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The war in Iraq is changing everyone I know. It's touched a raw nerve in each one; no one has been left unaffected. Not since the Vietnam War has there been an issue of this magnitude--one that polarized the entire world.
But let's forget that for a moment. Let's forget all the economic, historical, political, and religious arguments being dragged out by both sides, condemning the war or defending it. Let us instead reflect on that war's most significant aspect: the untold human suffering it has unleashed on all sides.
For most of us, this suffering is not very real. Statistically, most of us do not have loved ones in the Middle East. We are physically safe, and as the war unfolds in front us--on TV, the Internet, the radio, and the daily paper--we may be momentarily shocked by images of brutality. But I fear that the most common long-term result of watching the war from our couches will not be increased compassion, but increasing boredom. For us, the greatest danger is not weapons of mass destruction, but a dulled conscience and a hardened heart.
For hundreds of thousands who do have family or friends in the Gulf region, however, the suffering is real enough. As stories of injury, capture, imprisonment, and death seep home from the front lines, it will become unbearably, overwhelmingly real. And unlike those of us who can turn off the TV set when it all becomes too much, these people will have no choice in the matter. They will have to grapple with the suffering of their loved ones until they find a purpose or meaning in it. And we must too. Because like it or not, it was our tax dollars that sent soldiers into Iraq, robbing them of everything: their families and creature comforts, their jobs and dreams. They went willingly, ready to pay the ultimate price. God forbid their sacrifice is meaningless.
Speaking of God, one question occupying many people these days is whether the suffering that is caused by war can ever represent God's will. If we claim it cannot, we are faced with a certain tension. After all, the Old Testament is full of wars, and the New Testament tells us of people (like a blind man) whose sufferings were caused "so that God might be glorified." It says that it was God's will that Jesus should undergo agony, and die on a cross. On the other hand, the Bible is so full of passages about God's power to heal and save that it sometimes seems incomprehensible that he should allow suffering to exist at all.
As someone who was born in wartime and spent my first years as a war refugee (my parents were driven out of Nazi Germany shortly before I was born) I have always been struck by the writings of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. This famous survivor of some of Siberia's worst prison camps struggled for years to make sense of his suffering. But in the end he stopped tangling himself up in this eternal riddle, as he called it. He tried to make peace with the fact that whether or not he understood it, suffering would still exist.
Through his acceptance of suffering, Solzhenitsyn experienced an inner change that gave him something far more wonderful than ease or prosperity: the "development" of his soul from arrogance to humility, and from self-confidence to compassion. To quote him directly:
"In the intoxication of youthful successes, I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first true stirrings of good."
Solzhenitsyn's words came to my mind yesterday (March 30) when I saw, on the front page of The New York Times, a haunting photograph of an American soldier with an Iraqi child. (The girl was apparently wounded, but the man cradling her looked just as helpless--his eyes reflected compassion, but also bewilderment.) They came to mind again today, when I read about a group of Iraqi civilians who, while fleeing heavy fighting, stopped to share their food with a stunned but delighted platoon of hungry American Marines.
There are surely other such stories of beauty in the midst of this ugly war, and every war--stories of how the God-given spark that burns in every soul suddenly catches fire, and love triumphs over fear and hatred. (In Northern Ireland, though the news media tends to portray everything in terms of the ongoing conflict, I experienced this firsthand. Yes, there was plenty of hatred and bitterness. But there were also more stories of forgiveness than there are street corners.) Unfortunately, instead of allowing such incidents to remind us of our common humanity, we all too often ignore them, except when they help us feel good about "our" side. Which brings me to another question burning on many minds these days: Which side is God on?
Throughout history, Christians have been remarkably consistent about one thing when it comes to war: the belief that God is on their side. For centuries, kings and generals and bishops have been quick to claim divine blessings for the armies of their nations. In this particular conflict, too, the President has used God's name almost daily to convince us of the rightness of his war plans.
Personally, I have never believed that armed force could solve anything. The way I see it, violence always engenders more violence. As the artist Käthe Kollwitz once put it, "War can never bring about peace...World history clearly shows that each conflict carries within it the seeds of the next." Moreover, having spent time in several hotspots around the globe, including Israel/Palestine and Iraq, I have learned firsthand of the evils that are always part of the picture on all sides, and the universal suffering that is its fruit.
But wherever there is suffering, there is God: the God of Moses, who said thousands of years ago that he had "taken heed of the sufferings of his people, and would come to rescue them" (Exod. 3); the God of the Psalmist who writes that "the Lord does not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted, and does not hide his face from them, but hears them when they cry out to him" (Ps. 22); and the God of the New Testament, whose son became a man, and died on the cross for the sake of suffering humanity. This God has one aim: to heal, reconcile, and redeem the entire universe and every person in it.
How could such a God take sides in any conflict? Surely he is there for every terrified child, every weeping mother, every hungry prisoner, and every wounded soldier--not only to comfort them, but to suffer with them. And in the case of the dying, I believe that he will remain with them to their very last breath, and that because of this, they will not suffer in vain.
Surely none of us have more than a tiny inkling of God's plans for the world, or of his purpose in allowing human suffering. But if, as Henri Nouwen once advised, we are "willing to ask ourselves where we can discern the presence of God, we will find that he is there, right in the middle of all the pain and suffering around us. And if we are willing to enter into this pain, and accept it and share it in love, it can break down our selfish defenses and set us free."
Perhaps that is the secret of the compassion a war-weary Marine felt as he cradled a little girl in the Iraqi desert last week. Perhaps that is the key to the generosity shown by a group of civilians who paused, as they fled a war zone, to feed an invading army. Perhaps not. Whatever the case, it is worth contemplating, because it allows us to see that if suffering is the common thread that runs through every war, it can still be a thread of hope.
-- by Johann Christoph Arnold
[Johann Christoph Arnold is an author and a senior minister with the Bruderhof Communities (http://www.bruderhof.com ). Read more of his articles and books at http://ChristophArnold.com . Copyright 2003 Bruderhof Communities. Used with permission.]