly 650,000 Iraqi lives and displaced millions more— as well as costing (at that point) the lives of 3,000 U.S. soldiers and the wounding of (depending on whom you believe) between 20,000 and 200,000 more.

What would you do?

I turned to the closest friend I could find. This happened to be J.E. McNeil, who is a wonderful Quaker, but not a gentle one. I said, "That looks like Paul Wolfowitz."

She said, "That is Paul Wolfowitz."

I said—and I want to get the quote here exactly, so you can understand my meaning—"Ack!"

She took me by the shoulders, put her face about two inches away from mine, and said, "There is that of God in everyone, Debby."

I paused to consider this. I said, "What?"

She repeated the phrase. I tried to figure out what difference that made. I was looking at a fellow who had spent 30 years deliberately planning and pushing our country into a war that has killed more than half a million people. What could she possibly mean? I said, "Is this some kind of test?"

"Yes," she said.

I thought about telling her I’d take the F.

I considered my options. I reviewed (a) walking out, (b) telling him off, (c) trying to get a group of Friends together to tell him off, (d) asking him to leave, and (e) ignoring him. Option A—walking out—meant that Paul Wolfowitz would have forced me out of my own meeting. Nope, couldn’t do it. The options for telling him off felt vindictive and not well-seasoned. They might have been a good idea, but I would have had to think and pray through them a lot more. Option E—ignoring him—looked like the best I could do at the moment. Besides, I had work to do. I went back to unsnarling snarls (except my own, obviously) and studiously ignored him.

After another hour of this—during which, I have to say, Paul Wolfowitz worked like a dog—it was time to switch from packing the women’s boxes to packing the men’s. At this point, the packing line stopped and we spent five frantic minutes clearing the tables and bringing the men’s stuff out from the storage room. I whirled around, looking for folks to help haul. There, right in front of me—unavoidably, totally in front of me—was Paul Wolfowitz. I said, "We need help back there," and pointed. He said, "Okay," and followed me back.

I was now alone with Paul Wolfowitz in the storage room of my Quaker meeting. I thought thoughts. A lot of them. I rejected all but the last one, which was to point to a rather heavy box of men’s hats and say, "That needs to go out to the table." I immediately felt bad because he had splints on his wrists for some kind of carpal tunnel thing. I said, "That’s a little heavy—we can get someone to help."

"No!" he said (Macho pig, I thought), and picked it up, tottering under the weight. He walked out.

I had just told Paul Wolfowitz what to do and where to go. Does it get any better than this?

I told this story to a number of people and was interested in their reactions. Many friends and acquaintances had numerous suggestions as to exactly what I should have said to this man. Friends at the Simplicity Group at our meeting, on the other hand, were not amused. "That sounds mean, Debby," they said when I told them what I’d done.

"Mean? I’m the one who sounds mean?" I responded, defensive and furious. "This guy is responsible for the war in Iraq, and you’re calling me mean? What was he doing there, anyway?" I asked, warming to my topic. "Why was he let in?"

The group jumped all over me. "Are you saying that we should keep people from working for the homeless because we don’t like their foreign policy?" they asked.

"He’s using us," I said. "He probably went home and felt that he’d done good in the world for two hours and could now go commit havoc and mayhem all over the planet for the rest of the week with clean hands. We’re giving him cover."

"So we should stop people like him from volunteering for the homeless?" they pressed.

This discussion was not going well. I changed the topic.

I was still growling the next week at a dinner party organized by my friend Nancy. I railed and railed against this man. One of the guests tried to weaken my argument by telling me, "Oh, come on, Wolfowitz isn’t responsible for all 650,000 deaths in Iraq; he’s just one of the architects of the war."

"Oh, great—so he’s only responsible for, say, 100,000 deaths? What’s that, a misdemeanor?" I asked.

I was rude. I was angry. I was the exact opposite of what Gandhi advocates when he defines ahimsa (nonviolence). "Ahimsa is not the crude thing it has been made to appear. Not to hurt any living thing is no doubt a part of ahimsa," Gandhi wrote. "But it is its least expression. The principle of ahimsa is hurt by every evil thought, by undue haste, by lying, by hatred, by wishing ill to anybody."

Nancy was appalled. She told me I sounded as if I hated Mr. Wolfowitz.

"Not him," I replied automatically. "Just his behavior." (God is used to insincerity, right? This wouldn’t be a big surprise.)

We were in the middle of a dinner party. It was New Year’s Eve. We changed the topic.

I ran into Nancy by accident a month later. I had just gone up to Capitol Hill to sit in on the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings when they examined Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, author of the government memo advocating torture. I was wearing my orange "Shut Down Guantanamo" T-shirt and sitting right in front with another Quaker. We listened for two hours as Gonzales wove and dodged and avoided all responsibility for torture, spying, or firing federal prosecutors. I left, appalled and furious, and went back to Union Station to pick up lunch and catch the train home. Nancy had been to a hearing for her government agency and went to the station with the same agenda. We found each other and had lunch together. It felt like a gift.

Or it did until she started eldering me about how it was pointless to wear these T-shirts and do these protests if I still had all this hatred in my heart. I said, "It’s not hatred, it’s rage." She didn’t see the fine distinction. She told me I needed to work on it. She was really irritating. I grumped all the way home.

And there, I got a little stuck. I couldn’t get past the idea that, if we’re judging Wolfowitz’s life according to some kind of moral spreadsheet (and I clearly am), two hours of working for the homeless versus 30 years of working for preemptive war doesn’t equal out. It’s certainly not enough for me to decide that everything is hunky dory in this man’s life. Then again, perhaps that’s not mine to judge—perhaps that’s really God’s job. Maybe I have another job.

Nancy (and maybe Gandhi) would say that I needed to work on forgiving him. I think this is a tricky issue. Is forgiveness just a formal name for condescension? If I say I forgive him, does that mean I’ve found a comfortable way to feel superior?

And who am I to forgive him, anyway? I am not one of those who has lost a family member because of this guy’s obsession and power and push to violence. I am not lying in a V.A. hospital missing an arm or a leg, or watching as my child’s coffin is draped with a U.S. flag and lowered into the ground, and wondering about what we’ve achieved for the price I have just paid. I am not a resident of Iraq whose family, home, business, neighborhood, and economy have been totaled by adherence to this man’s ideology. My deciding that, hey, I’m a wonderfully moral person and forgiving him for all that strikes me as morally off-based—right up there in arrogance with deciding that Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot both deserve my personal forgiveness. Where do I get off?

And then there’s the whole question of redemption. If I decide I can forgive this man, does that mean I think he’s been redeemed? This seemed completely beyond what I could swallow. I could not then, and cannot now, think of one single thing or series of things that Paul Wolfowitz could do to atone for the enormous pain, suffering, and loss he has inflicted; nor could I think of a way the community he has harmed could be made whole by such acts. I can’t do this, but my faith tells me that God can—and that I have some part in it.

I was still not at the point of being able to love this man. But I was finally willing to look at why I felt so much rage toward him—not as a him thing, but as a me thing. And this is what I found:

I was having trouble seeing that of God in him, but was having no trouble at all seeing the arrogant, self-righteous, convinced-that-violence-is-good-and-right-and-necessary parts of him.

I’m self-righteously, probably arrogantly, against all of these flaws. This says something about me, and strikes me as the thing that I need to work on. Haven’t I been arrogant? Aren’t I often convinced I’m right? Haven’t I tried to impose my ideas on others, especially those for whom I’m responsible? The chief differences here, it seems, are more in degree than in kind. Wolfowitz has a lot more power in this world than I do. If I rail and rant, I irritate people. If he pushes his beliefs, people die. But I need to be able to look at him and see myself, to recognize these flaws when they come up, to be especially careful of how I use the worldly power I do have. The rest, I need to turn over, turn over, turn over to God, and to say with the Psalmist:

If you, Lord, should keep account of sins, who could hold his ground?
But with you is forgiveness, so that you may be revered. (Ps. 130:3-4)

I live in the hope that all my sins may be forgiven, and that I can learn, slowly or quickly, to turn away from those actions that seem to draw me away from God. And I can see that Paul Wolfowitz is entitled to exactly the same hope. I believe I am held daily in the Light of God. And I can see that, for better or for worse, Paul Wolfowitz is standing in that same Light. Perhaps I can only see his shadow. God can see his heart. This is a trust thing. I need to turn this over to God, and let go.

So I am still struggling. I pray that my longing for justice will not collapse into rage against those who have committed great harm, and that my belief that a better world is possible will not get swallowed up by my frustration with the world as it is. I pray to stay open to the leadings of the Holy Spirit, and to be able to discern what is truly righteous, not self-righteous. And I pray for gratitude for everyone’s gifts—the ones that come by grace, and the ones that come by struggle.
In the words of the Psalmist:

I wait for the Lord with longing;
I put my hope in his word.
Let God’s people look for the Lord.
For in the Lord is love unfailing,
And great is his power to deliver.
(Ps. 130:5,7)

God alone will set people free from all their sins.