Afghanistan: Bear Witness We Must!

When I was in my early twenties, I was so much more adventurous than the pastor who stands before you. Still foolish enough to believe in my own ability to meet any situation I stumbled into; I travelled the world seeking all the excitement which life might bring my way. More than once, I ventured into worlds beyond my meagre capacity for wisdom. With a reckless spirit, a rail-pass in my pocket, a backpack slung over my shoulders and several hundred dollars’ worth of travelers’ cheques, yeah, travelers’ cheques. That’s how long ago it was. I had several hundred dollars of travelers’ cheques tucked into my wallet, when I boarded a train in Zurich, Switzerland, bound for Athens, Greece. Despite my youthful vigor, I was tired. Several months of backpacking in Northern Europe had left me weary. In just five days my rail-pass would expire, so I decided to head to Greece, where previous visits had taught me, the living was easy. I longed for the warm sun, the blue skies and the equally blue waters and the promise of a cheap place to rest.

As the train made its way through the Alps, I remembered a similar trip which I had made the year before and I tried to calculate whether my remaining funds would allow me to return to the village of Hannia on the Island of Crete. I knew that in Crete I could find work. I planned to mix a lot of relaxation and fun with just a little work and try to live out the winter on the Mediterranean. As the train rattled through Austria towards, what was then, Yugoslavia, it began to get dark. I was disappointed that my journey through Yugoslavia would be completed in darkness. I remembered my previous journey by car through Yugoslavia and how, at the time, I had marveled at the diversity of this strange little country. I remembered men and women driving oxen as they ploughed their fields in much the same way as their ancestors had done. I also remembered my surprise at entering the ultra-modern section of the city of Belgrade, the showcase of the dictator Tito’s communist regime. I fell asleep pondering the sharp differences between the lives of the poor in the villages who appeared to live without any modern conveniences at all, and the lives of those who inhabited the city of Belgrade, with its towering buildings and streets filled with automobiles. Several centuries seemed to co-exist in this Yugoslavia.

I was awakened by the sound of people shuffling to find their papers as the train conductor instructed us to get our passports and visas ready for customs inspection. When the Yugoslavian custom officials, with their rifles over their shoulders boarded our train, they were preceded by men guided by vicious looking German shepherds. Even though I knew that I had all the correct papers and that my backpack contained nothing more offensive than some dirty laundry, the sight of the dogs, the guns and the uniformed officials struck fear into my heart. I nervously handed over my precious passport to an official who looked younger than my twenty-two years. He carefully read over the visa which I had obtained in Zurich the day before; a visa which I could not read because it was written in an unfamiliar language using unfamiliar alphabet. The young man handed my passport over to an older official and before I could comprehend what was happening, I was being escorted off the train. I was shaking so badly that the young men on either side of me had to hold me up. I’m not sure if my feet even touched the ground.

After a long, lonely wait in a drab, windowless room, a woman entered. In broken English she told me that my visa was not in order. “NOT in order! NOT in order!” She kept repeating it.  I gathered from what she was trying to unsuccessfully to explain to me, that my passport contained the visa from my previous visit to Yugoslavia but was missing an official exit stamp. She demanded to know why there was no exit stamp in my passport. “NO EXIT STAMP! NOT in order! Needless to say, I could not explain. I told her that I had only spent a little over a week in Yugoslavia the year before and then gone on to Greece. I told her that I didn’t know that an exit stamp was necessary and that I couldn’t understand why the Yugoslavian consulate would have issued my current visa if my paperwork was not in order. She kept insisting that I needed an exit stamp. “NOT in order! NOT in order! EXIT STAMP!”

After several fruitless attempts to try to get her to tell me what I was supposed to do, I found myself in a small, dark room. The only small window was reinforced with bars. In the darkness of a Yugoslavian holding cell, I sat down, and I began to cry. I cried like I have never cried before or since. I was terrified and my sobbing wracked my whole body, as I trembled in uncontrollable fear. After a while, I became conscious of a sound which did not come from me. Susssssssh… I was not alone. Not alone in the darkness. Someone else was in the room with me. In the shadows, I could make out the shape of a woman. My sobbing began to subside as she continued, Susssssssh… Susssssssh… The woman began to pace back and forth in our tiny room and gradually her Susssssssh turned to humming. She hummed unfamiliar tunes which somehow managed to calm me. Occasionally her humming would turn to singing. She sang softly and quietly, and my sobbing eased. In the shadows, I couldn’t see how old she was. Her hair was long, dark, and curly. She wore a plain cotton dress, ankle socks and a beaten-up pair of shoes, whose laces flapped back and forth as she paced.

It took only a few hours for my travelling companion to contact the British Embassy, sort out the mess and secure my freedom. The sunlight was just beginning to find its way into our cell when my captor arrived to release me. As I left, I took a close look at my roommate. I smiled, hoping that she would understand my smile as gratitude for her kindness. Her tender sounds had calmed me and helped me through the darkest night of my life. She returned my smile and added a wave of her own. Then our guard roughly escorted me out into the bright lights of the customs house. Before I boarded a train which would take me safely out of Yugoslavia, I thought that perhaps I should try to help my cellmate. Maybe I should try to find out why she was being detained. Perhaps I should try to help her to get her out. But this was not a place which welcomed questions and my youth and inexperience, as well as my fear allowed me to respond to the call of Greece’s warm sunshine. So, I boarded the train and I left. My few hours of captivity, I chalked up to just one more adventure on the road. Soon the pleasures of freedom and the privilege of my birthplace afforded me the luxury of rest and to relax.

Twenty-one years later, I sat in the comfort of my living room, and I watched the evening news. I paid very little attention as yet another deadline was imposed against the Serbs. Over the years I’d lost track of who was doing what to whom in what was once called Yugoslavia. As a reporter droned on about the massacre of an entire village, the camera zeroed in on an old man who was wailing.

The old man, he rocked back and forth as he tried to explain to the reporter the atrocities which had just been committed. He pointed to a body which lay in the bush behind him. The camera angel widened, and the lower half of a woman’s body became visible. She wore a plain cotton dress, ankle socks and a beaten-up pair of shoes. I knew it wasn’t her.

The old man tried desperately to get her story out. The voice of the translator explained that she had been forced to watch the execution of her sons, then she was raped, stabbed and finally shot in the head. The old man, he went back to his wailing. He rocked back and forth. And even though I knew it wasn’t her, from somewhere deep inside of me there came a sound.  Susssssssh… For the first time in years, I wondered what had become of her. I do not know if she was Muslim, Christian or Jew. I don’t even know her name. Nor do I know if she escaped the horror of ethnic cleansing. I do know that she embodied, and I hope that she continues to embody, the LOVE, which is the MYSTERY we call God, in the compassion of her Susssssssh…

On a dark evening, long ago, what remained of a band of rebels who were followers of a political radical, gathered together in the house of one of their supporters. The doors of the house were locked because the rebels feared the authorities. Their leader had been executed just a few days before. The rebels feared for their own lives. Rumors had been circulating that their leader was not dead. Suddenly, I can’t tell you how, the felt their leader’s presence among them and heard: “Peace be with you.” Amid their fear and grief, in the turmoil of their attempts to figure out what to do next, in their panic about the dangers which surrounded them, they felt the presence and heard the words. Peace. Shalom. Peace. Susssssssh…

Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Rwanda, Iraq, Darfur, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Ethiopia, Libya, Afghanistan…I could go on and on, the wailing never ends. This week, we listened as a distraught Afghani mother, wailed as she begged for help after being separated from her toddler in their desperate attempt to escape the horrors of war. As she wailed, I heard her cry, “I would rather die!” as she desperately tried to communicate her fears for her child. Once again, in the luxury of my home, sitting comfortably in front of a screen which transmitted her pain, a sound emerged from deep within, as I rocked back and forth.  Susssssssh… Peace. Susssssssh…

It is not enough. The rebel Jesus went on and on about the “basileia ton theon” which we all too often translate as the “Kingdom of God” This translation rests on the notion of replacing the Empire of Rome with the Empire of God. When the Bible was translated into English the empire of the British was a kingdom and so “basileia ton theon” became “Kingdom of God” as if replacing one empire with another would achieve the peace the world hungers for. I dare say the rebel Jesus had much more in mind when he proclaimed that the “basileia ton theon” is within. The Greek word “basileia” is the feminine form of the word for sovereignty, majesty or authority. “basileia ton theon” can be accurately translated as “authority of DIVINITY” or better yet, the “kin-dom of LOVE. For if Jesus taught us anything, Jesus taught us that God is LOVE, and the authority which Jesus pledged his allegiance to, was the Authority of that LOVE, an authority which is all about relationships. That’s why many followers of Jesus have begun to use, “kin”,  “kin-dom” to more fully express the reality that we are all “kin” family, related to one-another. The kin-dom of the Ultimate Authority is the Kin-dom of LOVE. A place where we no longer strive to replace one empire with another. A place where the Authority of LOVE compels us to strive to nourish our relationships with people from all sorts of empires. A place where it is all about the quality of our relationships to one another, to Creation, and to the ONE which is the LOVE which lives in, with, through, and beyond us. It is the “basileia ton theon” which lies within us that brings forth all that we are created to be. It is the “basileia ton theon” which empowers us to be LOVE in the world.

Today, from within my privileged place in the world, I watched the aftermath of this week’s explosion at the gates of Bagrum airfield. After 20 years of war and unspeakable suffering, we are where we have always been, and will remain if empires be they American empires, G-7, China, Russia, Taliban, Isis, or the new forces of corporate empire, replacing one empire with another will not bring the peace we long for to end the suffering. Only LOVE, LOVE which is the DIVINE MYSTERY, only LOVE can do that. Only LOVE can bring us peace. Not the hearts and flowers kind of love, but the LOVE which parades around in the world as justice. Not the retributive justice, which says, “We’ll hunt you down.” But the real justice which is achieved when everyone has enough. When the privileges which you and I take for granted are made available to those who are suffering the injustices of poverty and violence. This kind of justice can only be achieved when those of us, that’s me and any of you who are privileged enough to have the very screens with which you are watching me now; the kind of justice we’re looking for, which means that everyone has enough, requires us to share our wealth, to share our privileges, to share our safety, to share of our very selves, with those who do not have enough.

Peace is not the province of empires, peace is what breaks out when justice for all is achieved, when everyone has enough. We have been richly blessed. In the words of our ancestors, we have been “blessed to be a blessing.” What shall we do to share our blessings? How will we wield the power our privileged lives afford us? How shall we embody LOVE in the world? I know the obstacles to peace through justice seem so very overwhelming. I know too the temptation to respond to violence with violence. I know, it is difficult to bear witness to the horrors of war, but bear witness we must. The fearful images are difficult to bear and so we grieve. We weep for our kin, we weep for our family, our sisters and our brothers, for our children, and we weep for the heroes who died desperately trying to rescue our kin. And we weep for the hate-filled men, young and old, who are seizing power and perpetrating violence and death for these men, they too, these hate-filled men, they too are our kinfolk. In our grief we weep. There is a time to weep. This is the time to weep. We weep, and we wail, and we vent our frustrations. We bear witness to the suffering of our kin, our family, our relations. Susssssssh…Susssssssh…

We do not grieve as ones without hope. Susssssssh… For we have been blessed to be a blessing and the “basileia ton theon” is within. The Authority of DIVINITY is churning within us as the world waits for LOVE to rise again in, with, through, and beyond us. Susssssssh… The KIN-DOM of LOVE is gestating within. Today we weep. Susssssssh… Today we are born again and again as justice-seekers and peacemakers. Born again to be LOVE in the world. Susssssssh…peace…peace.

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