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