RADICAL PEACE is a collection of reports from peace activists in the USA, Europe, Iraq, and Afghanistan. A seminarian contributed this chapter about learning to love her enemies. Because of her activism, she prefers to remain anonymous.
To celebrate Armed Forces Day the military base near my seminary held an open house, a public relations extravaganza to improve their image and boost recruiting. They invited the public in for a marching band parade, a precision flying show, and a sky diving demonstration. They even offered free lemonade and cookies.
A subversive seminarian, namely me, decided to disrupt the festivities and remind people that the military’s job is murder. I bought a jump suit and dyed it orange like the uniforms the prisoners in Guantánamo have to wear. I bought two U-shaped bike locks, three diapers, and a pair of old-people’s rubber underpants.
All suited up, I had a friend drive me onto the base before people started arriving for the celebration. She dropped me off at the traffic circle just inside the main gate, kissed me on the cheek for good luck, and drove back out the gate. In the center of the traffic circle stood a flagpole flying the Stars and Stripes. I ran to the pole, fastened my foot to it with one bike lock and my neck to it with the other — pretty uncomfortable — and started shouting, “Close Guantánamo! No More Abu Ghraibs! Free the Prisoners!” People gawked as they drove by, some laughing like I was part of the show, some waving, some giving me the finger.
I had an anti-war speech all prepared to give the reporters. I had a bottle of water in one pocket and a bag of trail mix in the other and was wearing the diapers and rubber underpants for toilet emergencies. I was locked on for a long stay.
A couple of minutes later, a van and a truck full of soldiers drove up. The GIs jumped out and surrounded me. They stood at attention facing the traffic, blocking me off from view. The van backed in next to me. I shouted my slogans louder, and they started singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” to drown me out. To people driving in, it must’ve looked like a patriotic demonstration — soldiers around the flag singing to greet them.
A GI grabbed me from behind. Another wrapped duct tape around my mouth, then continued around my head to cover my eyes, leaving only a little space at the nose for breathing. I thrashed my arms in panic, but they pinned them behind my back, almost strangling me in the process, and taped my wrists together. Helpless and terrified, I got a tiny hint of what life must be like for the prisoners. Nobody said a word to me; the only sound was the national anthem.
One of them jerked the lock that was around my neck, twisting the metal against my throat. I heard the sound of aerosol spray and smelled fumes. They’re gassing me, I thought. The metal on my neck got very cold. The bang of a hammer on the lock against the pole sent a shock through me, flashing pain down my spine and up to my inner ears and eyes. Three hammer blows and the lock fell off. They must’ve frozen it with the spray to make it brittle enough to break. Then they broke the lock on my leg and taped my ankles together.
Before today, I’d had a condescending attitude towards soldiers and was fond of quoting, “Military intelligence is an oxymoron.” But I had to admit this was a brilliant counterattack. It was so well prepared, as if they’d been expecting something like this. I had told some fellow students about my plan, and one of them might’ve tipped off the military. I hate to think that, but it could be. We’re living more and more in a society of informers, a proto-police state where the government encourages its citizens to report their neighbors for disloyal activities.
Two GIs picked me up, heaved me into the back of the van, slammed the door, and drove away. Now I got really scared. Where were they taking me? What were they going to do to me? I tried to pray, but my mind was screaming too loud.
After about twenty minutes they stopped. I could hear them whispering in the front seat. They seemed to be arguing — maybe about whether to kill me after they raped me. I’d read if you’re about to be raped and you shit your pants, it’s good protection — you make yourself too repulsive. I tried but couldn’t.
They opened the door, pulled me out, and dropped me on the ground. I heard them unzipping their pants.
Then I felt a stream of warm liquid on my face. I turned away but caught another stream from the other side. They peed all over me, laughing but still not saying anything. Then they kicked dirt on me like a dog would do and drove away.
Maybe it’s over, I thought, maybe that was it. I’d never felt worse in my life, totally fouled and degraded. Rage rose in me and turned to nausea; as I vomited, my breakfast came out my nose but clogged there against the tape, almost suffocating me. Finally I blew enough out so I could breathe. My stomach kept spasming; I was quivering all over; my throat and nose burned from acid.
I kept telling myself it could’ve been worse. Although I was relieved that all they’d done was relieve themselves on me, I still loathed them. I was pretty sure what they did wasn’t part of the official plan but a bit of individual initiative.
I tried to pull my hands and feet from the tape but couldn’t. I tried to stand up but fell back down. Giving up, I cried and cried, and the tears welled against the tape. Finally I stopped trying anything and just lay there, empty of tears … of hope … of thoughts. A wave of pain rolled through me, then out. The havoc of my mind stilled. In the quiet came a yearning for God stronger than anything I’d known before. My whole being reached out for the Lord.
A name rose from deep within me, and I called it out into the silence: Jesus. The name struck the hollow bell of my emptiness and reverberated through me, shimmering, fading, sounding again: Jesus. As the name pulsed within, a wash of comfort flowed over me. Like the balm of Gilead, it suffused inside, calming and steadying me. The presence of Christ increased, becoming a flow of love that encompassed me. My fear vanished, and in its place came a voice: Do you want out of this hell?
Do you know the way out?
Love is the way. You have to love even your enemies.
Oh … that sounds familiar.
Yes, I’ve said it before. But sometimes we need to be reminded.
Those guys who just peed on me … I’m supposed to love them.
I never said it was easy … but that’s the way out.
Can You help me love them?
Certainly. You need to understand that their own suffering made them do it. They have so much pain inside, and they think they can get rid of it by pushing it onto someone else. Of course that doesn’t work, but it’s all they know.
Thank You, I can see how that’s true, and I’ll work on really understanding it. Then what do I do?
Then you have to forgive them.
Remember I once said: “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”
I still have to say that. Every day.
They’re not really your enemies. They’re just hurt human beings.
Like you and everybody else. That’s why I’m here.
I could feel my suffering covering me, but now it was transparent and I could see through it to those two soldiers and sense their suffering too. Theirs was just like mine. My arrogance towards them had the same roots as their aggression towards me. I thought about how they’d probably grown up, all the garbage that had been poured into them by the society and their pain-filled parents. Now they are trapped in fear and self-hatred. When they project that onto someone else and attack her, they feel better for a little while. But then it creeps back over them, worse now.
You’re starting to understand. Sometimes great pain can help us see.
By hurting you, the men locked themselves deeper into their own prisons, into hell. That’s what sin is.
In my mind I held the image of two GIs I’d never seen and tried to love them. It was hard. I kept hoping Jesus would say something so I could stop. But He didn’t. I had to bring love up within me and send it out to them. As I kept trying, I could feel the love of Christ flowing into me, filling me until I was brimming, and then overflowing out to them. It was all same love, just like it was all the same pain. Now the guys looked different, like two hurt children. Children of God.
If they hadn’t done that awful thing to you, you wouldn’t have learned this, and this is more important.
Now I see You’re right. I can always take a shower, but what You showed me will stay with me. Thank you, Lord.
Thank them, too.
Even that? Oh no, it’s really not easy, is it?
No, but it’s worth it.
As I tried to be grateful to the guys for this lesson, gradually I felt an attitude of gratitude, not just to them but to everything that had happened to me in life because it had all brought me to where I was now, having my first deep communication with Christ. Definitely worth it. Suddenly happy, I laughed into my duct-tape gag.
Now you’ve got it. Now you’re ready to free yourself. You can do it.
I moved my hands back and forth, twisting them against the tape. Before, I had tried with sudden jerks, but now I worked slowly, tugging with one hand and then the other. Gradually the tape gave way, and I was able to pull one hand out. I raised it in the air like a wonder, full of the power of gentleness. The twisting had broken my watchband, though. I freed the other hand from its sticky manacle, then peeled the tape from my head, tearing out clumps of hair as I went, blinking into the sudden light, gulping fresh air.
I was near a dirt road surrounded by brush and trees. Wet, sticky and stinky, I unfettered my feet, stood up, shook my arms and legs to make sure they still worked, and shouted in rage and joy. I’d worn a T-shirt and shorts under the jump suit, so I pulled the filthy thing off and threw it into the bushes.
Jesus, I prayed, You were there all the time, but now I know You better. We’re a team. And I’ll keep trying to love the people life sends me.
I walked down the road, hoping it was in the right direction. But loving people doesn’t mean letting them abuse me. I didn’t want these guys to think what they’d done was OK. Then they’d keep doing it.
I considered going to the police. Although I’d never seen their faces, the urine would have their DNA. But how to find them? There were thousands of GIs on the base, and I doubted that the military would be cooperative. Plus if I filed a complaint, my name would go on an official list. As it was now, I didn’t know who they were, but they didn’t know who I was either, and that would help with a plan that was forming in my mind.
I needed to learn to love all soldiers, to stop thinking of them as enemies and see their divine nature, to realize they do what they do because of their own suffering. If I didn’t have any more contact with them, I’d probably slip back into my old attitudes. But if I was a military chaplain and pastored them, I’d be continually reminded of their true worth. I could actively love them.
You can love people and still oppose their behavior. Jesus loved the money-changers while He was driving them from the temple. A parent loves a child but still has to punish it sometimes.
Soldiers are worthy of love, but to really love a violent person means trying to change them, to keep them from harming others and thereby themselves, to save them from their own ignorant acts. Love carries obligation.
As I walked home, I decided to become a chaplain after I’m ordained and work for change. But not in the nice liberal sense of joining the system and trying to make it a little more humane here and there. That ameliorative approach is an appealing idea, but it hasn’t worked. It just strengthens the structure by making it function better and reducing the pressure for transformation. I think at this point we need to break the military, the government and the corporations, not improve them.
I know this sounds severe, but if we read US and British history without nationalistic blinders, it’s obvious we’re continually intruding in other countries to further our own economic interests. American-British foreign policy is an ongoing crime against humanity. At home this is concealed with altruistic rhetoric about saving the world from vile foes, but in the target countries, our aggression and its purposes are very clear. People there are now responding with what we label terrorism, but actually we are the top terrorist armed to the teeth with weapons of mass destruction. The alliance of US and British elites threatens the rest of the world in a whole spectrum of ways.
During World War One, the British persuaded the Arabs to fight on their side by promising them independence. Thousands of Arabs died in battle for the Brits because of this promise of freedom. But after the victory, Britain refused them independence. Instead they installed puppet kings — Faisal in Iraq and Ibn Saud in Saudi Arabia — to rule in their interest.
After World War Two, Britain and the USA pressured the United Nations into confiscating Arab land to form the state of Israel, making the Arabs pay for the crimes of the Germans. In addition to providing a nation for the Jews, Israel would be a forward base for Western economic and military power in the Mideast.
In the early 1950s, the USA and Britain overthrew the government of Iran because it tried to nationalize its oil industry, which was under Western control. We installed the Shah as dictator, and he promptly gave the oil back to us. Then he began a twenty-five year reign of terror against his own people. His secret police jailed, tortured or killed hundreds of thousands of Iranians who opposed him. Since they knew he was kept in power only by American military aid, they began hating the USA. They finally ousted the Shah, but then the CIA started subverting the new government, trying to bring it down. At that point, the Iranians fought back by holding US Embassy officials hostage, which was a mild response, considering what we had done to their country.
In the mid 1950s, Egypt decided to nationalize the Suez Canal and use the income from it to help their people out of poverty. They were willing to pay its British and French owners the full market value for their shares, but Western governments and Israel responded violently, invading and bombing Egypt into submission.
Countries have the right to nationalize their resources as long as they pay a fair compensation, so what Iran and Egypt did was legal. The Western response, though, was illegal aggression in violation of international law and the United Nations charter. It roused in its victims a deep resolve for revenge.
The USA and Britain committed similar atrocities in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Indonesia, and Afghanistan, all years before Muslims turned to terrorism to finally drive us out of their part of the world.
No wonder they hate us. Imagine how we would feel if a foreign country were doing this to us. We’d be fighting back any way we could.
Patriots don’t like to be reminded of this history. They claim that any country that had our power would do the same, so it’s better we do it than the other ones. But that’s moral blindness.
The present and historical fact is that the Anglo-Saxon varieties of imperialism and capitalism are particularly harsh, exploitative and expansionist. They need to be stopped.
This view offends many Americans because we’re raised to link our country and God. America is God’s country, so naturally He’s a patriot. And a patriarch. We’re taught this theology in Sunday school, and it stays with us.
Once we overcome our conditioning, we can see that our military exists to defend a cruel economic order with strategies of mass murder. The chaplain’s job is to soothe the consciences of the soldiers so they keep doing their job. That might be a fine way for some chaplains to show their love for them, but it wouldn’t be right for me. I want to wake up their consciences, to make them see what they’re doing and help them quit. I want to bore from within, find soldiers who are discontent and convince them to resist violence.
Of course that will bring down the wrath of the commanders. They may even send me to jail, but that would provide a public platform for exposing the viciousness of the military. Lots of Christians, from St. Paul to Martin Luther King, have gone to jail for their beliefs. I’m not in their league, but I’ll serve in the way I can.
“Peace Chaplain” is a chapter from RADICAL PEACE: People Refusing War, which presents the first-person experiences of war resisters, deserters, and peace activists in the USA, Europe, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Recently released by Trine Day, it’s a journey along diverse paths of nonviolence, the true stories of people working for peace in unconventional, often spiritual ways. Other chapters are posted on Dandelion Salad and on a page of the publisher’s website at http://media.trineday.com/radicalpeace.
William T. Hathaway is a Special Forces combat veteran and an adjunct professor of American studies at the University of Oldenburg in Germany. His other books include A WORLD OF HURT (Rinehart Foundation Award), CD-RING, and SUMMER SNOW. A selection of his writing is available at www.peacewriter.org
Purchase the book at www.trineday.com
Archived chapters as published: Radical Peace: People Refusing War