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Lenten Reflection: We Must Not Waste Suffering

March 7, 2006

I was going to post this last night but I decided to just go talk to my wife instead. As I told her then, I just didn’t want this to be another news item.

The topic was a moving account of Michael Totten’s visit to an Iraqi prison that has been made into a genocide museum.

Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done; for our blindness to human need and suffering,and our indifference to injustice and cruelty.

Accept our repentance, Lord.

When I read these words on Ash Wednesday, I admit it, these are the kind of wrongs I was thinking of: (as described in “The Head of the Snake“)

When you enter the museum you will walk through a long and winding hallway. The walls are covered with mirror shards. Each represents one of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds murdered in the genocidal Anfal campaign. A river of twinkling lights lines the ceiling. Each represents one of the five thousand villages destroyed by Saddam Hussein.

But it’s always the particular that really gets to you. The pictures at the end of this essay- of a young boy and a young girl – absolutely break my heart. I will never forget the look on this boys face- the look of utter despair, comprehending all too much the evil that was about to befall him– and most of all, not comprehending why. Why? Why must a little boy stand alone in a sea of children with a piece of paper taped to him saying “Where is my sister?”. Why instead of the arms of a mother and father was a mass grave there to swallow him up?

The hardest thing to see was the cell used to hold children before they were murdered. My translator Alan read some of the messages carved into the wall.

“I was ten years old. But they changed my age to 18 for execution.”

“Dear Mom and Dad. I am going to be executed by the Baath. I will not see you again.”

10,725 people were killed in this one building alone. All died during torture. Formal execution actually took place in Abu Ghraib.

I urge you to read it all. Make yourself do it. The pictures are not graphic, just very very sad. It broke my heart, I hope it breaks yours too.

***

Of all of the calls for repentance last week, I confess one stood out to me as extremely difficult on several levels:

For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us.

Accept our repentance, Lord.

I can only imagine what that thought conjures up for a congregation; the wide range of targets one imagines others guilty of, thinks he is the victim of, and especially the conflict of sentiments when one turns thoughts towards the war in Iraq. Are people thinking of WMD? George Bush? Democrats? Republicans? The media? Sadaam Hussein? Who are we supposed to repent from having uncharitable thoughts toward? Am I supposed to repent of supporting the removal of such a wretchedly evil and despotic regime as Saddam’s? Or just my ill-will towards those who view his removal as a mistake based on a lie that has created a situation worse than before? But if I do that, don’t I negate the repentance of being “blind to indifference and cruelty”? O wretched man that I am!

The temptation always handy is to just repent of it all – damn Bush, damn the bloodthirsty killers, damn the whole middle east and the imperialist racist America who means well, but hurts as much as it helps. The temptation is to picture ourselves at that moment, lifted up Lorax-style out of this polluted world to some plane above. The temptation is to think that anything I dislike is suspect in the eyes of God. At least it is for me.

This goes back to the very first debate I ever had at Asghar’s place over this Anne Lamott quote:

“You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

It’s always safe to hate the haters; but when in doubt, just hate yourself more. That’s the temptation. At least for me. Maybe you’re not like me. But maybe you are. Charles Krauthammer, writing about the Academy awards, sees a lot of this going around in my neck of the woods:

you have no idea how self-flagellation and self-loathing pass for complexity and moral seriousness in Hollywood.

It’s not just Hollywood, it’s Western civilization in general. Hollywood just likes to make a production out of it. [That’s why “Crash” winning Best Picture makes more and more sense to me: if you were feeling guilty about not seeing any of the nominated movies, you can see this white guilt diatribe and feel guilty about being a racist you’re really not. Then you can repent of it quite successfully. The illusion factory’s a beautiful thing.]

***

Don’t worry, it all comes together. In my effort to curb my overtly political blogging – which is not going very well, if you haven’t noticed – I’ve tried to curb my political reading. This means channeling my urge to read in a new direction, since read I must.

Through a quote at American Digest, I happened to come upon another Ash Wednesday essay by David Warren, a writer previously unknown to me. Whereas my earlier reading had tended to break my heart, this one sentence began to put it back together again:

Through suffering we build ourselves up, we rise; we must not waste suffering.

We must not waste suffering.

We must not waste suffering.

Understanding that phrase is the key, for those who are interested, in understanding me. I cannot let suffering go to waste, whether it be mine, or a child’s in a faraway land. Ultimately both of us are precious to God, as is our suffering, mine which is mercifully, inexplicably, grievously unfairly the lesser.

***

I grieve for the differences that divide family, friends and nations. Have mercy, I pray, and I mean it. For myself, and for this world.

Have mercy. Accept our repentance.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Rufus T. Flinger (Timmy C) permalink
    March 8, 2006 12:10 pm

    Very nicely written Crec…

    It made me think about and look up a Freddie Beuchner quote on being a “good steward” of the pain in our lives.

    Fred describes reading a bit describing a scene from his own chaotic childhood — he had an alcoholic family, where his dad eventually killed himself…

    When I finished reading it, Howard Butt, who is head of the Butt Foundation which finances Laity Lodge, came up to me and said something for which I was utterly unprepared. He said, “You have had a fair amount of pain in your life, like everybody else. You have been a good steward of it.

    He goes onto suggest that perhaps in the parable of the talents, that one of the things the “talent” could represent is how we manage our pain, or how we bury it.

    The whole thing is here:
    http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/buechner_3416.htm

    But it resonated with your wise theme: don’t waste your suffering…

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