Saturday, January 31, 2009

Afghan Ronny in the Social Justice Press

Almost twenty years ago, when Afghan Ronny was in his early twenties, he maintained a lifestyle more attuned to his social and political ideals. At the time, he also was unafraid of personal poverty. Three of those years he spent with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps: East, a Catholic service organization whose work is defined by four tenets: social justice, simple living, community life and spirituality. During his tenure with the JVC, Afghan Ronny never envisioned himself as a physician, and certainly not a military officer. Luckily, the JVC community has not ostracized him for moving into the financially lucrative field of medicine, or joining the armed forces. (The Jesuit volunteer community is populated by scores of lovable peaceniks who abhor any kind of violence.) In fact, the organization recently requested an article for JVC: East periodical, Journeys. Below is the submission, included here without the minor editing needed for publication. (Afghan Ronny is never short of words.)

Prayer in a Time of War

Recently a coworker, whom I will call Susan, recounted for me how a young soldier she knew, whom I will call Kevin, always visibly prayed for the safety of himself and his fellow soldiers before they departed their base in Kabul, Afghanistan for convoy operations. The major threats to the American military in Kabul are roadside explosives and suicide bombers that might be waiting to attack your vehicle as you traverse the congested city. We travel in armored vehicles with heavy personal protective gear and loaded weapons every time we leave our bases. Kevin’s fellow soldiers certainly recognized the dangers of every convoy they undertook, but apparently delighted in mercilessly teasing him for his overt spirituality.

Susan, a devout Christian, continued to tell me how Kevin’s comrades hit a bomb the first day Kevin was away on leave, when no prayer preceded the convoy vehicles’ departure from their relatively safe, fortified compound onto the Kabul streets. I saw a wry smile on Susan’s face as she told the story, and sensed her true message: Don’t underestimate the protective power of God toward those who pay the Lord homage.

I had a visceral and much different reaction to the story. If God is merciful, I asked myself, why would Kevin’s fellow soldiers be more at risk without Kevin and his prayers? Because Kevin prayed openly for safe passage, did he serve as something of a protective totem for the convoy group? Is the intervention of God into the world today that simple? I doubt it.

You don’t have to look to Afghanistan for evidence that God’s mercy, love and justice manifest themselves in this world much differently than what we might expect or even understand. Today I read of the death of Nequiel Fowler, a ten-year old from the southside of Chicago killed in the crossfire between two rival gangs at war at 4:30 in the afternoon on the block where she lived. Her younger sister Valerie, blind from eye cancer, was with her but unharmed. Did Nequiel forget to say her prayers the night before? Did her family neglect to petition God for safety? Was Valerie a “better little girl” and therefore able, by the grace of God, to dodge the bullets?

Such questions are rhetorical at best, and possibly even cruel. Nequiel was an innocent girl trapped in a brutal world where parents often are afraid to allow their children out of the house to play as armed drug dealers and dangerous gangs infest the streets. She was not responsible, by acts of commission or omission, for her own death, just as her sister is not responsible for the cellular chaos that produced the neoplasms that disrupted her vision. Nequiel’s predicament and ultimate death are disturbing testimony to the injustice human beings will inflict on one another. And although the overt social abuse Nequiel withstood came compliments of her thuggish neighbors, as a society we are responsible for marginalizing entire populations into decaying, oppressive sectors of our cities and countryside where crime, abuse and injustice grow inextirpatable roots.

In Afghanistan, when suicide bombers and other insurgents attack foreign forces in the country, local citizens often suffer most for the brutality of the event. Recent bombings in Kabul have killed and maimed many more Afghan children and adults than foreign soldiers. The Afghans killed and wounded were the victims of a war, a conflict they likely found necessary to tolerate but not support. They simply were walking to school or work or to the market at an inauspicious time. No prayer before the blast would have saved them from their suffering, because a deranged human being, not God, decided they were insignificant and expendable.

Every time I travel through Kabul and the outskirts of the city, I see thousands of large families living in small mud huts. They don’t enjoy even minimal medical care. Many suffer from malnutrition. For every woman covering herself with a burka in public, another young wife is restricted from even leaving her home. Children play in the same foul water that they drink and use for bathing. Local markets recently began selling bread scraps as the price of food has risen astronomically. Trucks dump raw sewage into a rank field near the center of the city. And I am describing Kabul, the most urbane, developed metropolis in Afghanistan.

My job in Afghanistan is to assist the Afghan Army in developing a medical system able to provide adequate treatment for soldiers and their families. The goal of US military personnel working as mentors with the Afghan Army is a competent, self-sustaining military institution that can ensure the security Afghanistan needs in order for the nation to develop, prosper and protect its citizens.

I play a small role in an ambitious project that Afghans and foreign advisors have undertaken: The creation of a unified Afghanistan free from internal strife and external oppression. Such an Afghanistan has never before existed. Dedicated people, the vast majority of them Afghans, are addressing social ills that threaten to stifle this new Afghanistan: corruption, poverty, hunger, ignorance, misogyny, indifference, exploitation. These scourges, all too common here, threaten most Afghans much more than do bullets or bombs.

I’m not sure what place prayer has in a land like Afghanistan, and in the conflict that surrounds me. Do you pray for protection for yourself when you know that a child living a few blocks from you endangers himself every time he walks into the street? Do you pray for safe passage out of Afghanistan after a tour of duty is complete, knowing full well some woman you may have passed on the street could have been killed by her husband for showing her face to a stranger? Is such prayer too selfish, too smug, and too foolish?

Do you recognize that the fight in Afghanistan is a war with injustice, not simply a battle with the Taliban? Do you dare pray for protection and peace in the midst of yet another war that has nothing to do with God, but everything to do with us?

Article first published in Journeys, the periodical of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps: East, Vol 32, No.1, Fall 2008.

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