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Abu Ghraib:
a sermon on fear

"Hang In There"
A Sermon of the
Reverend Dean Lindsey
Salem [VA] Presbyterian Church
May 2, 2004

John 10:7-10;25b-30


April was a brutal month for a nation at war. Brutal. For the American people. Brutal. For the people of Iraq. But among all of the terrifying images which have been beamed from across the globe, none have had the same impact as those several pictures of American guards humiliating their captives in a Baghdad prison. Terrible, revolting, horrifying pictures of soldiers taking apparent glee while inflicting almost unspeakable abuse upon their prisoners. We can only be filled with the deepest sadness and regret that such a thing ever happened. President Bush has expressed his utter disgust. In the Arab world, mere words cannot capture the shared sense of anger and humiliation. There, the longer-term significance of these images may come to be measured in ever greater rage, hatred, and violence. If a purpose of American presence in Iraq is to win the hearts and minds of the people there, then our struggle may have been irretrievably lost. We need to redouble our efforts to pray for peace, and soon, though it now seems so much further away.

At the center of this outrage are six or more Americans. There may be more. We do not know. The ones who have been publicly identified are from a Maryland reserve unit of the 800th Military Police Brigade. They are, in this sense, our neighbors.

I have struggled to think, in these few days, how my neighbor could do such a thing. They will have their day in court to explain their side of the story, but in the meantime, I think it safe to say that these men and women (yes, there are women in the pictures, too) did not decide to join the Army so that they could personally enrage a billion or so people in the Arab and Muslim world. Surely, they did not sign up for Military Police duty so that they could devise new methods of torture. Surely, they did not head off to Iraq hoping to become infamous war criminals.

No. Something happened along the way. To make them lose their humanity. Misplace their moral compass. Forget the basic value of respect for human life.

When I asked a wise friend who has been struggling over the meaning of this event how these people could have done such evil things, she said, "I think these guards were scared. That's why they did what they did."

"I think they were scared."

That is an explanation that we need to explore: how it is that fear can twist us. Anxiety, especially anxiety of an extreme sort, can cause us to do things that we otherwise would never think of doing.

In fact, some of the press reports of this episode have described how unprepared these reserve soldiers were for their mission. They claim they weren't trained for the conditions they would face. They were not ready to contend with language and cultural barriers. And, upon taking up their post, a unit that was to oversee a prison of 400 over a relatively short space of time, found themselves dealing with 7-900 prisoners for months on end.

They felt, we may conjecture, overwhelmed, unsupported, fearful about the magnitude of the task, and with violence all around them, anxious for their own lives.

Far short of warfare, many of us have had at times such feelings of being overwhelmed and unsupported. Chances are, those were not our best days for thinking rationally or acting with reason and compassion.

 A friend of mine found himself in that kind of environment in his office. He had a deep conflict with his boss. He didn't feel like he could turn anywhere for help. But, by his own admission he behaved badly. He undermined the work of the organization. He burned some bridges with folks he needed. After all the dust settled, and he had secured a new job, he felt regret for mishandling the conflict, but as he said, "I was just feeling overwhelmed." Fear seldom brings out the best in any of us. Our own sense of weakness and vulnerability can easily be transformed into resentfulness, even aggressiveness towards others. If we scratch beneath the surface of a bully, we usually find someone who is deeply insecure.

Growing up, my neighborhood sure had a bully. He was four years older than me and quite physically imposing. For fun, he used to patrol through the bushes with a b.b. gun, shooting lizards and toads. He would collect their carcasses in grotesque, smelly piles in his side yard. He terrorized all of the younger kids, me included, with threats, shoves, stealing, punches, and extortion. That is what we saw on the outside.

On the inside, there were things we could not see, or even understand if we had seen them. He was a child whose world was threatened in the deepest way. His parents were divorced soon after he finished high school. Their energy was given over to anger and hatred towards each other rather than in love and nurture for this child. Now as an adult, and understanding some of these dynamics, I can see why he went strutting around the neighborhood lording it over all of the smaller children. He was desperate to exercise control over something in his life and we were the most convenient targets.

That is just one small example of how evil metastasizes through our world. A lack of concern over here leads to aggression over there. Belligerent words over there give way to violence over here, and so goes the spiral. Unless it is broken. Unless it is broken.

Jesus wants us to be the ones who break it. Clearly he preaches about loving enemies, and he updates the old code of 'an eye for an eye,' insisting instead that "if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also." However, this difficult ethic is not possible for those who feel vulnerable, alone, weak. It is possible only for those who sense that they are never alone, that they have a true source of strength and that although they may seem vulnerable to human forces, they are in God's care.

Jesus seeks to offer such reassurance to his followers. In the gospel of John, in particular, this is a major theme in his preaching and repeated quite often. "In my father's house are many rooms," he says. Words of assurance.

"I will never leave you orphaned," he promises.

And in our lesson for this day, "My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand."

These words tell us that we do not need to be afraid. No matter what horrible things the world throws at us, we can hang in there, because Jesus is hanging on tightly to us.

That means that we do not need to depend upon belligerent words, powerful weapons, or aggressive action to protect us. We do not need these things. Besides that, they fail. They cannot bring peace. They will not bring hope. Only Christ can bring such things. The one who said, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep."

 I went to the website of the 800th Military Police Brigade and found their insignia. Its shield features a sprig of oak leaves with two acorns on a yellow stripe over a green background. Below it is the motto, Vires in Arduis. Strength in Adversities. The soldiers whose actions were caught on film certainly knew difficulties, but they showed no inner strength and only the worst kind of cowardice. For whatever anger and helplessness they felt about the world into which they had been thrown, they expressed it through revenge and cruelty towards helpless captives.

Now, some of you may be thinking. "Why do we have to listen to the bad news of the world one more time? And why especially, here?" The answer to that is that the gospel is always proclaimed against the back drop of such bad news. That is what makes it especially good, especially urgent, especially needed.

For obvious reasons, I cannot preach that good news to a prison guard in Baghdad. My words will never reach the ears of a terrorist planning his next attack. Or a suicide bomber. Or a wall builder in Palestine. But I can preach to you, and that is a mighty privilege and a humbling task, to share the assurance of Christ: you do not need to be afraid of anything.

And that means you do not need to spend your life protecting yourself against threats real or imagined. Christ will protect you. He has promised this to all of us. You do not need to spend your energies figuring out how to get even or how to get back at someone who may have slighted you or hurt you. You do not need to expend great effort in hiding your vulnerabilities or imperfections lest someone else exploit them. You do not even need to exercise control over another human being to prove that you have power. Because, you already know that God is the power in your life.

In the past several years, we have learned more about the interconnectedness of the world. What happens way over there somewhere may have an impact right here. However, the geography of good and evil is more complex than this. What happens on the inside has large consequences on the outside. What goes on in the human heart is what makes things happen in the world.

For the heart filled with the love of Christ, there is no room for hatred; but there is the courage to reach out to others in caring ways.

"What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father's hand," Jesus says. "The Father and I are one."

That is our freedom. That is our assurance. That is our call: to live in a different way. No fear. Not because we are strong and need to prove it, but because Christ is strength for us.


Preached in Salem, VA

May 2, 2004

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GA actions ratified (or not) by  the presbyteries   

A number of the most important actions of the 219th General Assembly are now being sent to the presbyteries for their action, to confirm or reject them as amendments to the PC(USA) Book of Order.

We're providing resources to help inform the reflection and debate, along with updates on the voting.

Our three areas of primary interest are:

bullet Amendment 10-A, which would remove the current ban on lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender persons being considered as possible candidates for ordination as elder or ministers.

bullet Amendment 10-2, which would add the Belhar Confession to our Book of Confessions.

bullet Amendment 10-1, which would adopt the new Form of Government that was approved by the Assembly.

If you like what you find here,
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Some blogs worth visiting

PVJ's Facebook page

Mitch Trigger, PVJ's Secretary/Communicator, has created a Facebook page where Witherspoon members and others can gather to exchange news and views. Mitch and a few others have posted bits of news, both personal and organizational. But there’s room for more!

You can post your own news and views, or initiate a conversation about a topic of interest to you.


Voices of Sophia blog

Heather Reichgott, who has created this new blog for Voices of Sophia, introduces it:

After fifteen years of scholarship and activism, Voices of Sophia presents a blog. Here, we present the voices of feminist theologians of all stripes: scholars, clergy, students, exiles, missionaries, workers, thinkers, artists, lovers and devotees, from many parts of the world, all children of the God in whose image women are made. .... This blog seeks to glorify God through prayer, work, art, and intellectual reflection. Through articles and ensuing discussion we hope to become an active and thoughtful community.


John Harris’ Summit to Shore blogspot

Theological and philosophical reflections on everything between summit to shore, including kayaking, climbing, religion, spirituality, philosophy, theology, politics, culture, travel, The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), New York City and the Queens neighborhood of Ridgewood by a progressive New York City Presbyterian Pastor. John is a former member of the Witherspoon board, and is designated pastor of North Presbyterian Church in Flushing, NY.


John Shuck’s Shuck and Jive

A Presbyterian minister, currently serving as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton, Tenn., blogs about spirituality, culture, religion (both organized and disorganized), life, evolution, literature, Jesus, and lightening up.


Got more blogs to recommend?

Please send a note, and we'll see what we can do!


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