Christianity is a radical call to peacemaking, says Norman Kember

By staff writers
December 9, 2006

This week I have had the great pleasure of meeting up again, for the first time since March 2006, with Jim Loney from Canada and Harmeeet Singh Sooden from New Zealand. One year ago this weekend we were companions in kidnap and held in close confinement in Baghdad where we had gone as members of a Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) delegation.

Two weeks into that captivity, that is at this time last year, and in spite of repeated promises of release, it was becoming evident that we were likely to be held until after Christmas and this was a source of extreme sadness – no, rather deep depression. I was painfully reminded of those days as we sang our Advent hymns in church last Sunday.

Advent is the time when we re-encounter Mary’s song (the Magnificat) and we are made to recall the radical nature of the Christian faith: “[God] has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble, He has filled the hungry with good things – and sent the rich away empty”.

Impossibly idealistic? Certainly not realised in our everyday experience as the powerful continue to oppress the powerless and the wealth gap between the rich and poor across the world, gets ever wider. The vision of the Magnificat is hardly that of the world of business, commerce and party politics.

Now I confess to conforming to the accepted British way of life for most of the time and live comfortably on my university pension with my wife in Pinner – the quintessential middle class suburb. I also use my car regularly to drive to church and cheerfully go abroad on holidays by plane in spite of the effects on global warming. But I do get twinges of conscience. It was such a twinge that took me to Iraq.

Part of my understanding of the radical nature of Christianity affects another aspect of our common life. I see in Jesus’ teaching and example a revolutionary approach to the manner of dealing with conflict and wrong-doing. I believe with Gandhi that Jesus’ way is that of non-violent resistance to evil. Many others have followed in that way, for example Martin Luther King and the little known Muslim Badshah Khan (1890-1988).

I have always been an admirer of the German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was executed in 1945 for his opposition to the Nazi regime. He wrote: “There is no way to peace along the path of safety, for peace must be dared, it is in itself a great venture, and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to mistrust, and this mistrust in turn brings forth war. To look for guarantees is to want to protect oneself. Peace means giving yourself completely to God’s commandment.”

This is hardly the view of the establishment – even the church establishment – and certainly not since the time of Emperor Constantine who in 312 AD brought about the marriage between church and state. In following this radical view of the teaching of Jesus I have been opposed to war as a method of bringing lasting peace and have celebrated the many victories of non violence.

I believe that Christians should abandon the outdated Just War theory and advocate the discovery of new ways of bringing about reconciliation without resort to armed violence.

Now I have long held these views as an armchair theorist but have been a ‘cheap’ peacemaker in practice. For most us it is easy in Britain to be a conscientious objector, to demonstrate and write letters to government. It was when I heard about the work of the Christian Peacemaker Teams – seeking to bring reconciliation in conflict situations, that is, in risky conflict situations, that I felt that twinge of conscience.

I therefore signed up for a modest trip to Iraq – just 10 days - with modest aims – to meet Iraqi people, to learn how Christian Peacemaker Teams worked in practice and to show that at 74 I was not ‘past it’ in adventures in Christian peacemaking.
The rest is history. The story of our capture, the tedium of confinement and the joy of release will be detailed in my forthcoming book.

I was asked recently in a radio interview if I considered myself lucky to be alive. No, I am not lucky – my release was not due to luck but to the painstaking investigative work done by police and Foreign Office staff in Iraq and the UK and to the bravery of the SAS group who acting on that intelligence came and released us. I am constantly thankful to all those people.

The great tragedy for us was the death of our fellow captive, the American Quaker Tom Fox. Tom was the most compassionate peacemaker of the four of us, praying for the victims of each bomb explosion that we could hear from our ‘cell’. Tom was separated from us, murdered and his body dumped by the roadside. But the great tragedy for the people of Iraq is that such kidnapping and deaths are common daily occurrences.

The violence of the war against Saddam has released such a tide of violence in its wake that, at present, no-one seems to know how to stop it. The heavy-handed pursuit of peace by the coalition forces after the invasion has proved a disaster. It has been costly in the waste of resources for reconstruction and much more tragically in the lives of young soldiers and Iraqi citizens. In this I was surprised to find common ground in a recent statement by General Dannerts and, this week from the American ‘Iraq Study Group’.

Returning to my experience: whatever the rights and wrongs of my original decision to go to Iraq, the misadventure has had some remarkable and unsuspected results. The worldwide fellowship of the church was clearly demonstrated by the support given to my wife, both locally in practical ways and around the nations through prayers, vigils and messages of solidarity. It has not been possible to thank all those people, many unknown to us.

The Muslim community gave remarkable testimony to our witness for peace and our desire to bring reconciliation to Iraq and to oppose any human rights violations by whichever side in the conflict. The Muslim leaders made clear that the kidnapping of those who work for peace is against the true spirit of Islam. They also took part in many of the vigils that were arranged in cities across the country so that bridges were built between Christian and Muslim communities. Long may they continue to be strengthened. in mutual respect and understanding.

Then my notoriety has given me and other members of the peace movement the chance to share and explain our views to some new audiences – even to the extent of a woolly liberal being invited to write for the clear-minded readers of the Daily Telegraph!

I am expected to say something abut my attitude towards those who captured us. Within the strict limits of our confinement we were, in general, treated with humanity and the occasional act of compassion. All 3 of us are united in our offer of forgiveness to these men. We do not condone what they did to us but believe that forgiveness is in short supply in Iraq and there is no hope for that country until the communities seek mutual reconciliation rather than endless cycles of revenge.

We believe in restorative, not punitive, justice. If these men are brought to trial we would ask, if convicted, that they be treated with clemency. We do not wish for retribution but ask that they accept our forgiveness by changing their lives from violence to nonviolence. Although we are all absolutely opposed to the death penalty we do not have, at present, enough information about the working of the Iraqi court system to discover if we can best help these men by refusing to testify and asking for clemency outside the court system or by agreeing to take part in the trials and ask for clemency within the court process. Christian Peacemaker Teams are seeking to retain an Iraqi lawyer to act in court on behalf of these men.

Our experience has not brought about a change in our belief in the need for and efficacy of non-violent solutions to conflicts. The best way to peace is not to prepare for war – as the old saw has it - but to work for justice. A world war against structural and economic injustice is not the quick fix that the politicians seek but it is our most certain long term defence against terrorism.

© Norman Kember, 2006. This is the original version of an article adapted and published by the Daily Telegraph newspaper as ‘Confessions of a peacemaker’. Norman Kember’s book, ‘A hostage in Iraq’ will be published by Darton Longman and Todd on 23 March 2007 – the first anniversary of the men’s release from captivity.

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