A Speck in My Eye
I think it would have made a difference if it had been said another way. Perhaps it was the passion behind the statement that fixed it in my mind, like a speck in my eye that hints at its presence by subtle irritation. If I hadn't been there on that Sabbath morning, I would have gone blissfully on my way without having to be constantly aware that I carried this foreign material so close to my sight.
In fact, I think we all should have been warned that this kind of stuff was in the winds that blew from his lips into our eyes. We should have had the opportunity to protect ourselves, wrapping our faces in our hands until the dangerous material had passed by. But it is too late now; the statement has fixed itself inside my mind through the presence of its constant irritation. I am not even certain if the speck still remains under my eyelid or if it has been transfigured into a phantom pain, like the kind one feels long after the speck has been removed. The irritation has become part of the way I have come to see things.
After all, I had a good education, and that should have taken out the uncomfortable pieces that have blown my way from time to time. North Park College was a perfect place to have such nagging specks removed. I saw it happen again and again. People from both the left and the right found lots of their foreign material picked out in the friendly balance that the little campus provided. They came blinking with all sorts of stuff clogging up the tear ducts and found themselves, often within the first year, strangely mellowed by an atmosphere that washed away the dust like a bath of clear saline solution.
I actually can tell you that some of this worked for me. I can go for long periods of time when I really don't feel the presence of that irritating statement or remember the anguished face that sent it through us on that Sabbath morning.
My God, I wasn't even old enough to know what he was really talking about. Well, I was listening. I remember that. And he was passionate and strident. He was even crying — but all of this was not unusual for him. Cedarleaf was always crying in the pulpit — not a sobbing sort of cry and not the least bit melodramatic. I wasn't taken in by that sort of thing anyway. Some of our Sunday School teachers cried from time to time, but that seemed more to do with their remembering their own youth when some of the old songs were sung. When Cedarleaf cried, it was differenL It was like something had gone off deep inside himself. I rarely heard him offer an idea without a feeling attached to it. Sometimes I could see it coming, so I should have been forewarned. Hands up to the faces, everyone here comes the wind!
It was too late! It was always too late in that sanctuary to protect oneself from flying debris. I think it happened because I could not keep my own eyes from focusing on his face already twisted with an inner anguish anxious to surface, his eyes intensifying deep within the shadow of his own massive brow, and his hands gripping both sides of the large center pulpit, as if to lift it up roots and all. But, using it only for balance, he raised himself up on his toes and, stretching under the urgency of words that could wait no longer, he flung out the sentence that fixed itself in my mind.
"If I witnessed destruction visited upon my own city by nuclear warheads, I could not in Christian conscience wish to send the same devastation to any other people, even to my enemies."
Douglas Cedarleaf, Pastor of North Park Covenant Church, Chicago, was responding in his sermon to a national debate on the policy of retaliation following a first-strike use of nuclear weapons by the Soviet Union. It was one of the most startling moral positions that I have ever heard, and it fixed itself in my mind as an ever-present irritant to any moral discussion about war. It cut through national policies, legal rights, and moral obligations, as they were debated during those days. For me, the very elegance of his position was disarming. It sounded a lot like the words of the great rabbi Hillel: "What is hurtful to you, do not do to another."
This past month, I have tried to weave together a position for myself regarding this war in the Persian Gulf. It has not been easy to do this, and I am not certain why it has been so difficult. After all, I am well educated, reasonably adept in debate and in designing a position that takes into account the many complexities of an event like this. I can come up with lots of arguments against the war while recognizing the danger that Saddam Hussein poses to that conflicted part of our world. These arguments against the war involve frustration with the lack of clear foreign policy objectives, uncreative diplomatic vision, the unleashing of potential anarchy in a region already teeming with chaos, not to mention the potential carnage that comes with a war of this magnitude. But all these arguments leave me unsatisfied because they only speak to the needs of the head and not to the pain that lies deeper within me.
On that evening, however, when the bombs began to drop on Baghdad, I could feel only a deep emptiness in my stomach, and a strange irritation in my eye. We knew that this horror could happen and we knew that if it did it would be terrifying. The sheer size of the military force alone would assure us of that, surgical strikes and collateral damage aside.
What is amazing to me is that we knew what this would be like, and we did it anyway. Nothing stopped us. Nothing was in our national eye to deflect our headlong course to have this happen. No sermon debris was present to remind us that "doing to others as we would have them do unto us" was a point on our moral compass by which we could be guided. I began to wonder, then, if it is easier to decide as we did because we have not experienced such devastation in our own cities and, thus, can't really imagine what our enemies are going through. Or, can we lament with George Bernard Shaw in Saint Joan when, as Joan goes up in flames, he wonders: "Must a Christ die in every generation for the lack of man's imagination?"
So, I set aside all the other arguments. It may be unrealistic and too simple a position. But I cannot get the speck out of my own eye. It might have been the way it was said that fixed it in my mind. Still, in the midst of my own intense grief and anger concerning the unleashing of these terrifying forces, that speck somehow keeps me seeing something that I would not give up, for all the relief that it might bring. It is an old friend by now, like the preacher who first blew the debris my way.
February 13, 1991