Wednesday, April 19, 2006

From the Tomb: An Easter Reflection by James Loney

CPTnet, 19 April 2006 ~

IRAQ/TORONTO: "From the Tomb," an Easter reflection by James Loney

[Note: Loney's reflection appeared in the 15 April 2006 edition of the Toronto Star.]

"Very early, on the first day of the week, just after sunrise they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, "Who will roll the stone away from the entrance to the tomb?" Mark 16: 2-3

For 118 days we lay in a tomb -- Norman Kember, Harmeet Sooden and me. Tom Fox too, for 104 days, until he was murdered in the early morning hours of March 9.

Our tomb was a 10-ft.-by-10-ft. room. How I came to hate every single detail of it: the paint-peeling walls; the dim light filtered through stained bedsheet "curtains"; the
pebble-speckle pattern of the floor tiles; the never-ending hours and days of sitting, sleeping, three-times-a-day eating, handcuffed and chained except when let free to go to the bathroom.

We were sealed into this tomb on Nov. 26, 2005. It happened in a finger-snap, just as we were leaving the headquarters of the Muslim Scholars Association, where we had been meeting with their human rights officer. A white, economy-size car pulled in front of us and forced us to stop. Four men with guns stormed our van with military precision.

They went first for our driver and translator, pulled them from the front seats. One of the men jumped into the driver's seat while the others opened the passenger door and, with guns pointed at our heads, took control of the vehicle -- and our lives.

They didn't say a word. They didn't have to. We knew what the score was: co-operate or die.

With that act of violence, we all fell into a pit -- captor and captive and rescuer. A trap had been sprung and there seemed to be no way out unless a price was paid.

The captors wanted money to fund their war against the occupation of Iraq. If ransom was negotiated, it would be young American soldiers who paid. If ransom was denied -- the policy of both the Canadian government and Christian Peacemaker Teams, the organization I work for -- it would be one or all of us hostages who paid. If an attempt was made to rescue us by force, it would be a soldier or a captor or one of us that paid.

Even if our captors decided to just let us go, clearly the best possible scenario, there was still the cost of losing face, something I sensed they were not prepared to do. In the end, it was Tom who paid.

Bleak as they were, I did have options. I could have risked everything in an attempt to escape. I could have stripped off my clothes, refused to eat, told them "release me or kill me" -- either way I will not co-operate with your captivity or your plans for ransom. But the truth was, my desire to live, to be free, was stronger than my principles. I did not want to pay. So I smiled for them, ate their food, held out my hands for handcuffing, accommodated them in a thousand and one ways.

While the prospect of ransom repulsed me, and I resolved never to ask for it (my greatest fear was that I would be tortured into pleading for it), I co operated in the secret hope that it might be the key that opened the door.

I was a prisoner of my own moral cowardice. "Dear God," I prayed, "Let this bitter cup pass me by. Let our freedom be restored with the least amount of suffering possible." Days piled into weeks, and weeks piled into months.

On March 23, at about 7:30 in the morning, our tombstone was rolled way: not by angels garbed in heavenly robes, but by a unit of British Special Forces in full battle gear. There were the sounds of boots on concrete, the door being smashed open, gunfire, voices in English shouting, "Get down! Stay away from the door!" Then a roomful of commotion, soldiers telling us "You're free, it's okay, it's over." And hands, shaking with excitement, cutting us free with a bolt-cutter.

They led us past the smashed-glass threshold of our tomb and out. Out into blue! Beautiful all sky blue! Fresh flowing air and a palm tree and good morning sunlight! They led us through a smiling gauntlet of soldiers and, with a big step up and a big hatch down, we were entombed again.

This tomb was a bland desert-camouflage colour. It was squat, constructed of impregnable steel, moved on a rolling tread of metal plates. The passenger section was dark and cramped and crammed with carefully tooled metal shapes (each with an exact purpose) and little signs that told you things like what to do in the event of a rollover. A young soldier named Rob kept watch through a tiny slit of super thick plate glass. Through it, you could see a small, distorted rectangle of the world outside.

The armoured personnel carrier in motion was excruciatingly loud. The roar and staccato-grind of it pounded in my bones. It brought us to a helicopter armed with a fixed, heavy-calibre machine gun, and the helicopter brought us to the Green Zone -- the sprawling, blast-wall lock-down that houses the offices of the fledgling Iraqi government and the occupying forces of Britain and the United States.

Yes, we went from one tomb to another.

I am learning many things from my captivity, and have a universe of things to be grateful for. Among them is a new and deep appreciation for the women and men who wear the uniform of military service. I likely would not be writing this today if it were not for them. Thus, I am confronted with a great paradox. I, the Christian pacifist peacemaker, am alive, am free because of the very institutions I believe are contrary to Christian teaching.

Christ teaches us to love our enemies, do good to those who harm us, pray for those who persecute us. He calls us to accept suffering before we inflict injury. He calls us to pick up the cross and to lay down the sword.

We will most certainly fail in this call. I did. And I'll fail again. This does not change Christ's teaching that violence itself is the tomb, violence is the dead-end. Peace won through the barrel of a gun might be a victory but it is not peace. Our captors had guns and they ruled over us. Our rescuers had bigger guns and ruled over the captors. We were freed, but the rule of the gun stayed. The stone across the tomb of violence has not been rolled away.

I'm learning that there are many kinds of prisons and many kinds of tombs. Prisons of the mind, the heart, the body. Tombs of despair, fear, confusion. Tombs within tombs and prisons within prisons.

There are no easy answers. We must all find our way through a broken world, struggling with the paradox of call and failure. My captivity and rescue have helped me to catch a glimpse of how powerful the force of resurrection is. Christ, that tomb-busting suffering servant Son of God, seeks us wherever we are, reaches for us in whatever darkness we inhabit.

May we reach for each other with that same persistence. The tomb is not the final word.


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