Dispatches from Iraq #2

Thoughts on Freedom

The following is a reflection written by Sheila Provencher, 32, who lives and works in Baghdad, Iraq, with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT). CPT is an ecumenical organization that works with local people in areas of violence (including the West Bank, Colombia and Iraq) to seek nonviolent solutions to situations of injustice and oppression. Sheila (shown left in white), who holds degrees from Harvard and Notre Dame, joined CPT in Baghdad in December, 2003.

BustedHalo.com will feature Sheila’s occasional reflections on daily life in Iraq, the Iraqi people and the challenges they face during the American occupation.

In this last week, countless Iraqi Muslim friends have expressed condolences to me for the death of the Pope. It is amazing­-whether they are Sunni or Shi’a, well-off or homeless, they all say similar words: “He was a man of peace.”

Bahr, a dear friend who lived on the
streets for many of the past several years, spoke most movingly of what John Paul II meant to him. “I cried when he died,” he said. “My friends asked me why, and I explained that just as Shi’a Muslims have Ayatollah Sistani, the Christians have the

Pope, and so it is very sad for them that he died. But I feel that I lost him, too.

“Yes, I am Muslim. But I am human, and he was a human who cared very much for the poor. I remember how he said No! to the war in Iraq. He was like a flag, standing for peace
and humanitarianism all over the world. He worked for God.”

After Bahr’s words, I noticed something when I read world leaders’ reflections about Pope John Paul II. Most did not speak as beautifully as Bahr. But all, revealingly, spoke of the pope in words that reflected their own most deeply held values. For example, Kofi Annan said that “the pope was a man of peace . . . a great supporter of the United Nations… extremely concerned about the world we lived in, and like me, he also felt that in war, all are losers.”

Which brings us to the topic of freedom. President George Bush omitted any references to the pope’s views on war and peace. But he called the pope a “champion of human freedom” and reminded Americans that John Paul II had admired the “blessings of liberty” that flow from the Constitution.

I worry about what I have come to believe is the president’s idolatry of “freedom.” What does he mean? Is freedom just the ability to do whatever we want? If so, it is nothing to idolize.

In his State of the Union speech on February 2, 2005, Bush said that “the only force powerful enough to stop the rise of tyranny and terror, and replace hatred with hope, is the force of human freedom.” And according to his ideology and actions, nations may use violent force in order to promote this “force of human freedom.”

But what about Christianity’s message? The president’s own Christian faith (as well as many other faiths) offers a very different perspective.

According to Jesus of Nazareth, the only force able to end tyranny and terror and replace hatred with hope is the force of agape, or self-sacrificing love. “Love your enemy, do good to those who hate you. Pray for those who persecute you” (Luke 6:27-28).

These are not pretty words to be embroidered in cross-stitch and hung on the wall. They are hard, bloody, risky, and extremely difficult to follow. But follow them we must if we want to choose the path of life.

How could a stance of radical nonviolent love form concrete international policies? How could it respond to both internal and external sources of tyranny and terror? And how could it lead us to a deeper freedom than just the ability to do whatever we want?