“Behind every war there is a big lie…The big lie behind all murder
, from the random street killing to the efficient
ovens of Auschwitz , to the even more
efficient hydrogen bomb , is that the
victims deserve to die.” –Jim Wallis
“Does she think she is good because she kills bad men? Is she? Does it matter why she kills them? She knows she no longer kills them because they are killing her fellow citizens. That’s just a part of it. She kills them because she hates them. Does the fact that she has good reason to hate them absolve her? A month ago she would have answered yes to this question. Now she wonders who decides what is a good reason and what isn’t.” -The Celliist of Sarajevo, Steven Galloway
I finished The Cellist of Sarajevo today. A sniper in the novel grapples with her own role as a killer, her sense of self, and how her job of killing people one by one compromises the self she used to be. When she begins working as a sniper, she takes a different name than her given name, her hope being that when she finishes being a sniper, she can reclaim her identity as the person she used to be before she had ever killed anyone. As the novel goes on, she realizes the impossibility of being who she used to be, even if she discards her sniper name.
I had a student one of my first years at Trinity who dreamed of becoming a sniper in some branch of the military, I don’t remember which one. The idea made me cringe. I don’t know if he achieved that goal. A few days ago, I was behind a truck with this bumper sticker: “God bless our troops, especially the snipers.” Again, I cringed.
I would call myself a pacifist, so the idea of anyone I know joining the military, and especially of being a sniper, makes me uneasy. Let me be clear that I admire the idea of wanting to serve one’s country, though I believe there are many ways to serve. As I have said in other posts, I respect a person who is willing to give his or her life so that others may live better. I know people who have done so. I know people now who are serving in various capacities. But, as I’ve also said in previous posts, thinking about what a person may have to give up to serve in the military saddens me deeply. I look at my students, I look at the soldiers I saw serving in Israel and I see so many young faces, so many lives that may be wasted, and I wonder why. I wonder what convinces them to walk a path that may result in them killing another person, many other people, or damaging themselves irrevocably. Though I know some of the reasons they choose to join, I can’t imagine making that choice.
I am preparing an application to join the Christian Peacemakers Team, a group that works primarily in Colombia, Iraq, and Israel/Palestine. The organization is strongly committed to nonviolence. CPT Corps members act as witnesses, accompaniers, and human rights monitors where they work. In the application, I was asked to reflect on the idea of nonviolence and my experience with it. I am not sure I answered the questions well. I had a hard time verbalizing what I wanted to say. I am sure of my desire to live nonviolently.
In saying that, I don’t only mean that I will refrain from physical violence. Nonviolence is much more than not being physically violent. It is about treating others like people, no matter who they are. It is about having the courage to speak truth to power. It is about creative problem-solving and compromise, finding a win-win when no such resolution is apparent. I’m sure it’s about much more than that. It must be about preserving humanity, not just in the sense of protecting lives, but in enabling people to live free of fear and free of persecution. It must be about being fair in judgments over wrong-doing, not seeking revenge, but rather restoration and rehabilitation. It must be about preserving people’s dignity, even when they “don’t deserve” it. If we think about our own worst actions (for isn’t it in punishments that the idea of what we “deserve” most often comes out?), do any of us “deserve” to be treated as persons of dignity? Probably not. And yet, as the title of my blog indicates, we are called to love our neighbors. Period. No asterisks with fine print about exceptions to the rule. We are called to believe everyone has inherent dignity and to treat all people with respect.
Loving our neighbors means treating others not as though they deserve the worst according to their worst actions, but that they deserve the best because they are, first and foremost, sons and daughters of God. It is not our job to pass judgment, though we do it all the time. I know I certainly do, a fact that doesn’t fill me with pride. It is not our job, at least not the job of most of us, to decide whether another person deserves to die. In saying that, I will acknowledge that there are jobs that involve making life and death decisions. But is making that decision always acceptable? I would say no. It is our job to love, to preserve life, and to create in whatever ways we are gifted to do so. I hope that these are truths I will remember.