This past Wednesday there was a cold, driving rain in Hartford, but several hundred people turned out anyway to bear witness to the fifth anniversary of the start of the war against Iraq. We gathered in front of Center Church, where twenty-nine sets of military boots sat on the steps, each one bearing the name of a Connecticut soldier who has died. We built a cairn of stones marked with the names of dead Iraqi civilians. There were so terribly many names to choose from, I settled on bringing three stones, each one bearing the name of someone killed on the date one of my three children was born.
We walked to United Technology Corporation, one of the many companies reaping huge profits off this war. And we ended at the Federal Building, where five of us poured blood on the courtyard, led the group in a litany of lamentation and protest, and then sat in front of the doors until we were arrested.
Of course it was not really the fifth anniversary of the war. There is no easily named date that marks its beginning, since it seeped out of the first Gulf War little by little in the form of routine bombings, deadly sanctions and clandestine raids. But March 19 was the start of “shock and awe” — so arrogant a term for such a bloody assault — and so we think of it now as the “start” because it was certainly the beginning of a new level of violence that has since been unremitting.
As the war staggers on into its sixth year, our government — with the collusion of the media — has been astonishingly successful at shielding us from images that might force American citizens to grapple with what is being done in our names. Of the four thousand American soldiers who have returned home dead, we have seen almost no images of their coffins, neatly packaged in our flag, nor of their grieving families. Of the scores of thousands of Iraqi dead, we have seen very few images of anguished mothers or fathers as they hold the bodies of their children. We hear that there are millions displaced and living in refugee camps, but I have never yet seen an image of even one of these camps.
What shall we do to try to end this relentless and bloody war? It’s a question we have to ask, because action is called for. We have to ask it because we are, so many of us, activists. But if we are also people of faith; if we believe our faith has some word to speak into the suffering and conflict of these days; if we want to sink our roots deeper than the shallow soil of our outrage and anger, then we have to ask another question as well. We have to ask not only, “What shall we do?” but also, “Who shall we be?”
I hope we can be people so grounded in our own spiritual practices that we see the war within, as well as without — the ways in which our own rage, fear and reactivity can lead us to speech and action that breed violence. I hope we can hold firmly to the integrity that will not allow us to fade into our comforting, innocuous routines unmindful of the violence done daily in our names. I hope we can be those who refuse to go away or to look away, who bear witness to the insanity of war even when we have no certainty that our witness will make a difference. I hope we can live by the words of a prophet against an earlier war, Abraham Joshua Heschel:
“Others have considered history from the point of view of power, judging its course in terms of victory and defeat, of wealth and success. But the prophets look at history from the point of view of justice, judging its course in terms of righteousness and corruption, of compassion and violence…They proclaimed that might is not supreme, that the sword is an abomination, that violence is obscene.” Amen.