The Children on the Bridge

Rev. Victoria Weinstein

First Parish in Norwell
April 27, 2003


" Letter From the Road"
Elias Amidon and Elizabeth Rabia Roberts

Elias Amidon and Elizabeth Rabia Roberts wrote a series of letters during the past year or so about their many trips to Iraq as American citizen peaceworkers.

More information and previous letters can be found at the Perspectives on Peacemaking website. This dispatch, which I have edited for length, was letter #17, written just a couple of weeks ago, on April 11, 2003:

11 APRIL 2003

…Now the days of war keep turning like the pages of a newspaper.
…Our feelings are a mix of political convictions and raw human empathy.
We can't forget the thousands of bloodied victims lying in dirty hospital rooms, while at the same time we hope for the end of the Iraqi dictatorship, while at the same time we distrust our government's long-term intentions, while at the same time we believe in the human capacity for nobility and kindness, and in the eventual coming of peace.

The pages keep turning. Who's in charge of Iraq now? Who gets to decide?

Arguments swirl even as US troops fight door-to-door. Rumsfeld threatens Syria may be next. We look at each other and realize we've failed, and then look again and realize we have succeeded. This is a long, long project we remind ourselves, a project that links us with peacemakers through all time. And so we prepare ourselves as wisely as we can for the continuing struggle….

Yet there is something missing. Something that feels a little betrayed in us, even denied, as we turn another page and ready ourselves for tomorrow. What is that? What haven't we done? What haven't we remembered?

I believe what we have missed has to do with grieving, and with the very human and mystical impulse in us to bless the dying and the dead. Throughout the long months of protest and argument leading to this war, and through all the images of carnage we witnessed, we have tried to feel our solidarity with all the innocent victims of war: the Iraqi civilians and children, the Iraqi conscripts, and the US and British soldiers sent to liberate them.

In the process of all this our hearts stretched, and opened, and now are broken. These feelings of pain are our allies. They have helped us recognize in our souls what we knew before in our minds, that there is no "other". We are inside this human-ness, inside the soul of humanity in the same way everyone else is. There is no where to step back from it. Our customary sense of personal boundaries is not the whole truth. I use the word "soul" on purpose. To me soul means that space in us in which we experience our connection to everything else, to every being.

My soul bonds me to every other struggling soul in this drama of the Iraq war, from President Bush to the newly-made orphan falling from her mother's arms. We are not separate, we are family.

To feel this connection is a great gift. It makes our lives awake and in touch. But it also carries a price, the price of grief when members of our human family suffer and die. And so our hearts break as we see images of the dead and maimed. At a certain point we don't know how to hold this sadness and we turn away, or make ourselves numb. Soon we are troubled by our numbness and our turning away, yet we don't know what else to do. In an unconscious attempt to take on the suffering, some of us become vulnerable to illness, or depression. I believe there is something we can do, though it may not appear to change anything outwardly.

We can honor the suffering we witness by giving ourselves time to grieve. We can stop turning the pages for a moment, stop watching the next CNN report, stop attending to the next thing, and let there be silence in our house. Let the sadness in. Grieve. Grieve in whatever way we feel to. It may be for only a few moments, or it may be longer, but let us give it the time it takes, and as often as we feel the grief arise in us let us honor it.

And then we might try doing one more thing. Whether you are religious or not, it is very likely that if you were sitting with a family member who was dying you would want to soothe them in any way you could to help make their passing graceful and free from fear. Perhaps you would caress their forehead, or sing a quiet song, or repeat a prayer over and over.

Whatever you would do, imagine what would be the quality of your heart during those moments as your loved one dies and you help them release in peace.

This quality of heart is, I believe, what we have to touch in ourselves and offer up to those children, women, and men in our common soul who have been wounded or died in a state of great distress during this war. They are here, inside us, with their confusion and fear and half-finished good-byes… and I think we need to go to them in our heart's imagination and offer our most sincere tenderness and love. Help them, by our tender presence, to let go in peace. If it's true we are all part of one soul, this gesture may be more than just a gesture. It may be the most relevant act for peace we can make at this moment, in our own soul as well as theirs.

Let us begin with a story, told recently by the Rev. Fred Small from his own pulpit at First Church Unitarian in Littleton, MA :

When he was a young man, the American painter James Whistler attended West Point. Assigned to draw a study of a bridge, he submitted an exquisite rendering of a picturesque stone arch with two children on it fishing from the river.

The lieutenant wasn't happy. "This is a military exercise," he said. "Get those children off the bridge."

Whistler returned to his desk and submitted a revised drawing with the children now fishing from the riverbank.

The lieutenant rejected it: "I said, get rid of those children."

Whistler's third and final drawing depicted the bridge, the river, and two small tombstones on the bank.

And the story doesn' t say whether or not the lieutenant gave him a passing grade.

In the past months, my mind has been much preoccupied, as have yours, with issues of war and peace and diplomacy. Like Elias Amidon and Elizabeth Roberts, we have lived in the difficult emotional terrain of " both/and." We both have shared purely intellectual opinions and we have gnashed our teeth in emotional distress. We have both flown flags of support for our troops and carefully examined the motives of American and coalition leaders. We have both decried the vile and murderous practices of the Saddam Hussein' s regime and mourned for Iraqi people who suffered under his dictatorship. We have read and read and watched the talking heads offer their analyses. And we have prayed together in this sanctuary—as we should -- about the spiritual harm that comes to all living things when human beings choose war as a means of achieving social change.

This morning, rather than pile more analysis on top of the vast resources of historical and political information readily available to you, I would like to think with you about the war in a way that honors its spiritual and religious dimensions.

But why now? I turned on the television the other day and noticed that CNN' s programming title, which had been " The War in Iraq" had changed – seemingly before my very eyes – to their new " show" – " The New Iraq." This was my cue, I suppose, to think of the war as being " over." But I know, and you know, that it is far from over. And at the moment when we are most tempted to put that unhappy event behind us, to say it was an ugly job but it was ours to do and we did accomplish our goals– now is the time for the soulful people of the world to do some of the work that politicians rarely have the time or inclination to take it upon themselves to do, and that work is to openly (1) grieve and lament the dead (2) to acknowledge the wounds suffered by even the victorious nation and to (3) to repent (which in this context, means not to assume personal guilt, but to express a sorrow that carries within it the seeds of change: to express contrition because we have a vision of what the world ought to be like.)

While we are here in these pews, we are spiritual people. So while it may be our practice to focus on political issues the other six days of the week, in here we do not hold ourselves responsible for being political experts or military analysts. We lay down the burden of trying to understand all the factors in the whole complicated scenario, and simply stand together in sad consideration of the two tombstones which lie beneath the bridge in James Whistler' s artistic imagination.

We began with a story, and let me add to the story a dream. I will be leading a workshop later on today on the spiritual power of dreams for the PSI Symposium, and this recent dream has served me as a good snapshot of the condition of my own soul as it relates to war and the responsibilities of the religious community:

I am standing in a small room with a group of generic church members (not necessarily our church members!). There is a priest there, holding both a small lifeless figure and a prayer book. He is trying to read a short service for the dead but all the people around him are talking and will not stop talking. They are chattering on about the war, about foreign policy and while they are upset they are still warm and friendly. They won' t stop talking though, and therefore the priest (no particular religion, just an archetypal priest) can' t conduct the appropriate rite of mourning. He starts and stops several times but the chattering drowns him out. Finally he begins to sob – heartwrenching sobs-- and hands me both the book and the dead child and says " I have to leave. They just don' t get it." I am holding the book and the child, and my own heart is sick and broken. But I respond to the priest, " Yes they do. They really do. But when Unitarians are upset we talk."

In Jungian dreamwork, we are reminded that every figure in the dream represents the dreamer. So I am invited to see myself as the chattering, friendly church people, the dead child, the frustrated priest, and myself. Above all, I feel that this dream – which made a serious impression on me – calls me to remember the outer limits of speech where ritual becomes the best response to tragedy.

Please don' t misunderstand: I believe that talking can indeed be sacred work. It often is, and dialogue and conversation are important civilizing forces in the world. But in this dream, the talking is distracting and inappropriate because it is interfering with a funeral. The dream tells me that the lifeless child, who transcends nation and creed, can no longer be discussed. He must be mourned. And so the priest gives up and goes away in tears. He cannot accomplish the sacred amid all the chatter.

[It seems appropriate to say here that one of the aspects of this latest conflict that I have found most challenging is to practice the principle of what Buddhists call " right speech." It is only honest to admit to you that one of the reasons I declined before now to devote an entire sermon to the subject of the Iraqi war was my own awareness of the need not to descend from carefully considered remarks into ranting. People of strong opinions tend to rant. When ranting, it is impossible to listen. I believe Buddha when he says that the way to the compassionate heart is found through right practices, including right speech. At those times I am slow to explore difficult subjects from this pulpit, please know that it is not for lack of care, but for concern that whatever it is be expressed from the compassionate heart.]

To refer back to the lifeless child of the dream, and what, and whom, he represents:

I spoke with a military mother from this congregation last night. She described driving down to Cape Cod with her daughter in law when they decided to take a short cut through Otis Airforce Base in Sandwich, just over the bridge onto the Cape. They are a military family so they had the proper ID to do so. There at security post, a soldier in camouflage, armed with a machine gun – a man doing his job for his country. But as they passed through, one of the drivers said, " Let' s give him some chocolate Easter eggs." And as they handed the basket over, the armed soldier became a grinning kid, somebody' s boy, probably just about twenty-one years old. Jessica Lynch, for heaven' s sake, is just nineteen. Though all manner of people violently lose their lives in wartime, it is only the children who lose their entire future.

If CNN is correct and there really is " A New Iraq," I hope that the United States will be remembered by the new Iraq as the liberators we want to be rather than the occupiers the Iraqi people have told us they don' t want us to be. Congress can, and has, promised billions of dollars in aid. It is my hope that the religious communities will make it our work to encourage life-giving and dignity-enhancing uses of those monies. Only the future will tell. And so I want to think of the war as something that happened and… not something that happened, period.

In the meantime, it for us to live in the painful truth that military victory is always purchased in blood. Someone remarked that it wasn' t three thousand people who died on September 11, 2001. It was one person who died three thousand times. That lifeless child in my dream may represent many things, but he most certainly represents a real child: one with a name, with his own hopes and dreams, and one for whom there should have been a much longer story. He might have been one of ours. He might have been one of " theirs." Aren' t they all ours, in the end? Children don' t come wrapped in flags; this dream child merely needed, and deserved, an appropriately reverent burial, as do the dead in waking life: men, women, elders, children, all of them. I am deeply touched by Elias Amidon' s exhortation to include them in our prayers, to help them, as he writes, " release in peace."

War tears at our hearts. And it is not only the ones we refer to as " the enemy" who create a sense of threat within us. It is also the way that war lifts the veil of unity under which we blissfully exist much of our days, and reveals that we do not all think alike after all, that causes justifiable anxiety. After earnest reflection on the same information as our friends and neighbors, we nevertheless may reach different conclusions about what is right, and the strain of living with this difference wears on us!

I wear on my coat both a red, white and blue pin and a peace pin. " That' s an interesting statement," remarked a woman at the store yesterday. " What does it mean?" I was flustered. " This one means I love my country and support the troops," I said, " And this one means that I love peace." I wondered if she would yell at me, maybe something about not being able to have it both ways.

A nearby Unitarian Universalist, the Reverend Kathy Schmitz of Braintree, put a sign on her lawn that simply said, " No War in Iraq." Some vandals took the sign down and wrote on it every horrible swear word and insult you can think of, in a message to the effect that she is a bleeping person who should go back where she came from (" she came," of course, from the United States of America), and she has some other bleeping qualities, including interesting speculations about her sexual orientation, spelled incorrectly.

Meanwhile, I have heard that some of the far left-leaning Americans have comported themselves no less dishonorably, burning flags and engaging in fisticuffs during peace rallies; the irony of which should not escape any of us.

The fighting that breaks out in the lands of the coalition forces is yet another grievous aspect of war.

But it we believe that diversity is part of God' s plan, then certainly the different conclusions we reach on important moral issues must be part of what we mean by diversity! It is a particularly tricky kind of diversity because it isn' t about outward difference, but inward, and is therefore perhaps most challenging of all to religious liberals, who pride ourselves on our tolerance and acceptance. It really rattles our cages when people with whom we feel a special affinity nevertheless reach widely divergent conclusions about something that evokes such certainty as the righteousness of war. How can this be, when we are privy to the same information and otherwise share so many similar opinions on other important matters?

How can it be? It can be. It is. And especially challenging for the liberal church is to make room and space for each to act on his or her convictions – to make space for each to pursue his or her justice work as conscience dictates, all within the covenant of love, without requiring that anyone be tried in the court of opinion, with any one playing judge and jury over anyone else.

I think of the moment in the gospels when Jesus' critics try to pin him down and find out where he gets the authority to do everything he' s doing and say everything he' s been saying. It isn' t a question he ever answers directly, in fact, he' s rather sly and evasive. " I' m a child of God," is the sense we' re left with. " I' m the Son of Man." And so it is with each of us. We' re children of God. We have, in Emerson' s words, an original relationship with the universe. We receive the divine at firsthand, and guess what? we don' t all receive it the same. It just so happens that we might all read Thomas Friedman' s New York Times columns or watch Larry King or sit in front of the exact same episode of Frontline and reach totally different conclusions. Acknowledging this reality without letting it threaten us is a tough job.

We need not think alike to love alike, said Frances David, and it' s a great slogan until we realize it' s not a slogan at all but a profound truth as well as an explicit challenge. Because finally, this: Iraq is not the last of it. Not by a long shot. We have turned a corner in American foreign policy and whether it' s for better or for worse is impossible to tell right now. Most likely it will be for some better and for some worse. Our military power may indeed save some of the world' s oppressed people and we might encourage democracies to flourish where totalitarian regimes once ruled. … Or we might be the agents of destruction and chaos at other times. It will be hard to keep up, and challenging to maintain wisdom and perspective in the midst of all the other responsibilities we all try to manage in a 24 hour period. Most certainly, any more military campaigns will be expensive, and if Americans want to see ourselves as a nation that prevents genocide and rids the world of the scourge of terrorism – all noble desires -- we are going to have to be prepared to make yet more economic sacrifices.

So what is the church to do? I mentioned the word " repent" earlier, a word that comes from an old French word that means " to be sorry for." Repentance, an old evangelical term, is not meant here to hold any of us personally guilty for the sins of the world – it just seemed the best word to express the sense of sorrow and contrition that includes a call -- a charge, if you will -- to help bring about our faithful vision of the world as it could be: with the Earth fair, and all her people one, as David Pohl wrote.

And this is where I come back to my dream, where I said to the tearful priest, " When Unitarians are upset, we talk."

I made that comment with sincere affection in my dream and I mean it most sincerely and affectionately right now. Talking can change the world just as surely as bombs can alter a landscape. When conversation occurs between sincere people, more is exchanged than information. Practicing right speech in the beloved community is an expression of hope and faith. Civil dialogue is not merely an exercise in good manners but a microcosm of the decency we would wish between all the world' s people. Likewise, deep listening is not something we practice just to learn something from the speaker; it is the only means by which we can transcend our own ego limitations and be brought into true brotherhood and sisterhood with those who are not blood kin.

I believe that the present and immediate future will prevail upon us ever more urgently to engage with the moral issues related to our nation' s status as a global power. If we acknowledge this now, we can create together opportunities for learning and conversation that will benefit our community engagement in social concerns, and will not have to scramble to do so out of a sense of crisis. Our church can be, as I like to think it is now, a place for mature dialogue and communal moral discernment that is a healing alternative to the kind of strident debate that assaults us in the public marketplace of ideas.

"Whatever you do may seem insignificant," said Mahatma Gandhi, "but it is most important that you do it."

Two tombstones on a bank under a bridge may not seem, in the long run, all that significant. But our faith informs us that beneath those tombstones lies the heart of the world.
Thank you for listening. Blessed be.