Why I am a Christian and how it led me to Iraq

Why I am a Christian and how it led me to Iraq by Steve Clemens
Pilgrim Lutheran Church in St. Paul, Jan. 29, 2003

[Texts read previously: II Cor. 5-17-20; Excerpt from No Bars to Manhood by Daniel Berrigan (written during the Vietnam War, 1968)
We have assumed the name of peacemakers, but we have been, by and large, unwilling to pay any significant price. And because we want the peace with half a heart and half a life and will, the war, of course, continues, because the waging of war, by its nature, is total – but the waging of peace, by our own cowardice, is partial. … We take it for granted that in wartime families will be separated for long periods, that men will be imprisoned, wounded, driven insane, killed on foreign shores. In favor of such wars, we declare a moratorium on every normal human hope- for marriage, for community, for friendship, for moral conduct towards strangers and the innocent. We are instructed that deprivation and discipline, private grief and public obedience are to be our lot. And we obey. And we bear with it- because bear we must- because war is war, and good war or bad, we are stuck with it and its cost.

But what of the price of peace… . “Of course let us have the peace”, we cry, “but at the same time let us have normalcy, let us lose nothing, let our lives stand intact, let us know neither prison nor ill repute nor disruption of ties.” … we cry peace and cry peace, and there is no peace. There is no peace because there are no peacemakers. There are no makers of peace because the making of peace is at least as costly as the making of war – at least as exigent, at least as disruptive, at least as liable to bring disgrace and prison and death in its wake.

Super Bowl Sunday is probably a good time to talk about nonviolence: statistics identify this day as one of the most significant for the incidence of domestic abuse. As our culture glamorizes competition and brute force, there is the need for another perspective.

The scripture passage read, II Corinthians 5:17, “ If anyone is in Christ, there is a whole new world order; a whole new consciousness.” New values. New perspectives. A new order.

Our culture values rugged individualism, independence, competition, and militarism to protect our materialism. The call to emulate Jesus is a call to cooperation, community, interdependence, non-violence, and compassionate sharing.

Why do I choose to follow Jesus? Because the way of our culture leads to death and despair- both individually and ecologically. The way of Jesus leads to community and abundant life. How did I come to this realization?

Although I was raised within a Mennonite tradition, my parents embraced an Evangelical theology which privatized and proselytized the faith, discarding the witness of nonviolence and narrowing the scope of discipleship to a personal morality. When I turned 18 in 1968 and had to register for the military draft at the height of the Vietnam War, that faith was found wanting. I needed a faith that could provide answers to questions about injustice, violence, and domination. There was for me a real disconnect between my personal morality and what was being carried out in my name in Indochina.

I found that faith in the life, faith, and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. The God that Jesus reveals is a God of compassion and forgiveness, not the judgmental patriarch I was led to in my evangelical heritage. I was pleased to discover my own neglected Mennonite-Anabaptist heritage which allowed me to follow a Jesus who not only called me to a personal morality but also a faith that had social and political implications. Registering as a conscientious objector to all war was initially only a personal, moral stand. But, after living and working with street gangs in north Philadelphia after my freshman year of college , I realized that I needed an ethic that allowed me to engage the social injustice around me.

As I began to study the history of the Christian Church before the rise of Constantine, I discovered that the Early Church was pacifist because of their understanding of the call of Jesus. As I was exposed to theologians such as John Howard Yoder and William Stringfellow, my faith was strengthened and it began to inform my politics and lifestyle choices.

Jesus’ call to love our enemies and not to return evil with evil is a call to take my responsibilities as a Citizen in the Kingdom or Reign of God more seriously than the demands placed on me as a citizen of the American Empire. When my nation of origin tells me that the people of Iraq are expendable because our government thinks their government is led by an evil person, the example of Jesus is instructive. Jesus was raised in a society of brutal oppression. Many of his family, friends, and followers hoped he would rise up and lead a revolt against the hated Romans. Instead, Jesus chose a route of nonviolent resistance to the oppressive structures of his time. Although it led to his execution by the Romans with the active collaboration of the religious authorities, the witness of both history and the Gospels is that God honored the faith and life of Jesus through his resurrection.

For me, it doesn’t matter if the resurrection is an historical fact or a mystical experience - it is clear that Jesus’ disciples were emboldened and radically changed by this whole experience. They turned their world “upside down” – or maybe they turned it right-side up! The early Christian Church clearly understood that the life and teaching of Jesus was a call to nonviolence with a special concern and compassion for the poor. My desire to follow Jesus led me to 1 ½ years of voluntary service with a church agency and then to join an intentional Christian community in southwest Georgia.

At Koinonia Partners, the Georgian community which became the birthplace of the Habitat for Humanity movement, I was introduced to one of the most significant theologians in the US in the 20th Century: Clarence Jordan. Dr. Jordan helped found this inter-racial community in the deep south during World War II and a commitment to nonviolence and the poor were central to it’s identity. Although Dr. Jordan died in 1969 and I didn’t arrive at the community until 6 years later, we had plenty of opportunity to read his “Cotton Patch” translations of the New Testament and listen to tape recordings of his sermons and teaching sessions. Shortly before I left for Iraq this fall, I ran into one of his quotes from 40 years ago:

“Wars are generally fought for material things; they’re not fought over ideals. After we get into them, we are told we are fighting for ideals. [but] We are fighting for oil and tin and rubber and markets, and as long as we insist on a standard of life that is so high above all the rest of the world, we’re going to have to pay for our standard of living with a lot of blood. I think we ought to reexamine the fact that Jesus was a pauper, and we should be committing ourselves to a very humble, simple way of life.” —Clarence Jordan 1963

My commitment to be faithful to the call of the Gospel has led me to some exciting and unusual places:
• I visited a man on death row in the Georgia State Prison for 10 years and vigiled at the county courthouse alongside of a model electric chair whenever the state of Georgia executed prisoners.
• Our small group of peacemakers began a weekly candlelight vigil at the gate to Fort Benning, GA in opposition to the training of Salvadoran soldiers in 1983 which has blossomed into a yearly protest which has been attended by more than 10,000 people of conscience each of the past 3 years. I continue to work to close the School of the Americas.
• Protests against nuclear weapons led to several prison sentences, including 6 months spent in a county jail and a federal prison in Texas in 1981. Blocking a train carrying 208 nuclear bombs through Georgia landed me in jail, again, several years later.
• I am part of an on-going peace witness at Alliant TechSystems, the weapons-maker headquartered in Edina that makes landmines, cluster bombs, and depleted uranium weapons- all weapons outlawed by International Humanitarian Law as indiscriminate weapons which kill and maim civilians. Last May, I spent a week in the Hennepin County Workhouse (the county jail) for a protest against Alliant cluster bombs which were dropped in Afghanistan the previous fall.
• Every Wednesday, I join more than 100 others on the Lake Street bridge between Minneapolis and St. Paul in holding signs against war and economic sanctions in Iraq.
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In August, I heard Kathy Kelly, founder of Voices in the Wilderness, a group working to end the economic sanctions against the people of Iraq, when she spoke at a rally in Loring Park in Minneapolis. She asked those in attendance to consider traveling to Iraq if war appeared imminent, to stand beside and in solidarity with the Iraqi people as a testimony to our commitment to their well-being. She was forming an “Iraq Peace Team”- a group of Americans and other nationalities to live in Iraq and place themselves by hospitals, water treatment plants, electrical facilities and other locations necessary for the infrastructure of the country. These were all facilities that were bombed by allied forces in 1991, despite the fact that it is a war crime to target such civilian structures.

After prayer and a period of discernment with my family and my faith community, I requested a leave of absence from my employer, Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, and awaited word that Iraq was willing to issue me a visa to come. Part of the discernment process of choosing to go to Iraq was considering the letter Voices in the Wilderness shared with us from the US government. It informed us that unauthorized travel to Iraq was punishable by up to 12 years in prison and up to $1 1/4 million in administrative fines by the US government for violation of the sanctions. We were told that several individuals have been fined $10,000. each for taking medicines to Iraq and, while we were in Baghdad, we received notice that Kathy Kelly and Voices in the Wilderness were being fined $10,000. each as well. These threats had to be considered in light of the call of my conscience.

I felt the need to travel to Iraq to tell the people that I am not their enemy and they are not mine. Jesus’ call to love our enemies must take precedence over my country’s declaration to wage war on that country. Traveling to Iraq while that country faced the threats of our bombs was a way to put my prayers for peace into action. It was a specific way to incarnate my faith and beliefs. Gandhi summed up this in his statement: “Be the change you believe in”.

One member of my discernment team, Peter Thompson, a local criminal defense lawyer, decided to join me. After discussions with our families and my employer, we decided to limit our time in Iraq to 2 weeks, although both of us wished to remain there for a longer period. A week before Thanksgiving we received a call asking if we could arrive in Amman, Jordan by December 1, so we could drive to Baghdad the next day.

We joined 3 others in Amman for the 12 hour drive through the Jordanian and Iraqi desert to get to Baghdad. There, we were joined by more than a dozen others including people from Sweden, Australia, Canada, as well as others from the US. We visited in a few of the homes of some near-by Baghdad residents and heard their stories. Most of these families were barely scraping by.
Amal, a school teacher was painting oil paintings at night after her 3 children were asleep to help supplement her $3.50/month salary as a teacher.
Achmed, the 14-year-old boy who greeted us everyday outside our hotel, dropped out of school to shine shoes on the sidewalk to help support his family.
Karima, a widow with her 9 children were facing eviction from their apartment because they couldn’t afford the $12./month payments.
The 250 Iraqi dinar note [hold it up] we carried around with us was worth $825. in 1990. Now it is worth 12 ½ cents.
Peter and 2 others volunteered each day at an orphanage run by nuns from Mother Theresa’s order for 15-20 children with cerebral palsy. When asked what they’ll do when the bombs come again, a nun replied, “we’ll cover them with blankets and stay and pray with them.” A school teacher in Basrah, when asked the same question, said, “We’ll send the children home, pray, and hope Saddam will defend them.”

The UN diplomat in charge of the United Nations Development Program in Baghdad, a man who attended Edison High School in Minneapolis and the University of MN as an exchange student from his native France, explained how the US representative on the 661 committee of the Oil for Food program routinely placed “holds” or denied importation of needed medicines or parts to repair damaged and dysfunctional water treatment plants. He asked us the question posed to him by a fellow UN diplomat, “Don’t you know that every day the economic sanctions and the threat of war against Iraq continue, America is creating 5,000 more Osama bin Ladens?

It was heartbreaking to tour the pediatric cancer ward in the Basrah Children’s Hospital. These children had no say in the policies of their government or ours but they were dying from the effects of the depleted uranium weapons made in Arden Hills, MN and used by US troops in 1991. To compound the tragedy unfolding over there, we learned that while only 147 US soldiers died in the war, more than 10,000 US soldiers have died in the 12 years since that war- most with ailments connected to “Gulf War Syndrome” which many doctors have linked to the use of these depleted uranium weapons. We were taken to the graveyard of scores of vehicles which carried civilians and troops that were mowed down in what US pilots later called “a turkey shoot” or “like shooting fish in a barrel” along the Highway of Death, south of Basrah. Americans never saw the pictures of US troops burying the dead Iraqis by bulldozer in 1991 because the Pentagon carefully censored what images were released to the media.

We toured water treatment plants that had been deliberately targeted in the ’91 war. Hundreds of water treatment plants are being restored one-by-one with the help of Veterans for Peace because the Iraqi government is denied importation of the needed filters, gaskets and valves by the US representative on the sanctions committee. The UN reports that more than 5,000 children die each month of preventable diseases linked to contaminated drinking water, dysentery and diarrhea. We made a banner which read “To Bomb this site is a War Crime” and carried it with us when we held a press conference at a large water treatment plant in Baghdad which had been bombed in 1991.

But I went to meet the people, to tell them of my sorrow and solidarity. At the graveyard of the vehicles contaminated with depleted uranium and other radioactive components which will remain radioactive for more than 4 ½ billion years, I gathered the five Iraqis traveling with us. I told them that even though I had spoken out, written letters, and demonstrated against the US-led war in 1991, what was done by my government to the Iraqi people was unforgivable—but I asked them for forgiveness anyway, and told them that they are my brothers and sisters. In those five minutes, it didn’t matter that they were Muslim and I was Christian. That we spoke different languages, ate different foods. We were all children of the same God and we needed to work together to stop this up-coming war. Tears were shed; we embraced and experienced the reconciliation that the Apostle Paul writes about in II Corinthians 5:17-20. [read]

We are “Ambassadors for Christ”- how is that for a demanding task?
We are charged with a mission to proclaim and work for reconciliation. It is a big task, let’s start by stopping this war.
“We cry ‘peace, peace’ and there is no peace because there are no peacemakers- because the making of peace is at least as costly as the making of war.” Are we willing to pay the price for being peacemakers?


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Galatians 2:20- “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ, liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.”

Dan Berrigan, in They Call Us Dead Men, writes that this passage is a call to us to risk our lives in the caused of peacemaking. If, as the Rite of Baptism illustrates, we die to self when we chose to follow Christ, we are truly liberated and can no longer be threatened by the state or other groups. If we have “been crucified with Christ”, there is nothing the state can threaten to do to us that we haven’t already voluntarily undergone. The state can jail us, they can ultimately execute us, but we have already voluntarily undergone this in following Jesus. This sense of liberation is more powerful than any government and gives one the freedom to act, as Clarence Jordan puts it, “in scorn of the consequences”.

When I scaled the fence surrounding the assembly plant for all nuclear weapons that the US makes in Amarillo, Texas, or when I sat on the railroad tracks in front of a train carrying over 200 nuclear bombs in Georgia, I did so in the confidence that in calling us to be peacemakers, Jesus also calls us to takes risks for peace. I believe God honors our acts of faithful obedience and gives us the gift of community to strengthen us in a journey which is counter-cultural.

For discussion: CSM vision statement:
We strive to be an ecumenical Christian community. Rooted in Scripture, sharing worship and ministry, we affirm active nonviolence, love of justice and peace, and the integrity of God's creation. Acknowledging our complicity in the materialism and oppression of the dominant culture, we seek to practice loving hospitality and care-filled stewardship of God 's gifts of ourselves, land, time and possessions. Through an ongoing process of action and reflection we seek to shape our lives according to our faith and the urgings of the Spirit. We commit ourselves to one another and to the way of Jesus Christ. Our community is open to all who share these values

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