In 1974 at an amazing conference was held at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York. Christians and Jews gathered to confront the question, “Auschwitz: Beginning of a New Era?” Catholic theologians like Rosemary Ruether and Gregory Baum, and Jewish writers such as Emil Fackenheim and Elie Wiesel participated. The responses were later published in a volume that I read in while I was in graduate school at Maryknoll, New York.
The first time I read Orthodox rabbi Irving Greenberg’s essay, “Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire: Judaism, Christianity, and Modernity after the Holocaust,” I was shocked. It was one of those pieces of writing that reorient one in the world.
Two statements from Greenberg’s essay come to me in light of current events. Here’s the first: “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the burning children.” “Burning children” here refers to the children who were murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz. What might be some theological statements to utter in the presence of such agonized children? Perhaps an assertion like, “Jesus died for their sins.” Or, “It was all part of God’s inscrutable plan.” You can judge for yourself as to the credibility of such statements.
So, here’s the second quotation from Greenberg, related to the first, “To talk of love and of a God who cares in the presence of the burning children is obscene and incredible; to leap in and pull a child out of a pit, to clean its face and heal its body, is to make the most powerful statement—the only statement that counts.”
And so, I’ve been thinking of Kathy Kelly and other “burning children,” the children of Iraq. I’ve been reading her recently published book, Other Lands Have Dreams: From Baghdad to Pekin Prison, a compilation of her letters from Iraq and her months in prison in recent years.
In her youth, she’d seen the documentary on the Nazi Holocaust, Night and Fog, which had the effect on her: “Did nearby neighbors smell the burning flesh? At a deep emotional level, I never wanted to be a spectator, a bystander, sitting on my hands or standing on the sidelines in the face of unspeakable evil.” For a time Kelly was a high school theology teacher but she realized she had to move to the margins to realize the truth of the Gospels and of American society’s values. She’s been leaving her comfort zone ever since the 1970s.
Kelly and her companions started Voices in the Wilderness back in 1996 to call attention to and respond to the U.N./U.S. sanctions against Iraq. They were persistent in traveling to Iraq to bring medicine to people dying before their time in Iraq’s once modern, now dilapidated hospitals. Here’s one admission from her book: “I feel haunted by the infants, the toddlers, the young teens and their heartbroken mothers and fathers whom we met at bedside after bedside in Iraqi hospitals.”
What do you do when you are haunted? Kelly and her comrades fasted in public places, shamed officials who defended child sacrifice and the murder of the innocents, took nonviolent actions at military bases to raise an outcry, spent months at a time in Iraq walking with ordinary Iraqis in their day-to-day lives, refused to pay their taxes that would send money to fuel the gargantuan American war machine in Iraq, and attempted to learn Arabic so as to show respect to their gracious Arab hosts.
Certainly, they gave it their all to be effective, for the goal is to save the “burning children,” the starving children who died at the rate of 6000 a month during the UN/US imposed sanctions; the children and their families bracing themselves for the Shock and Awe bombing campaign of the U.S.; the children facing the destruction of their society and the chaos of a “liberated” Iraq.
But Other Lands Have Dreams also includes Kelly’s passionate dispatches from U.S. prisons where she spent time for various acts of civil disobedience. There, in another manifestation of what Dorothy Day termed the “filthy rotten system of American life, she encountered women “who could have been my next-door neighbors, co-workers, sisters-in-law and work supervisors on the outside.” As she does with the Iraqi people, like Marwan, Dima, Zainab, Miladh, Khadem, Hamed, Ahmed, Amal, she puts a human face on prisoners whom many U.S. people would just as soon forget or remark, “They’ve gotten what they deserve.”
What’s bracing and inspiring about the book is Kelly’s willingness to grapple with evil as well as her own humility and candor. She knows that there is nothing accidental about the mass death in Iraq. She knows that there are specific political, economic, and social interests in the United States that care not about 100,000 dead Iraqi civilians since the war began. She knows where the bombs are made and who pays for them and who justifies them. So, she and her community, here and abroad, “make the most powerful statement—the only statement that counts.” They practice the works of mercy and they resist the works and architects of war.
But there is also her refreshing willingness to admit her privilege and her own need to simplify her life. I laughed out loud when I read the following story about when she was with another inmate in prison: “At one point, when she was talking about parenting, I mentioned Thomas Gordon’s book, Parent Effectiveness Training, and felt hopelessly bourgeois even as the words came out of my mouth.” And this exceptional candor: “When I return to the U.S. after spending a few weeks or months in a war-torn, shattered area of the world, how long does it take for me to adjust to electricity, clean water, phones, computers, plenty of food and easy transport? About eight seconds.”
Just this week Vice-President Cheney is trying to make sure the CIA has the statutory power to conduct torture. Just this week, the 2000th U.S. soldier died in the Iraq war. Just a year ago, the British medical journal released a study estimating 100,000 civilian deaths in Iraq since the March 2003 start of the war. The government, the media, the churches, where is the indignation?
About the Shock and Awe campaign, Kathy Kelly writes, “I felt dismay, deep sadness, anger—but also a familiar sense of intense determination not to let the bombs have the last word.”