Friday, September 26, 2008
Making Peace With God
Note: I first posted this piece almost two years ago, but I'm reposting it, because I think the issues it discusses are increasingly urgent. I know not everyone will agree with my opinions, but I hope you'll at least find food for thought.
Thank you for reading.
Quite a while ago now, one of my hospital patients, an older gentleman, looked up at me from his gurney and laughed when I told him I was a volunteer chaplain. "Young lady, I made my peace with God before you were born."
"Good for you," I said. "How did you do that?"
So he told me.
He'd worked for the OSS in WWII. He got dropped behind enemy lines to assassinate people. "I was very young. The work sounded exciting before I started. I had no idea what it would do to me. You can't imagine what it's like to kill another human being, until you've done it.
"When I came home, I made a vow to God that I would never again intentionally hurt another person. And I never have."
Last spring, Gary and I went to Maui with friends. I'd read about breadfruit and wanted to try it, so one day we stopped at a fruit stand. The man who ran the place had long hair, lots of hemp jewelry, and a dreamy look in his eyes. He looked like a walking stereotype of a New Age flower child.
I admired a wooden cross he was wearing. He smiled and said, "Thank you. One of my patients gave it to me. It's from Africa."
"One of your patients? Are you a doctor or nurse?"
"I'm a spiritual healer," he told us. And then he told us that a long time ago, he'd been Special Forces, until he became disillusioned with the work and started to question what he was doing, and why. His loss of faith in the U.S. government was so profound that he left the country for a while, living in exile. When he came back home, it was to work as a healer.
When we went back to the car with our breadfruit, I said, "Special Forces? Aren't they the people who learn, like, seven ways to kill somebody with one finger?"
"Yeah," Gary said, and shook his head. "That guy went from being a spiritual killer to being a spiritual healer."
I thought immediately of my OSS patient. Both of these men made their peace with God by making peace with other people. I wonder how many other former military personnel have done the same thing.
I've met a lot of scarred veterans at the hospital, and other places. They're haunted by what they've seen and by what they've done, even when they did those things for reasons they believed were just. I think a lot of us don't want to think about what we ask of our military when we ask them to kill for us. We don't want to acknowledge the cost. We want to believe that if someone deems a death necessary, that death won't hurt the person charged with making it happen.
Some of us also want to believe that people who've killed for reasons we don't consider just can't be forgiven, can't change, can't be redeemed. These people, many of us believe, deserve to die: but the people charged with making those deaths happen must, of course, be exempt from any ill effects, because their actions are just.
Here's a New Yorker article about the trauma experienced by soldiers in Iraq who've taken lives. Here's a link to "Witness to an Execution," an NPR story about the prison employees who work on Death Row in Huntsville, Texas. These people believe in what they're doing. It still takes a toll on them.
"You can't imagine what it's like to kill another human being, until you've done it." The good news is that people who've killed can heal, and heal others: they can get better. They can make their peace with God. At least two of them have.
Surely others can, too. But surely our military and prison personnel would be better off if they didn't have to. And surely our death-row inmates -- and the prison staff who care for them -- would be better off if we acknowledged that at least some of them, too, can change.
I'm not quite able to label myself a pacifist; I'm a reluctant adherant of just-war theory. (I also believe that very few conflicts meet the stringent definition of a just war.) I imagine that my OSS patient and the Special-Forces spiritual healer might be, too, although we didn't discuss it. Returning combat veterans need our love and support and prayers. They need our help as they seek healing.
We can begin to help them by making our own vow: a promise never to forget the magnitude of what we've asked of them.