A Feature Review of
The Gospel of Rutba: War, Peace, and the Good Samaritan Story in Iraq
Reviewed by Paul Chaplin.
““Why, why, WHY?” Dr. Al-Dulaimi demanded. […] “Sir, I wish I knew,” [Shane] responded in his East Tennessee accent. “But I don’t know either.” […] “You are safe in Rutba,” Dr. Al-Dulaimi told Shane. “You are our brothers and we will take care of you. We take care of everyone – Christian, Muslim, Iraqi, American. It doesn’t matter. We are all human beings. We are all sisters and brothers.”” (50)
It is a great pleasure to have read and be reviewing this book for ERB, particularly since it was at Englewood Christian Church that I had the chance in 2009 to meet Cliff Kindy, and hear the tale from his own mouth which forms the premise for this book, complete with show-and-tell head-wound scars. It is a story that many ERB readers may have read in abbreviated form in books by Shane Claiborne or Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, but it is a story that deserves telling completely, and one of the achievements of the book is to do just that.
To talk about The Gospel of Rutba requires summarising what happened. In March 2003, as the US military prepared to launch its “shock and awe” strike on Iraq, Cliff, along with Shane Claiborne and a team of peace activists organised by Kathy Kelly (Nobel Peace Prize nominee, herself present too), entered into Iraq. They remained there, alongside Iraqi civilians, as the invasion began. They were joined in the weeks following by others, including Jonathan and Leah Wilson-Hartgrove and Mennonite pastor Weldon Nisly, all there too as witnesses to the violence and as an expression of solidarity. Days later, the activists were ordered to leave Iraq, and found themselves in three taxis driven by Iraqis on their way to Jordan. The third, lagging slightly behind the others, suffered a serious road accident, flipping the car and leaving Shane injured but OK, while Cliff and Weldon suffered much more serious impacts. Stranded, they were picked up by a group of Iraqis, taken to a health clinic in the town of Rutba (where the main hospital had been bombed, only days before, by American forces), where they were treated, and lives probably saved.
Fast-forward to 2010, and only 2 months after I had met Cliff in Indianapolis, he was returning to Iraq, along with Shane, Rutba author Greg Barrett, and several others, to the Iraqi town which had rescued them. Barrett himself was also in Iraq in 2003, reporting on the ground in advance of the bombing, and travelling for a time with Kathy Kelly. He also was the one, many years later, to organise the return to Rutba.
It’s hard to know where to begin discussing this book – it is a treasure trove, and could be approached from so many angles. One fundamental success of the book is simply to tell this truly amazing story in full. As a reporter, depth is one of Barrett’s strong points, and the book doesn’t sell us short of detail. We are treated to very complete accounts from both in 2003 and 2010, as well as full and rich back-stories of all the main protagonists in the story (often taking us decades back). Surprising though, was the level of detail and background research presented on the military offensive itself and the impact on Iraqi civilian life. Although at times I felt I was suffering from information-overload, I came to increasingly appreciate the purpose of all the explanation. We (and as a Brit I feel like I can, should, include myself in “we”) are corporately responsible, in some ways at least, for what went on in Iraq, and should take responsibility if nothing else for knowing what happened (more on this later).
Barrett’s narrative style sees us alternating chapter by chapter between events in 2003 and 2010, but also within chapters does a lot of flitting about between different characters and scenes, moving backwards and forwards in their lives and his own experience. At times, to be fair, this can become quite disorienting. There are lot of dates and people involved, and I wonder whether to some extent the drama and creativity added to the writing in this way isn’t always worth how confusing it can be to read, but it is engaging to read, and Barrett builds the story wonderfully.
Regarding tone, Barrett makes no effort to pose as the disinterested, “objective”, neutral reporter. He is thoroughly involved in the story, and wears his heart on his sleeve. Initially, I was frustrated by the extent of the anti-Military, anti-Bush rhetoric, which can be quite sarcastic and bitter in places. But my attitude changed – I realised that, without realising it, I had forgotten the outrage of this war. As ideologically against the war as I already was, I had ultimately left behind what anger, frustration, emotional attachment to the conflict, to the crime, that I had. I think it’s easy for us to do this, all the time and in all sorts of areas, and one of the many great strengths of this book is that it holds us tightly, refusing to leave us ignorant of what happened (as I mentioned above); refusing to let us forget what happened.
Remembrance and forgetfulness is a theme running throughout the Barrett’s account. It is repeatedly discouraging to read examples of the short memory of the American military. A fascinating interview with James Gavrilis, a former Special Forces officer who served during the invasion and later on in Iraq, gives great insight into attitudes to the “mission.” Gavrilis admits his ignorance that a particular bombing run which destroyed the main hospital in Rutba had also killed a boy and his father. The military at the time had claimed ignorance of the strike at the time, even suggesting it might have been Iraqi insurgents. He asks during the interview whether the hospital was ever repaired, having never checked himself. He also had never heard that the man who he handed control of Rutba over to when he moved on had been found guilty of serious crimes against Iraqis. This captain, who had called himself “King Martin”, had walked around with a baseball bat in his hands. Like isolated consultants, no one involved in the war is asked to face the consequences of their actions. Barrett implicitly and explicitly challenges this pattern constantly. He shows us another attitude is possible – after the nurse and medical assistant in Rutba expres their surprise in 2012 that the group had returned, Weldon proclaims, “We have not forgotten and we will never forget.” This is a powerful story of remembrance, and we are asked to remember too.
Barrett also demands that we engage emotionally with his narrative. As I said, this can initially be irksome and feel manipulative, but in the end I could only wonder why I didn’t already carry such exasperation, regret, and anger myself. We are told that the war was cruel and confronted with the cruelty of it. We’re introduced to “bunker busters”, so brutal in their impact (both cremating and boiling those inside) that Iraqis became fearful of even using their own bomb shelters. We’re told stories of maimed and orphaned children, and how desensitized they have become to bombing strikes. Journal excerpts from Peace Team members give us a real sense of the relentlessness of the bombing, and the constant terror which can transform into desperation and disengagement.
Another issue explored by Barrett is the callousness and dishonesty with which the conflict, and war in general, is often described and treated. One shameful quote from LA Weekly reads, “Modern warfare isn’t only about killing – it’s about inspiring mass terror. That’s why on the first day of Gulf War II: Die Harder, the Pentagon reportedly intends to launch 300 to 400 cruise missiles at targets in Iraq – more than during the entire 40 days of the first Gulf War” (55). Another shocking quote, this time taken from a briefing on the rules of engagement for US combatants, reads, “It doesn’t matter if later on we find out you wiped out a family of unarmed civilians. All we are accountable for are the facts as they appear at the time.” (36) War, apparently, is just a game; a competition.
Although I’ve noted several ways in which Barrett’s account highlights negatives, ultimately the book tells a story of redemption. Out of great division, conflict, and injustice, we are witnesses to precious reconciliation. Hope, far more than bitterness or anger about conflict, has the final say, although we’re taken on a shattering journey to get there.
Barrett does a wonderful job breaking down the us-and-them mentality that often sits beneath pro-war opinion. Over and over again, we are encouraged to see Iraqis not as enemies but as our own friends and our family. He reminds us of the messages which alienate Iraqis and make them the other – in no short supply in our culture. Barrett quotes a US Army Captain who insists, “You have to understand the Arab mind. The only thing they understand is force – force, pride and saving face” (5). He also highlights everyday prejudice, as in the family van bumper sticker reading “Islam is as Islam does” (9). Throughout his narrative are countless surprising, humbling, penetrating gestures of grace and welcome by those they met in Rutba.
Before finishing, I want to highlight one curiously poignant passage in the book, perhaps easy to pass by, in which Logan Mehl-Laituri (Iraq veteran turned conscientious objector) confronts his desire to talk about his experiences as a US combatant. Travelling with the group he is asked to keep quiet about his past – it might endanger others in the group, Iraqis may not be ready yet to be meeting US military personnel. He aches to talk about the struggles he has experienced during his service, and to apologise as well, but the chance never arrives. Barrett has a tendency to romanticise some of the characters of the book, occasionally almost embarrassingly so, but here a complex moral quandary reveals to us the challenge of reconciliation. Logan wants so much to lessen his own burden, but the reader is asked implicitly whether he has a right to “impose” his own needs on the broken landscape in Iraq. It’s a fascinating discussion-starter for the ethics of reconciliation and peacemaking.
Lastly, I’d suggest that Rutba is a great treasure because it brings us in touch with miracle. One the one hand it throws us into the middle of a parable we can touch and feel and be involved in. Sometimes what we read in Scripture can feel very distant and alien, and so to inhabit this contemporary Good Samaritan story brings it wonderfully to life. On the other hand, it reminds us that we still live today in an age of miracle. Such beauty is present in the fellowship created it’s hard to see it as anything other than a precious gift of God. Greg Barrett’s Rutba reminds us that such stories are not only thousands of years ago or in the world of fantasy, but are very much real and waiting all around us if we would be ready for them.
What happened in Rutba is extremely moving to read – I challenge readers not to shed a tear. It pierces our hearts, crumbles walls we’ve built, and, as Shane suggests, has the potential to “fascinate the world with the power of love.” “Rutba is a mirror to the world” (139) he claims – I think we would all do well to look in the mirror.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com