Iraq, God's Mercy, and Our Response
While Our Leaders Debate the War in Iraq, What Can We do?
A national debate began on Nov. 8, the day after the recent elections, and the topic is the war in Iraq.
It's a debate that needs to be informed by God's mercy, our prayers, and our works of mercy. But, first, let me give you a sense of the debate and the main players.
After the Nov. 7 midterm congressional elections, everyone in Washington — from President George W. Bush, a Republican, to the new Democratic-controlled Congress — began talking about the need for a fresh approach to the war in Iraq. It seems the American people spoke loud and clear in electing a Democratic Congress, saying that simply staying the course in Iraq was no longer an acceptable option.
In fact, Americans rank Iraq as the top priority of the new Congress that will take the reins in January, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll conducted Nov. 10-12.
So, it's no surprise that White House aides began signaling only days after the election that the President would welcome new ideas about the unpopular war, even from Democrats. In short order, he met with U.S. House Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader-elect Harry Reid — the new Democratic congressional leaders.
The President also met with the bipartisan Iraq Study Group at the White House. Led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton, this group plans by year's end to recommend a different course for peace in Iraq.
There was also a change at the top at the Pentagon. The day after the election, the President announced the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and tapped former CIA Director Robert Gates to replace him.
Now, as these players in our national debate present us with options, we urgently need a spiritual perspective that goes beyond just the day's headlines. How can we best approach praying for God's mercy on all those concerned, especially our soldiers serving in Iraq and innocent Iraqi civilians in harm's way? Are there works of mercy that we can perform, along with our prayer?
I'd like to present four main points here, along these lines. It's only a start to inspire you to consider your own response.
Point #1: Peace for Iraq will only come through God's mercy. We must turn to Jesus, The Divine Mercy Incarnate, for peace in our world. He is the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world, a reality we enter into at every Mass.
In conversations with St. Faustina in the Diary, Jesus emphasized the connection between trusting Him and finding peace:
Mankind will not have peace until it turns with trust to My mercy (300).
Mankind will not have peace until it turns to the Fount of My mercy (699).
Tell aching mankind to snuggle close to My merciful Heart, and I will fill it with peace (1074).
Notice that this peace that comes from trusting in the Lord is not just for individual souls, but for nations and the whole world. Thus, while our nation's leaders continue to meet and discuss strategies for ending the war in Iraq, we must realize that all our plans will come to naught unless we, as a nation, turn with trust in God's mercy. Then, and only then, will the Lord bless our efforts to bring about peace.
So, as we attend Mass and pray The Divine Mercy Chaplet for peace in Iraq, let's make our first intention that we Americans would turn to the Merciful Lord Jesus with real trust in Him. It's so easy to place our fundamental trust instead in our own strategies, military might, material resources, and superpower status.
It's high time we prayed really believing that Jesus Christ — not the President of the United States — was, and is, the most powerful person on the face of the earth. He is the Lord of history.
There's a stirring depiction of this reality in the Book of Revelation, where Jesus the Lamb of God, slain and yet risen, is given all authority over heaven and earth. It's a reality we enter into at every Mass, which is heaven on earth:
Then I saw standing in the midst of the throne and the four living creatures and the elders a Lamb that seemed to have been slain. He had seven horns and seven eyes; these are the [seven] spirits of God sent out into the whole world. He came and received the scroll from the right hand of the one who sat on the throne. When He took it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each of the elders held a harp and gold bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of the holy ones. They sang a new hymn:
"Worthy are You to receive the scroll and to break open its seals, for You were slain and with Your blood You purchased for God those from every tribe and tongue, people and nation. You made them a kingdom and priests for our God, and they will reign on earth" (5:6-10).
As we worship the Lamb, may our prayers for peace in Iraq be the incense that fills the gold bowls of the elders in the courts of heaven!
Point #2: While we keep our eyes on Jesus as the Lord of history, we can learn more about the situation in Iraq — seeking to broaden our perspective as a guide to our prayer.
Given the daily news on Iraq, we tend to focus on what our nation's political leaders are saying and on our soldiers in Iraq who are in immediate danger. In terms of our military presence and casualties, we currently have around 140,000 troops serving in Iraq and at least 2,864 of our soldiers (as of Nov. 19) have been killed since the U.S. invaded in March 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein.
But this is just a starting point.
Let's consider what our spiritual leaders have to say. Bishop William Skylstad, who is President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, urged a balanced and thoughtful approach after the political campaign. "We hope our nation has moved beyond the divisive rhetoric of the recent campaign and the shrill and shallow debate that distorts reality and reduces the options to 'cut and run' versus 'stay the course,' " he said on Nov. 13, the first day of the U.S. Bishops' annual fall meeting.
Bishop Skylstad said that the U.S. Bishops hope that the Iraq Study Group "will bring about the honest dialogue that our nation needs."
And what about praying for the innocent Iraqi civilians who are caught in the crossfire? In our media, we have read of vicious attacks by insurgents on civilians that targeted mosques, marketplaces, and even funerals. Then there are the many kidnappings of innocent Iraqi civilians and foreigners alike, and the frequent dumping of bodies on city streets after summary executions.
Estimates of the number of civilians killed have ranged from 50,000 to more than 500,000, depending upon the source. Recently, the Iraqi health minister estimated the actual death toll to be 150,000 — three times the previously acknowledged official estimate.
In considering our own U.S. casualties, we shouldn't forget the wounded. More than 20,000 U.S. troops have been wounded as a result of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. More of our soldiers are surviving in comparison to previous wars because of advances in military medicine, faster evacuations, and better body armor. For this we should lift up a prayer of thanksgiving!
But there is a dark side to this as well — the slow and painful road to recovery for the growing numbers of soldiers who are facing serious, disabling injuries. Many of the serious injuries have resulted from the weapons of choice of the terrorists: roadside bombs, rocket-propelled grenades, and suicide bombers. These weapons can cause everything from shrapnel and bullet wounds to traumatic head and neck injuries, even massive burns and injuries to limbs that require amputations.
Lieutenant Colonel Timothy Maxwell, a Marine, suffered a serious head wound in 2004 and almost died near Iskandiriya, a city in Iraq's notorious "Triangle of Death." The lieutenant colonel is still an active-duty Marine, and his closely cropped hair reveals a scar that runs from his left ear to his forehead. He still struggles slightly with his speech and sees a speech therapist occasionally.
The painful recovery is also hard on the families of the wounded soldiers. Maxwell's wife, Shannon, helped found a support group for the spouses of wounded Marines. She reports that because of her husband's serious head injury, their son is afraid that his father might die in the middle of the night.
Point #3: Broadening our perspective even further, we need to consider the root causes of terrorism.
Inside Iraq today, there are homegrown militias controlled by radical elements of the two major Islamic groups, the Shiites and Sunnis. They terrorize each other, as well as the civilian population and the military of both the Iraqi and Coalition forces. To further complicate things, Al Qaeda and other outside terrorist organizations also operate within the country.
In praying about such a chaotic situation, it's important to consider the root causes of terrorism as we look for a lasting solution. Pope John Paul II offered some excellent advice on just this topic during his World Day of Peace Address on Jan. 1, 2002, as he looked at the world through the lens of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks:
There exists ... a right to defend oneself against terrorism, a right which as always must be exercised with respect for moral and legal limits in the choice of ends and means. The guilty must be correctly identified since criminal culpability is always personal and cannot be extended to the nation, ethnic group, or religion to which the terrorists may belong. International cooperation in the fight against terrorist activities must also include a courageous and resolute political, diplomatic, and economic commitment to relieving situations of oppression and marginalization that facilitate the designs of terrorists. The recruitment of terrorists in fact is easier in situations where rights are trampled upon and injustices tolerated over a long period of time.
We need to pray that our nation's leaders and leaders around the world will expend the time and energy to identify and relieve "situations of oppression and marginalization which facilitate the designs of terrorists." Such hopeless situations become breeding grounds for terrorism.
In Iraq and around the world, then, we must use all the resources at our disposal to lift people out of oppression and give them a future worth living for — a future filled with hope.
It's interesting that Bishop Skylstad presented a picture of what this might look like in Iraq when he spoke on Nov. 13 on behalf of the U.S. Bishops. He said, "Basic benchmarks for a responsible transition in Iraq include: fostering adequate levels of security; curbing wanton killings, indefensible terrorist attacks and sectarian violence; strengthening the basic rule of law; promoting economic reconstruction to begin to create employment and economic opportunity for Iraqis; and supporting the further development of political structures and solutions that advance stability, political participation, and respect for religious freedom and basic human rights."
Point #4: Along with our prayer, we can perform works of mercy for both our soldiers and the Iraqis who are in need.
Here are a few suggestions on how you can support our troops:
â€¢ Consider sending the troops a postcard of thanks — perhaps through Xerox's "Let's Say Thanks" postcard program. Send a personalized postcard by going to LetsSayThanks.com.
â€¢ The Red Cross provides a special support program for the families of the National Guard, Reservists, the Coast Guard, and others who are now serving in Iraq. To learn more about this program and how you might help as a volunteer, contact your closest Red Cross chapter and ask about their Armed Forces Emergency Services (AFES): www.RedCross.org, 1-800-733-2767.
â€¢ Closer to home, your church pastor, local Veterans group, or local media may be aware of military families right in your community who are in need of help. It doesn't hurt to ask.
To help innocent Iraqi civilians, consider these two causes:
â€¢ CIVIC, which stands for Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, was founded in 2003 by Marla Ruzicka. A passionate humanitarian, she was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad while advocating for war victims in Iraq. With the assistance of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), CIVIC helped create a U.S. Congressional fund for victims of war — the first of its kind in U.S. history. The organization works to improve "condolence payments" in Iraq and Afghanistan — a system of cash payouts to families suffering a death, injury, or property loss due to U.S. forces. CIVIC also helps secure funding, travel, and medical care for children whose medical circumstances — due to conflict — are so severe that they cannot be cared for in their own country. To help CIVIC or learn more, visit their website at www.civicworldwide.org.
â€¢ Operation Iraqi Children was founded in March 2004 by actor Gary Sinise (Forrest Gump, Apollo 13) and author Laura Hillenbrand (Seabiscuit: An American Legend) after they learned from American soldiers of the terrible conditions of Iraqi schools under Saddam Hussein. The program is set up so Americans can send school supply kits to Iraqi children. The organization's website includes a checklist for assembling the school kits and packing instructions. For more information, visit www.operationiraqichildren.org.
Whatever work of mercy you decide to do, keep your eyes fixed on Jesus and keep praying for stability and a lasting peace in Iraq. Keep trusting in God's mercy. And remember the Lamb of God is upon the throne, and His ultimate victory is assured not only in Iraq, but in every nation on the earth. We have God's word on it.
David Came is the Executive Editor of Marian Helper magazine, the flagship publication of the Association of Marian Helpers, which is headquartered in Stockbridge, Mass.