While most voices from the four corners of the world cried out for the release of the four Christian Peacemaker Team members taken captive in Iraq, a few criticized CPT’s work as “unwise and untimely.” These were also the words liberal religious leaders used to describe the activities of Martin Luther King Jr. that landed him in a Birmingham jail in 1963. It is indeed “unwise” to place oneself in the middle of a war zone, unarmed, as the Christian Peacemakers have. It is “untimely” to stay in Baghdad—beyond the precarious safety of the Green Zone—when all other foreign organizations have left.
And yet, this manner of unwise and untimely witness is precisely the peculiar life to which Christians are called. I use the word peculiar in the manner Dietrich Bonhoeffer used it when he said, “What makes the Christian different from others is the ‘peculiar,’ the ‘perissos,’ the ‘extraordinary,’ the ‘unusual,’ that which is not ‘a matter of course.’” It is our calling, wrote Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship, to exceed the pedestrian, the normal. Christians are called to go beyond what is wise and timely.
It was in the course of responding to this peculiar call that James Loney, Tom Fox, Harmeet Sooden, and Norman Kember became involuntary guests of the Swords of Righteousness Brigade in Baghdad. I use the startling language of “guest” specifically because CPT strives in all situations not to dehumanize the other. “If you start using words like ‘kidnap’ or ‘holding for ransom’ or ‘abducting,’ then it begins to depersonalize human beings,” CPT member Cliff Kindy said in an interview.
Their abduction was not unanticipated. They had been preparing for such a scenario since before they went to Iraq, which of course does not mean that it was welcomed. Like anyone in such a situation, they were frightened and hoped their work wouldn’t come to this. But, as “peculiar” men, they trusted that the good they did among the suffering people of Iraq outweighed the risks they ran. And they are right.
King wrote that there are two ways to respond to unearned suffering: either with bitterness or by seeking to transform suffering into a creative force. Fox wrote in his blog in October 2004, “It seems easier somehow to confront anger within my heart than it is to confront fear.... But if Jesus and Gandhi are right, then I am not to give in to either...if Jesus and Gandhi are right, then I am asked to risk my life and, if I lose it, to be as forgiving as they were when murdered by the forces of Satan.”
When the world asked for mercy for these men, it was not for their sakes alone. It is the “captors,” the enemy, who are truly in danger. They have cut themselves off from God. It is those who are “consumed with hatred and utterly devoid of love,” as Bonhoeffer put it, that most need us to intercede for them, love them, bless them when their language has shrunk to only curses.
I have no doubt that James, Tom, Harmeet, and Norman did precisely these things over the days of their involuntary confinement. Beyond their own fear, I am sure, they treated their kidnappers as hosts. Beyond their own anxiety, they shared their concern for their captors. Beyond their own exhaustion, they prayed for peace in the hearts of their new brothers.
There is no easy way to make a world where human dignity is given precedence over private gain or over political agendas. But shall we say that it is too difficult? Shall we say that the time is inconvenient or the situation not quite right? “If you preach the gospel in all aspects, with the exception of the issues which deal specifically with your time,” said the reformer Martin Luther, “you are not preaching the gospel at all.” Instead, let us raise up an army of “peculiar” people who take no weapon but the Word and who hail the enemy as one would a friend, all the while keeping our eyes on Christ. It is this gaze that will redeem our historical moment. It’s the only thing that ever has.
Rose Marie Berger is an associate editor of Sojourners. To support Christian Peacemaker Teams, visit www.cpt.org.