The recent revelations about U.S. and British forces in Iraq uncover a stunning darkness. According to The Guardian, the 400,000 documents made available last week through WikiLeaks reveal “15,000 previously unreported civilian deaths.” The number of deaths kept secret by the leaders of our government exposes the sickening violence of war. While I would rather ignore the stories of killing and torture in Iraq and Afghanistan, I am reminded of the words of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In 1934 he wrote to a friend, “Only complete truth and truthfulness will help us now.”
Here are two stories that I can’t get out of my head as I think about the truth of war. In 2006, in the town 60 miles north of Baghdad, Khalib and his pregnant sister Nabiha were in a rush to get to the hospital. As they made their way down the usual streets, they came upon a new U.S. military checkpoint. The soldiers perceived the approaching vehicle as a threat, so they opened fire and killed Nabiha and the child in her womb. She was 35, and the dead baby was a boy.
War is never kind to women and children, especially to pregnant women. Neither is war kind to the mentally disabled, who are some of the most vulnerable among us. Here’s another story from the WikiLeaks archive. A pedestrian approached a checkpoint. The soldiers thought he was acting oddly, and they interpreted his strange behavior as a reason for suspicion. According to the soldiers, the pedestrian did not respond to their warnings. Fearing that he was a suicide bomber, they shot and killed him. Once he was lying dead in the street, the soldiers searched his body and did not find any explosives. When the dead man’s parents arrived at the scene, they told the soldiers about their son’s disability.
This is our dark world. It’s as if we are returning to the chaos and darkness at the very beginning of the Bible: “The earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep” (Gen 1:2). Instead of cultivating life, we are using our hands for the work of de-creation, undoing what God has made. Killing is an iconoclasm that seeks to banish signs of God’s presence from the world; to kill a human is to unmake what God has created as a icon of divine presence on earth: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness’ ” (v. 26). As we undo God’s creation, we form spaces of void in our world—black holes of death, spaces of chaos and destruction that greedily consume life.
Yet, as we live into the darkness at the beginning of Genesis, we also notice the way hope seems to come from nowhere; in the story, hope is completely unexpected and without a natural cause. “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light” (v. 3). Traditional theology calls this creatio ex nihilo, which is a Latin phrase that means “creation out of nothing.” God can create light and life when they seem like impossible possibilities. God’s work of creation defies the natural course of events. This is the story at the beginning of creation, and this is our same story of hope today: that, as some of my friends put it, “God can make a way out of no way.”
“Let there be light…” The Bible begins and ends with the gift of God’s light in the midst of darkness. At the end of the story, on the very last page of the Bible, we can see a light shining in the darkness. In the last chapter of the book of Revelation, Jesus says, “I am the bright morning star” (Rev 22:16). While it is still dark, the morning star announces the approaching dawn. The light of Christ—the morning star—shines even while it is still night. At the conclusion of the book, the Bible’s ending brings us into the night. To borrow the words from Genesis, darkness is over the face of the earth. The final passage of the Bible does not invite us into a blissful paradise where we wait without a care in the world. No, the end of the Bible leads us into the darkness of the old age. Yet we can see signs of the new day on the horizon, for the light of the morning star is breaking through the night. And as we wait for Christ to begin a new age, the final verses of the Bible invite us into a prayer: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (v. 20).
Those are the words that come to me as WikiLeaks exposes the darkness at the heart of war, which is also at the heart of the power that makes our comfortable lives possible here in the United States. With the sickening new revelations about Iraq, I can’t help but join in the prayer that comes to us at the end of our story, in the final verses of our Bible: “Come, Lord Jesus.”
This prayer is a protest against the powers of death and de-creation, and against the people who administer the violence of those powers. In our world of darkness, where military and political leaders fail to tell us the truth, we can only hope for God to say again those words of life from the beginning of the Genesis: “Let there be light!”