Remembering the Holy Innocents

Remarks for Children of War Candlelight Service December 28, 2012 by Steve Clemens
Children are our most precious resource. They are our future as well as reminders of our past. They embody our hopes yet their vulnerability makes them available prey for those who seek domination over others.
Ten years ago this evening, Peter Thompson and I were here showing photos of Iraqi children we had met – having just returned from Baghdad three months before our war-of-choice began. We don’t know the fate of most of those children but all of them had their lives severely impacted by the actions of our nation and its military machine. So part of me comes with a heavy heart tonight, remembering their smiling faces, their eagerness to have their photos taken – wondering if they were allowed to make it to their teens and early 20s, and if so, with what physical, emotional, and psychological scars?
So the opportunity presented itself this year to return to Iraq, now that most of the US troops are gone and we are no longer at a state of war with them (although war was never declared – small comfort to those on the receiving end of bombs and bullets); some of us received a beautiful engraved invitation from the Governor of the Province of Najaf. My immediate response was “let’s go!” Originally planned for March, it didn’t happen until November after messages of disappointment that the cultural celebration we were invited to participate in had been postponed and then canceled.
Many of you know that Minneapolis is a Sister City with one of the largest cities in Iraq, the holy city of Najaf. This city is about two hour’s drive from the capital city of Baghdad and has an older, neighboring city, Kufa, which lies on the Euphrates River making it very similar to our own Twin Cities. Najaf is home to the world’s largest cemetery because it is also the location of a shrine to one of Islam’s most revered leaders, Imam Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and many devout Shia Muslims wish to be buried near his shrine. The photos being shown tonight were taken in the Province of Najaf at schools and neighborhoods I visited last month with friends from the Iraqi & American Reconciliation Project.
When we hear the Bible story of the birth of Jesus, what follows quickly is a story of the visit of “Wise Men from the East” who have heard of a special child being born. Empires are always fearful about anyone who could disrupt the present order, especially the potential of other leaders arising who could contest their domination of others. Herod, the King appointed as a vassal ruler for the Roman occupiers of the land we now know as Palestine and Israel, owed his power and wealth to the Romans and would tolerate no opposition. If “Wise Men” traveled a great distance to “worship” at the birth of a new leader, this baby was a threat unless he was part of Herod’s “royal” family. Therefore, an order goes out from the palace to kill all the newborns. Joseph and Mary, having been warned in their dreams, quickly take their infant son out of the country. But, the story goes, many infant children did not escape the terror of an empire bent on keeping power over others – even if the victims were children under the age of two!
Many here tonight know about the war against Iraq in 1991 that was followed by 13 years of brutal economic sanctions against the Iraqi people. Some of you know how those economic sanctions destroyed much of Iraq’s economy, devaluing the currency to such a drastic degree that many children dropped out of school to try to earn a little money to help feed their families. Iraq lost many, many children, a whole generation to that cruel policy kept in place by the US and British governments. United Nations experts estimated that more than ½ million children died unnecessarily because of those policies. This service tonight is the 15th year we have gathered to remember the young victims of war. It was that cruel, relentless policy of economic sanctions which led Marie and others to begin this service of remembrance and reflection. Tonight, even as we gather, those economic sanctions are now directed toward new victims in Iran.
Most Americans think the second Iraq War is over since most US troops left Iraq last December. The past several years had witnessed far fewer deaths than the period of intense fighting by people labeled as “insurgents” which occurred primarily during 2005 to 2007. But the aftermath of war and the chaos following the devastating destruction of the nation’s infrastructure continues. Despite billions and billions of US tax dollars squandered under the promise to rebuild Iraq into a flowering democracy, there still is only intermittent electricity available from the national electrical grid which must be supplemented by neighborhood generators, privately owned, and sold to those who can afford the greatly additional charges. The water flowing from the taps is polluted and contaminated, a toxic stew for the poor who can’t afford the cost of a water-filtering device and the weekly and monthly costs of replacing filters.
But less I paint too dark a picture, there was another startling sight: Iraqis who had every right to sneer and scorn visitors from the nation which had visited them with such wanton destruction welcomed us last month with not only open arms but warm hearts. We were lavished with so much food and affection we felt like royalty. The fact that we came unarmed, as friends rather than conquerors, was deeply appreciated. I could go on about our visit but that will have to happen another time since our focus tonight is on the children.
Many of the children we met when visiting schools where the Muslim Peacemaker Team had installed water filters had not even been born before the US campaign of “Shock and Awe”. They never lived under the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Although the effects of war linger, they are no longer victims but survivors who need and want partnerships with us. The older high school students and young adults in the colleges we visited were eager to try out their English with us. Many are seeking exchange programs to study abroad to widen their horizons. But there remain many challenges. Visas to come to the US are very difficult to come by and the cost is prohibitive for most who continue to struggle economically.
In a poor neighborhood we visited, the families lived in “homes” they were allowed to build as squatters - but they did not own the ground under those structures. A family that graciously welcomed us in apologized when the lights went out so we were forced to meet outside so we could see one another. As the men sat and discussed in one area, the women and children gathered by their kitchen area where they learned that some of the children did not attend school because they couldn’t afford the “uniform”-dress expected of them. 
This year, however, the thoughts of many Americans will be focused on the 20 innocent children gunned down at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut two weeks ago. And we should mourn their loss as well as the teachers and other adult school staff. Maybe this loss will help us as a people gain empathy for the other Holy Innocents victimized each week in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere by un-manned aerial vehicles, drones, with the names of Predator and Reaper as though they are part of nature’s own cycle of life and death rather than the macabre machinery of military domination.
The Biblical story of King Herod killing the Holy Innocents in his frantic attempt to destroy any possible competition to his political rule is how all empires react to threats they perceive. If we wish to stand with the Holy Innocents, we must stand in opposition to empire, the creator of more victims. The candles we light are reminders that even in the midst of darkness, we are called to bear witness to the light we have been given. Quakers are known for reminding us that everyone has a spark, a glimmer, a light within – that of God or the divine within each of us. May we fan, feed, nurture that spark within us, within each other as we remember the lives lost, the futures squandered, the hopes dashed by war and help us to recommit to stand with the survivors demanding an end to the violence – especially that visited on children. 
We remember the survivors of the empire’s violence – first Moses, escaping from the decree of the Pharaoh to kill all male Hebrew children, then Jesus, being taken to Egypt to escape the murderous King Herod; they were survivors. These children whose photos you see are also survivors. May we stand with them as we say a loud “No!” to those who seek to do them harm.

Prepare the Way

Prepare the Way. Shared Word for CSM. Second Sunday in Advent, Dec 9, 2012 by Steve Clemens
Luke 1:68-79 (Song of Zechariah)
68 “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because God has come to his people and redeemed them.
69 God has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David
70 (as God said through his holy prophets of long ago),
71 salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us—
72 to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant,
73     the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear
75     in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
76 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
79 to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

Philippians 1:3-11
I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in prison or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

Luke 3:1-6
3 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.’”

The Song of Zechariah, father of John the Baptizer, tells us of a rising sun which will “shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death”. Tomorrow, December 10th, is identified as International Human Rights Day and my friends in Afghanistan, the Afghan Peace Volunteers, have asked us to petition the United Nations to call for a ceasefire by all parties in the war in Afghanistan as well as taking the time to remember and mourn all the victims of war in Afghanistan over the past 33 years since the invasion of Soviet forces followed by the mujahedeen, the Warlords, the Taliban, and now the US and NATO troops. “We are tired of the killing,” they told me last Spring when I traveled to Kabul to plant trees with them.

The shadow of death: is there not a more accurate description of US unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones, with the names of Predator and Raptor? Flying at great heights and visiting death and destruction on unsuspecting human targets, these killing machines purposefully sow fear and terror into the hearts and minds of those on the receiving end. It gives a whole new meaning to an Advent, a time of waiting in anticipation. Zechariah knew something about the need for deliverance from an occupying enemy – the Roman occupiers not only had troops in the Jewish homeland but had also a hand in appointing Herod and Pontius Pilate as political rulers and even the religious authorities, the high priests, Annas and Caiaphas. John the Baptizer was called to be the one to prepare the way for one who could “rescue them from the hand of their enemies”. But Zechariah’s song ends with the plea to “guide our feet into the path of peace.”

Most of us know the John the Baptist story from Sunday School – how he was imprisoned for his seditious talk. Our second reading from Philippians reminds us that another messenger is in prison: Paul is writing to this small outpost of believers in Philippi from his prison cell reminding his readers that they be filled with love as they discern what is best. Last week was the time my friend Brian Terrell, a Catholic Worker from Iowa, was ordered to report to the Federal Prison in Yankton, SD for his 6-month sentence. He was convicted for his nonviolent protest of the training of drone pilots at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri earlier this year. Brian was guilty of trying to warn the military personnel of the illegality of these weapons under International Laws but his voice, like one crying in the wilderness of US courtrooms fell on deaf ears. “He who has ears to hear …” but the words fall to the ground when deafness is chosen out of fear or arrogance. So his nonviolent witness will have to speak through his action at Whiteman as well as his presence in prison.

Brian Terrell isn’t the only prophet in prison. Last week also marked the first time Bradley Manning was allowed to speak in a US Courtroom after more than two years of imprisonment, 9 months of which in solitary conditions that met the definition of torture according to a United Nations rapporteur who was denied access to him. All this because he dared to bring to light the shameful deeds our nation has committed in darkness. When one blows the whistle on the lies of war, expect the wrath of the government to be visited on you. Again, not the type of visitation we wait for in our time of Advent.

But for those of us who were able to hear Bill McKibben a week ago speaking about the math of climate change, he too had a story of imprisonment for trying to bring the crisis of fossil fuels and their carbon emissions to the attention of the President during the summer of 2011. McKibben’s three days in the DC jail ironically brought much more attention to the protest than had there been no arrests at all. His friend Gus Spaeth told Bill through the cell bars that this time in jail was the most important thing he had done in his life – someone who advised Presidents, chaired committees, and had received numerous awards and recognition as Dean of the Yale Environment Studies Program, founder of the National Resources Defense Council and President Carter’s Environmental Advisor. Both men, sitting in jail, hoping and working for that spark which can light a fire for the environmental movement. A time of waiting – but being active while one waits.

Last Saturday I saw a movie, 5 Broken Cameras, documenting the nonviolent resistance of the people of Bil’in in occupied Palestine. The filmmaker as well as his brothers were dragged off to Israeli jails. His cameras were “broken” when they were hit by bullets, tear gas canisters, or fell to the ground as the cameraman was being beaten by Israeli troops.  They recognized that being jailed, shot, and possibly killed were and are a matter of course when one seeks justice in the face of illegal Israeli settlements, destruction of olive trees, and the crushing of Palestinian hopes. They, too, wait in expectation of being rescued from one’s enemies.

Our reading from Luke chapter 3 doesn’t include the words that Matthew’s Gospel does about the content of John the Baptizer’s message: “Repent, for the Kingdom or reign of God is at hand.” Clarence Jordan in his Cotton Patch translation used to say, “Change your whole way of thinking because God’s new order of the Spirit is impinging upon you.”

That is our message for Advent today. Change your whole way of thinking (and acting) because the new order is based on very different values and ideas. The new order doesn’t need drones or prisons. The new order redefines who is our neighbor, what is “security”, how to relate to an “enemy”. We see that metamorphosis, that metanonia (the Greek word translated as “repent”), in the lives and actions of my Muslim friends, the Afghan Peace Volunteers, my Catholic Worker friend, Brian Terrell, our environmental prophet, Bill McKibben, and the whistle-blowing actions of Brad Manning. The old order, the old way of domination and fear is giving way to a new reality, the in-breaking of the reign of God. These folk are helping prepare the way, just as the life and message of John did for Jesus. We remember John’s fate at the hand of Herod and we better be ready for a similar fate at the hands of the empire today if we decide to Prepare the Way for the nonviolent Christ-child to disrupt and re-order our lives. 

John’s Gospel tells us, “A light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not understand it.” What better a description for the vote a week ago in the United Nations where the US voted against a resolution in support for more recognition of a Palestinian State. Ambassador Susan Rice and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dissembled, justifying the negative vote by claiming that all this needs to be “negotiated” between Israel and the Palestinians, knowing full well that the Netanyahu government has absolutely no intention of stopping more illegal settlements and then rejecting any “preconditions” for negotiations. So it is up to us to help shine a light into this darkness. And there is so much darkness surrounding us tonight: an environment under assault, the people of Palestine and Israel living in fear and terror, whistle-blowers in prison and facing the possibility of decades before any possible release, the hum of drones prowling the skies overhead, the continued military occupation under the guise of humanitarian intervention. And more.

As a sign of our commitment to be people of hope and resistance, I invite all of you to light a candle with me in solidarity with the Afghan Peace Volunteers in Kabul and Bamiyan Province in Afghanistan, remembering all the victims of war but also to determine to help shine a light into our present darkness. After our songs and prayers, I invite you to light your candle from the Advent wreath and then join together to send a message of love and peace across the 6,873 miles and 10 ½ time zones to Abdulai and Ghulami, Zahra and Sharbanoo, Basir and Hakim and the many others waiting this Advent for an end to the war, the terror from the skies, the fear of bombs and IEDs, and the grinding misogyny enforced under the guise of religion. May our active waiting also embody a sign of hope and solidarity for them. May it be so.