taking the words of Jesus seriously

Part I

It was 5:35 in the morning, March 20, 2003—in Baghdad—when I woke to the sound of the first explosions. The dreaded war had begun.

I had been in Iraq for 5 months, with members of Christian Peacemaker Teams and Voices in the Wilderness, living among the people and sharing their stories to the rest of the world. We were telling about long-term, disastrous consequences of the 1991 war on Iraq, and trying to expose the lies our government had been propagating to justify this horrible act of aggression. Somehow, if people around the world could see the people here as real people who had a right to live, we hoped this war could be averted.

Lying there in the darkness, I cried. Tears of grief and dread that had been building up in me in those last days came pouring out. Images swirled before my mind’s eye of Baghdad and other cities in Iraq, burning or being leveled, of mothers wailing as they saw their children engulfed in collapsed buildings.

At a time like this, all the right, religiously correct answers fell away, and I felt only helplessness, anguish, and pain.  “Where are you?” I silently raged at God. How could you let this happen?” What I wanted was for the God who led me here to step in and keep this tragedy from happening, or for something more dramatic to happen. After some of my grief was spent, I became silent, and it came to me. Yes, God is here, and this is where a God of love would be, with people suffering war. And this is where God would want people of faith or good will to be—walking alongside those suffering war and helping and speaking out in the midst of it.

But how did I get to this place in my life?

Growing up in inner-city and inter-racial Chicago with parents who were serious about their Christian faith, but also concerned about justice and peace, I had an early foundation for this. I had seen a lot of the effects of racism and poverty among my peers in the midst of a lot of affluence in our society. I had seen hypocrisy and times in the church when faith seemed more of a form some were going through, but also had been inspired by people in our church who genuinely radiated love and some who sacrificed personally to follow Jesus, including young men who were jailed for refusing to participate in war. I went through times of doubting and, as a teen, threw out my earlier childhood faith, probably out of my youthful pride, but also wanting something that didn’t appear weak in the midst of a world of war and chaos.

Getting involved in the ‘60’s in the Civil Rights movement, helped me realize it was my responsibility as a person of white privilege to work to counter racism. Protesting the Vietnam War and my growing awareness of the ways our country has used violence to exploit peoples around the world inspired me to a lifetime of active engagement.

My late husband, Art, and I were moving away from mainline expressions of Christianity, but still finding something unique and compelling about the way of Jesus.  And at the very heart of this faith was a loving, grace-giving God, who called us to live lives of love and service and work for Shalom, which encompassed healing, justice, reconciliation, nonviolent suffering love, caring for the earth, and working for the beloved community of all.

We felt called to live this out with others on a small communal farm, which we saw as our understanding of what a church should be—people living out a common calling together, sharing their lives and caring for each other on a daily basis. We lived simply, and together earned our living by raising and selling organic vegetables. We also took people in, somewhat like the hospitality of the Catholic Worker communities….all the while being involved locally and nationally in peace and justice work—not an easy life, but a meaningful one.

In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, we were invited to work with an international peace and human rights organization, Christian Peacemaker Teams (now called “Community Peacemaker Teams” or CPT)—which challenged us, that if we are serious about peacemaking, we would be willing the take the same risks to work for peace as soldiers do for war. We began going for parts of the year to work in Palestine and found power and meaning doing the work of accompaniment, truth-telling, and often, intervention. 

In the fall of 2002, when the US government threatened to invade Iraq, CPT and Voices in the Wilderness sent a joint team there, to be part of the world-wide movement to speak out against and try to prevent war. When I felt a strong leading to be a part of that team, my husband and communal farm church group at home had wrestled with and affirmed this sense of calling.

Though I knew it was unlikely we could turn around the greatest military power in the world, I joined this effort because I felt we must do all we could.  And then, five months later, when the war seemed imminent, I was a part of a smaller group who felt called to stay on into the war to walk with the Iraqi people and help in any way we could.

Yes, it wasn’t an easy decision. We all had to struggle with our fear. Yet, when one of us did start to “lose it,” others would gather around them, pray with them and help them get back in touch with why they felt called to stay.

Most of us have heard the teaching that “love casts out fear”—something that sounds good, but you don’t know if it is really true until you have to face it yourself in a life or death way. I learned that it doesn’t mean you have no fear, but with love, you are able to keep fear from taking over and sinking you. For me, it was the love I was given for the Iraqi people that made it possible to keep my focus on their needs and be able to move ahead in spite of my fear.

And as I went back and forth working in Iraq for the next 16 years, love is what compelled me to do this work, but also what gave me the strength to sustain it.  

So, what were we able to do? First of all, truth-telling.  In the face of the lies the US government was telling, that the invasion and occupation were bringing democracy to Iraq and helping the country, we told the truth of how the invasion had broken apart a whole society, spawning more violence and terrorist groups resisting Western imperialism.  It was not helping or protecting the Iraqi people but carried out for the financial gain of Western corporations and for building military power in that part of the world. And the label, “terrorist,” was given out freely to any one or group that opposed what the US was doing there.

Along with Iraqi human rights workers, we reported on the abuse of prisoners under the US detention system and protested on the streets of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. We believed that even those who had perpetrated violence should be treated with respect and not abused. In December 2003, we completed a report on 72 prisoners and took it to top US officials in Baghdad, the first step in exposing this to the world.

 In other situations, we accompanied and worked alongside Iraqis who were working to counter inter-ethnic violence, rebuild their society and fight corruption and oppression, using nonviolent methods.

In many, even the very difficult situations we found ourselves in, my faith was expanded and enriched. 

A couple of stories.

In March 2005, our team was invited to go into the city of Fallujah, four months after the November 2004 massive attacks on it by US military and coalition forces.  It was a dangerous trip, but we went with the invitation of local leaders, to witness the destruction and to accompany a group of Shia Muslims, we had trained in nonviolence, who hoped to build working relationships across sectarian lines with the Sunni Muslims of that city. 

Once there, we were aghast at what we saw—60% of the buildings were unlivable. Rubble everywhere.  We found our way to the main hospital, which was mostly destroyed, and spoke to the head doctor.  We listened to religious and community leaders. Then we went to an area of the city that looked like an earthquake hit.  While we were taking pictures so we could document and report about the destruction, a woman came out of a tent among the rubble and invited us in for tea.

As we sat around the floor of the tent, where 26 extended family members slept at night, the father of the family told us about their leaving before the attacks.   For three months, they crowded with other families in a school building in a nearby village, before being forced to move back to Fallujah and live in this tent—next to the ruins that had been their house.  

Our sharing was very frank and real, and we felt drawn to the family, but then it was time to leave.

“Thank you,” they all said to us fervently, as the women and men hugged and kissed each other on the cheeks in good Iraqi fashion. Tears ran down our faces.

I walked away, sober about what they faced, but humbled and in awe. We had done nothing to change their situation, but simply listened and cared, and told them we were sorry for the damage and suffering our country caused—actually the first step toward healing. They had every reason to see us as their enemies.  Among us were Iraqis and Americans—Christians, Sunni Muslims, and Shia Muslims, those with much and those with little power and privilege. Instead, the power of love broke down these barriers among us.

And we experienced this in other situations. 

(Editor’s Note: Tune in tomorrow for Part II of Peggy’s story.)

About The Author


Peggy has worked in Iraq from 2002 -2018, and three terms in Palestine between 2003- 2007, with the Christian Peacemaker Teams (now Community Peacemaker Teams) (CPT). She has written two books based on her work in Iraq: Iraq: A Journey of Hope and Peace (2004), and Walking Through Fire: Iraqis’ Struggle for Justice and Reconciliation (2013). She is the grandmother of five, and lives on a farm near Athens, Ohio.

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