Wednesday, December 07, 2005


"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy." (Matthew 5.7)

Advent is a time of waiting. Right now, many of us are waiting rather anxiously to see if the appeals -- of religious leaders, politicians, human rights advocates, ordinary people across the world, and opponents of war and occupation -- are heeded by the little-known militant group that holds in its hands the lives of four associates of Christian Peacemaker Teams. Tomorrow (the captors' deadline) we may know more. In all probability we will not. There is likely to be further painful waiting.

In statistical terms the odds seem less than evenly stacked. But while, tragically, many of the hundreds of ordinary Iraqis who are kidnapped simply disappear or die, the 50 or so Western hostages have, on average, been better off. Rather more have been released than killed. This is, of course, scant consolation for the families and friends of Margaret Hassan, Ken Bigley and others. But it is likely to be at least a straw of hope for the loved ones of Tom Fox, Harmeet Sooden, James Loney and Norman Kember.

Given the situation on the ground, it is easy to be cynical about the pleas for mercy to 'Sword of Truth'. And some of my correspondents have been. One wrote: "You must live in cloud cuckoo land if you think all these pious calls for mercy will influence the psychos who go around kidnapping people in Iraq. And in the process, with all this talk of occupation and detainees, you are simply feeding the propaganda machine of Islamists. These so-called 'Christian peace makers' thought their high moral principles would make them safe. Maybe they and you will have to learn the hard way."

It's hard not to be saddened by the callous tone, and it is tempting to bin such vitriol. But this response cannot be dismissed lightly. It raises important issues. Yes, in human terms, those who kill and terrorise for their cause have hardened their hearts, often to an impenetrable degree. This is a fact that cannot be ignored. Nevertheless (and this is perhaps even more difficult for us to face than the alternative), they are not zombies. They still have a choice. Moreover, though it does not happen as much as we might want, hearts can be melted. Simply dehumanizing those whose actions revile us does nothing to break the cycle of hatred, even if it makes us feel better. We may or may not be able to avert violence and horror in particular situations. And we should be under no illusions about those who choose to live by the sword. But we too have a choice. We can still go on witnessing to a better way - the alternative cycle of peace-building-justice, for which even a small gesture of mercy or bridge-building can prove an unexpected start.

Those who work with CPT don't just believe that (as if they were acting in naive defiance of reason), they are prepared to stake their lives on it. Whatever happens next, they went to Iraq knowing that they might have to share the fate of Jesus, who they name as the source and inspiration of their hope. Maybe this is utter foolishness, but it is as far from ineffective piety as you can get. Nor is it a stance based on a sense of moral superiority. Gandhi once said that he sympathised more with those who take up arms against injustice than those who acquiesce 'peaceably' with injustice. But he went on, respectfully, to suggest that there is a better way - that of disarming love. That way is not based on thinking ourselves better than others, it is based on recognising that others have an equal claim to the life we share but do not own. This is as far from endorsing the agendas of those who use terror as is possible.

To believe, as I do, and as all four abductees do, that life is given by and returns to a God whose own disarming, transforming love is encountered in the face of Christ is to belong to a company of people who share a conviction that -- contrary to much of the way our world runs -- power and might will not have the final say. So while I agree that in our actions we must resolutely face both our capacity for grotesque inhumanity and the often fatal ambiguity of life, I am not reduced to cynicism about the CPTers. Rather I am humbled by the courage of those (of whatever faith or ideology) who are prepared, if needs be, to allow their lives to be spokes in the wheel of revenge. Whatever their fallibilities, and I am sure they have many, Tom, Harmeet, James and Norman have taken a path deserves the utmost respect.

Meanwhile, we remember them. And some of us, if we are able, pray. We do not pray to a fantasy god who we expect to render the world conveniently compliant, who is some kind of cosmic fixer on our behalf. We pray, rather, to the God who Jesus knew in Gethsemane -- the one who strangely embraces us in what looks like, and sometimes simply is, abandonment. Lord, have mercy. For we need it, desperately.

See also: Mercy in a messy world.

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