Mixed Emotions: Some Reflections on Life and Death

iraq 1991

by Jesse Wheeler

Life and Death

At 4:30 AM, 16 February 2016, my wife went into labor. In joyful anticipation, we scrambled out of bed, got dressed, grabbed our bags and rushed to the hospital.

Then… we waited. And waited. And… waited some more.

The baby came two weeks early, but this was no problem. After a month of pre-term labor, coupled with an unfortunate insurance complication leaving the delivery and any post-natal care which might have been required uncovered, we had spent every moment up to this point as if strapped to a time-bomb with a broken timer, each passing second an eternity.

Now, with only two weeks out, we were on cloud nine and more than happy to wait a little longer ‘in eager expectation for the child’ to come. I may be taking exegetical license, but nowhere is Heaven closer to Earth than in the face of a newborn child. For whoever welcomes a child in Christ’s name, welcomes the Author of Life Himself.

So, as has become common in our digital age, I spent many passing hours in the hospital browsing Facebook posts, reading articles, and sharing status updates. And as all my thoughts and emotions were focused on this beautiful new life about to be welcomed into the world, I scrolled upon a profoundly disorienting post forcing me, in the midst of this most holy of moments, to confront the gruesome underbelly of human existence.

Accompanied by the above picture, Christian writer/activist Shane Claiborne wrote the following in memory to the 25th anniversary of the horrific Amiriyah shelter bombing of the first Gulf War:

shane2

Although I’m only now writing about it, the stark juxtaposition between such contradictory feelings within the same emotional and psychological space have stayed with me for months. In fact, I honestly don’t know what more I can add to what Shane has already written, other than to simply reflect upon the cheapness and meaninglessness with which the war machine renders human life. 408 women and children, each the protagonist of her or his own unique story, each beloved creations of God crafted with purpose and intention and placed within loving families, were massacred in the most disgusting fashion.

And for what?

Violence in Context

Ultimately, what this reminds us is that ALL violence occurs in context. To echo Shane, one cannot understand the success of a group like ISIS without understanding the contemporary history of the modern Middle East.

“It clearly does not justify the evil done by ISIS, but it does help explain it.”

The ease with which westerners like myself have been able to smugly condemn “Arab violence” and yet continually overlook the unimaginable reign of death unleashed upon the peoples of this region by our own governments is deeply problematic. Likewise, it has become far too easy to castigate “Islam” as being inherently violent and yet completely disregard the obvious impact of contemporary history. As an American, I feel compelled to ask in what sense ISIS might be the specter of our own creation – an echo of our own wanton and reckless adventurism in and beyond the Middle East.

Furthermore, one cannot begin to grasp the recent spate of violence in France without situating it within the context of the deeply bloody Algerian War for Independence following a century plus of settler colonial conquest. And of course, one cannot so easily condemn Palestinian violence without situating it within the context of a draconian, half-century long military occupation and an expansionist settler movement. Finally, we can ask how anyone might react to the presence of flying (and extremely inaccurate) machines of death roaming our skies. As macabre as it sounds, I have found it helpful to always do a body count comparison in such cases, to look at the casualty statistics to help answer the question:

“Who’s killing whom?”

(Basic Links: Iraq / Palestine / Algeria / Drone)

‘Self-Critical’ Realism

By writing this, I in no way condone violence. I personally consider it both deeply immoral and quite often methodologically ineffective, for “when you fight fire with fire – you only get more fire.” And none has the right to extinguish the life God has so graciously granted. Yet, we must be forever vigilant in our self-criticism.

When we remain stubborn in the rightness of our cause and our readings of history and contemporary events, we so easily sanctify our actions and vilify others. In the words of Salim Munayer and Lisa Loden in their excellent, yet challenging book, Through My Enemy’s Eyes: Envisioning Reconciliation in Israel-Palestine:

“[The historical narratives we construct] often contribute to the perpetuating of strife and impede opportunities for reconciliation. Or while narrative supports identity, it also provides a sense of legitimacy, functional truth, a motivating rationale for participating in a conflict, as well as the rational for significantly resisting new information that may challenge the totalizing aspects of a narrative.

“Therefore, narrative grounds personal and collective identity. It focuses on positive in-group images and tends to exclude or tellingly omits, any in-group blame for violence and conflict. The burden of guilt for provoking and maintaining the conflict is reserved for the other side. This reassuring message is not difficult for an in-group to believe. It reinforces the group’s own belief that it consists of the good, reasonable people who value peace and harmony. That narrative reinforces the already existing sense that the group members are not the aggressors but the victims.”[1]

The narratives constructed with regard to Islam and the Middle East shield westerners like myself from acknowledging our complicity in the violence plaguing the region. Rather, they provide justification for it. Yet if we desire to be faithful to the Prince of Peace, we must consistently test ourselves and our constructions of reality. Self-criticism in the midst of conflict is never easy. In fact, you might say Jesus was crucified for it. But as our Lord challenges us:

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7: 3 – 5; NIV).

I firmly believe that when applied to the whole of life, Christ issues to us all a challenge for epistemological humility and continual self-critique. Without self-reflection, we will remain steadfastly convinced of our innocence, calls for retribution will endure, and the gears of war will keep turning. Yet, when we hear the words of our Lord and put them into practice, when we internalize the cries of our “enemies” and learn to empathize with their pain, we can finally begin to break free of the vicious cycles of violence and vengeance within which we find ourselves trapped. And the world changes in response.

So, as we celebrate Easter here in the East, we celebrate once more and renew our commitment to creation’s rebirth initiated in the resurrection of Christ. May we forever be people committed to Life. For,

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.

“For in this hope we were saved.” (Romans 8: 22 – 24; NIV)

__________________

[1] Salim J. Munayer and Lisa Loden, Through My Enemy’s Eyes: Envisioning Reconciliation in Israel-Palestine, (Milton Keyenes: Paternoster, 2013) 28 – 29   

5 thoughts on “Mixed Emotions: Some Reflections on Life and Death

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