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A Review of
Walking Through Fire: Iraqis’ Struggle for Justice and Reconciliation
Peggy Faw Gish
Paperback: Cascade Books, 2014
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Reviewed by by Joe Davis
I’ve been a Christian for as long as I can remember but I still have trouble imagining peaceful alternatives to violent situations. Like Jesus’s disciple in the garden when the temple guards seized Jesus for arrest, I instinctively reach for my sword and start fighting back. I know Jesus calls me to love my enemies and turn the other cheek, but what else can I do when someone threatens me or those I love? In Walking Through Fire: Iraqis’ Struggle for Justice and Reconciliation, Peggy Faw Gish applies a healing balm to my wounded imagination and gives me eyes to see the way of Jesus through stories which “demonstrate that the power of nonviolent suffering love… is stronger than the way of violence and force, and can break down barriers and be transformative in violent or threatening situations.” Gish chronicles eight years of her journey alongside Iraqi people as an activist for peace with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT). Along with her own reflections, she tells the stories of Iraqis who have endured nearly unbearable suffering, but who cling to hope and are still able to love each other and work together for a peaceful future.
Gish tells the story in two parts. Part one begins in Baghdad during the summer of 2004, and picks up where Gish’s previous book, Iraq: A Journey of Hope and Peace, left off. It’s been 16 months since the devastating “shock and awe” bombardment of Baghdad by U.S. military in March 2003. While President George W. Bush triumphantly declared “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq, Gish bears witness to the nearly ineffable human cost of this “victory.” The Iraqi economy is in ruins and is being further exploited by U.S.-appointed transitional government officials who funnel its resources beyond its borders. Basic services are almost non-existent and extremely unreliable. No jobs, no electricity, no water, and no respect for local authority from the new transitional government create a breeding ground of anger and distrust.
What does creative nonviolence look like in the midst of this tragic and chaotic scene? I only have space to share two examples. The suffering love of Christ in Baghdad looks like guiding Iraqi families through the nightmare of locating their loved ones who were detained during retaliatory, overly-violent home raids in which 80%-90% of detainees had no connection to prior acts of violence. Gish recalls the horrors of beatings, imprisonment, and death these detainees had to face along with the emotional and psychological suffering their families were forced to endure. Creative, nonviolent peacemaking also means making “friends in the midst of rubble” in places like Fallujah where a massive military assault occurred in late 2004. According to some estimates, 100,000 Iraqi lives were lost and 60% of homes were destroyed. Gish and the CPT arrived pushing wheelchairs loaded with medical supplies but, according to one sheikh they met, the people of Fallujah didn’t need their help if they were coming “to show what good you Christians are.” He continued, “If you come as human beings to share our tragedy with the world, you’re welcome.” As they toured the city, they were invited into the temporary shelters of Iraqi families where they sat together – “Iraqi and American, Sunni, Shia, and Christian” – and began to break down the barriers of fear, anger, and distrust. How did they accomplish such a feat in the midst of such destruction? They “simply listened and cared and said we were sorry for the damage and suffering our country caused – the first step toward healing.”
Part two begins in the summer of 2006 as Gish and the CPT relocate to As-Suleimaniya – a city in the northeastern, Kurdish-controlled region of Iraq – where they stay until the fall of 2011. Their move out of Baghdad was brought on by tragedy. Four members of the CPT had been kidnapped and were held for 118 days – one of the detainees, Tom Fox, was killed. The increasing violence in Baghdad also put the CPT’s translators and drivers at serious risk because any connection to Americans could be seen as “aiding the enemy” by Iraqi resistance fighters.
For these reasons and many others, the CPT moved to “Iraqi Kurdistan” where they continued their peacemaking efforts. The Kurdish people occupy regions of Iraq, Turkey, and Iran and are the largest ethnic group in the world without its own country. They are “Kurds first, then Iraqis.” However, in Iraq they endured a genocidal campaign waged by Saddam Hussein in the late 1980s and have since struggled to gain some form of independence and peace. Gish became a wonderful teacher of Kurdish life and history as she let the voices of the Kurdish people speak for themselves. In As-Suleimaniya and other cities within and around the Kurdistan Regional Government, Gish and the CPT worked for reconciliation between Kurds and Arabs and entered into the long process of healing from the wounds of genocide. They also spent a considerable amount of time accompanying and advocating for displaced Kurds living along the Iran-Iraq border. This region frequently faced bombings by Turkey and Iran who were supposedly trying to snuff out Kurdish resistance. Extremely remote and rural villages with no connection to this conflict paid the price in lost lives, homes, schools, and crops. Their traditional way of life was overturned as they were forced to live in camps just to survive. These are stories not told by international media. While seemingly abandoned by the rest of the world, Gish and the CPT journeyed with them and became their advocates among Iraqi and international governments and agencies.
When Jesus disarmed his violent, sword-happy disciple and submitted himself to those who would violently murder him, the disciples fled the scene. “If we can’t fight back,” they may have wondered, “what else can we do but run away?” This response towards violent conflict – fight or flight – is all too common. Through her stories of pain and hope, violence and peace, conflict and reconciliation, Peggy Faw Gish shines a bright light on a third way, the way of Jesus, the way of the cross. Those who follow this way do not fight but neither do they flee. Like Jesus, they are empowered by the life-giving Spirit of God to face death themselves as they accompany those who are crucified by evil powers and principalities at work in our world today. If you want to know what it means to follow Jesus on the way to the cross, which is the way to new life, read this book.
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