Below are the words of a veteran working on the frontlines of the battle for what Christians call the “Pax Christi” (peace of Christ) as opposed to the “Pax Romana” (peace of Rome, now a broad stand-in term for peace enforced with the blade of a sword or barrel of a gun). Christians care less about short-term peace enforced by intimidation and violence, and care much more about long-term peace marked by self-giving love, humility, and deep listening to our enemies.
I celebrate the life of veteran Peggy Gish on this day alongside classic Christian hero St. Martin of Tours. The excerpt below is from Peggy’s incredible book Walking Through Fire: Iraqis’ Struggle for Justice and Reconciliation.
“Before working in Iraq I had talked about, and thought I really knew, what trusting God meant. But facing the very real possibility of death or torture myself stripped away simplistic beliefs. I had to rediscover what gives me hope and strength in life and death situations. In the midst of dangerous situations I felt my weakness and lack of control, and didn’t know what else to do but cry out for help. Somehow I’ve been given strength beyond my own and the ability to walk forward in spite of my fear.”
Security was an issue that wove through our thoughts and decisions, but we knew that problems of security were even greater for Iraqis. We had the choice to leave and get respite from it in more stable places. There were guns everywhere, and usually high-powered, automatic ones. At the door of any office or business, there was usually an armed guard. Our neighbor offered us the use of his Kalashnikov. We refused it and explained that we would not use violence to protect ourselves. “I hate this gun,” he said. “But how else can I protect my family?” Guns had become a normal part of life here, but they didn’t seem to make people safer.
When we met American soldiers at their bases or while walking around the city, we often stopped and talked. “What are you doing here, walking around the streets of Baghdad?” many asked, amazed. “You don’t have a gun, or armed guards! Don’t you know how dangerous it is? “We’re safer than you are, carrying your guns,” I answered. “And without weapons, we can go places you can’t go, and meet people you can’t, because we’re not seen as threatening to them.”
To others concerned about our safety, I said more. “If we carry guns out of suspicion that someone might hurt us, we instead become more suspicious to them and are more likely to be a target of violence.” We knew that without guns we would be forced to use other strengths we have, such as our creative thinking, our ability to talk to someone threatening us, transform a tense confrontation, or prevent others or ourselves from being hurt or killed. And in most threatening situations, having weapons would not make us less vulnerable.
Most internationals living in Iraq surrounded themselves with blast walls, checkpoints, and razor wire. By doing this, however, they put themselves in a kind of prison and cut themselves off from ordinary Iraqis. “How can you live in the Red Zone?” some asked members of our team with a sense of dread. We, however, felt it was a gift to live among and get to know the Iraqi people more personally and understand what they were thinking.
There was never any question that it was dangerous, but CPT differed from other organizations concerning the amount of risk we were willing to accept to do our work. We joined the team, willing to take the same risks as soldiers, to work for peace. We knew it was possible for any of us to be a victim of violence, but, for us, the importance of working alongside Iraqis for justice and peace outweighed the dangers…
We wanted to act out of a “non-mushy” love that compelled us to work in situations where people were under threat. Most people wouldn’t think twice about giving their lives for a family member or risking their lives to pull a child out of a burning house or a river. Could we see all persons as part of our family and their lives as equally precious? Our organization has used the slogan “getting in the way” to refer to Jesus’s way of nonviolent suffering love, as well as standing in the way of those who would cause harm. When we were willing to put our lives on the line to witness for truth, justice, and peace, God could empower us, work through us, and transform threatening situations.