The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.

[Chalice] Trailing Lybian Donkeys or [Chalice]
The Spirituality of the Way Back Out of Iraq

Listen to a recording of "Trailing Lybian Donkeys"
32:40 minutes - 13.1 MB - Trailing Lybian Donkeys .mp3 file.

Presented April 20, 2008, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

Readings for the talk:

Talmudic conversation between the rabbis and Alexander the Great; Talmudic discussion of Ex. 22: 5 "If fire breaks out and catches in thorns so that the stacks of corn, or the standing corn, or the field is consumed, he who starts the fire must make restitution."

The great Protestant theologian and social ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr said that ministers should have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. I have always thought that was pretty good advice. Now if you take up the newspapers this week and you stick to the front pages, the news is pretty interesting: a cougar running around Chicago, Pope Benedict visiting Washington and New York, the Clinton-Obama Debate in PA, even an earthquake here in the Midwest. But if you go further into the pages of the paper, you get the news that is more same old, same old: the news stories relating to Iraq.

On Wednesday, the Chicago Tribune reported on p. 5 that the previous day 4 Iraqi cities had been hit with bombs killing, according to the headline, "dozens." Now if you really want to get into the article and read it-and who really wants to at this point since it is so much more fun to read about the cougar or the debate-the article says that the "dozens" means "more than 50 Iraqi civilians. You'd have to read the article pretty closely to get inside these vague numbers. "At least 40" people died and 70 others were wounded in Baqouba. In Ramadi, a suicide bomber went into a restaurant and blew himself up, killing at least 13 people. In Mosul, two bombs killed 15 civilians, and at least 4 people died when a bomb exploded in central Baghdad. Now the attacks in Baquoba and Ramadi were evidently the work of Sunni "insurgents" (whatever that word means) and resembled the methods used by Al Quaeda in Iraq. So I guess these attacks were mostly Sunni killing Sunni? It doesn't really say anything about the bombings in Mosul and Baghdad, and you have no idea even if you read the article closely and over and over again who killed who when these bombs exploded. All of this was just on Tuesday in Iraq, according to my Wednesday morning paper. On that same day in the newspaper there was a little article about two American soldiers who were blown up by an improvised explosive device about 4:30 in the afternoon on Monday in Iraq. The reason it was in the paper is that both soldiers were from Wisconsin, and a lot of people in Wisconsin read the Chicago Tribune. This short little article focuses on one of the soldiers, even has his little picture, Corporal Richard Nelson, who had just talked to his mother on Saturday. Seems when the Marine officers came to the Mother's door on Monday night dressed in their nice uniforms that she knew what that meant. She shut the door on them four times before she, as the article says, "accepted reality." Take a minute. Imagine the screaming. Imagine the pain and the horror of that scene at just an ordinary house in Wisconsin.

Taking up the paper on Friday, you will find, if you are willing to go deeper into the pages again, another story about Iraq. Seems 2 Sunni cousins were captured, tortured and killed by "insurgents" (whatever that means) and the family decided to hold a funeral for them despite the death threats they had received from their fellow Sunnis. At the funeral a suicide bomber walked in and blew himself and "at least 50" others. Take a minute. Imagine that scene, family in mourning and then all of a sudden death and destruction everywhere, at least 50. Was an entire extended family, cousins and aunts and uncles and in-laws, killed in an instant? According to the article, some members of the large extended family survived the blast. They are quoted in the article as swearing to take revenge for what happened to their family.

These articles are in this week's paper, mid-April 2008, but we all know they could have appeared in any week and in any month in 2008 and 2007 and 2006 and 2005 and 2004 or the last 7 months of 2003. This is the hell that Iraq has lived through for years now, this is the hell our military families have lived through for years now, and this is the hell we all have lived through at least in a certain minimal but still horrible way for years if we choose to read the stories on the inside pages of the newspaper. We are, most Americans I believe, are so sick and tired of this war and all this carnage. We are sick and tired of reading about it in the newspapers.

We really want to get back out. But how to do that? Most Americans have been eager-whether they admit it or not-for a long time now to find the way back out. Remember that great Talmudic passage we talked about in 2003, not long after this great war started? This great imaginary conversation between a group of wise rabbis and Alexander the Great, the conqueror. Alexander has the opportunity to ask the rabbis several questions, which does him precious little good because he neither respects nor understands their foreign wisdom. But they are rabbis of the Egyptian desert so they can be of some use to him. He announces his desire to invade Egypt. "You cannot, for the mountains of darkness will stop you", they respond. "This is not enough for me to give up going. Is it about going, I asked you?" he says, arrogantly. I'm not asking you whether I should go. I'm just asking you what I should do to get there. The rabbis respond: "Take Libyan donkeys that travel in the dark, and coils of rope you can fasten on the sides of the route. This will help you on the way back out." Once you get there, the rabbis tell Alexander the great conqueror, your biggest concern will be the way back out.

Blind, groping in the dark, trailing behind a donkey, moving slowly by feeling your way along a dark mountain you cannot see, attached only by a rope you cannot see that may give at any moment, hoping to find a way back out-is there any more appropriate metaphor to describe Gorge Bush and Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and Condi Rice and our American soldiers and all of us who pay attention and read the papers all the way through and still care about Iraq? Haven't we been groping for a way back out for years now, really ever since the summer of 2003 when people we have come to call "insurgents" (as if this name means or really names anything or anyone) began attacking us with ferocity?

We are stuck in Iraq and have been stuck for years, trying to find the way back out, stuck wondering if that is the right thing to do, to just find the way back out and take it. Why don't we just leave? Why are we forever here in the darkness wondering what to do while our soldiers continue to get killed?

I know there are other reasons to not leave Iraq. I know George W. and Cheney and the other architects of the war are loath to admit that this was a mistake and to give up. I know that they and others, such as Senator McCain, will tell us that if we leave Iraq it will become a base for Al Quaeda and will be a major setback in the war on terror. I know they and many others would say we really cannot abandon a country that has the second most oil reserves in the entire world. Despite all that, I still say that what keeps many us stuck in Iraq and clinging in the darkness to that mountain and tied to the rope and to the donkey is that other Talmud lesson, about damages due to fire.

In this case the Biblical text behind the Talmudic discussion is Exodus 22:5: "If fire breaks out and catches in thorns so that the stack of corn, or the standing corn, or the field is consumed, he who starts the fire must make restitution." Why, the rabbis ask, does this biblical text have this structure, the stacks, or, the standing corn, or the field? God wishes to remind us that if we start a fire we are responsible not only for the field itself but for everything in the field, for the standing corn, and for the stacks of corn, and for the thorns, and for the field itself. God wishes us to remember, say the rabbis as they discuss this Biblical passage through the centuries, that when we start a fire we have to remember that it is of the very nature of fire to spread. We can't blame the fire for spreading. Whoever starts the fire has to take into account how the fire may spread, and even if the fire spreads in unexpected ways and damages things that were not intended, still he who starts the fire is responsible, responsible for everything that happens or may happen.

What sticks us to the side of the black mountain in the darkness of Iraq even more than Al Quaeda, the war on terror, or oil is the terrible fact that our country started the fire and we are responsible for how it has spread. What heavy, horrible responsibility we have brought upon ourselves. Just this week, by this terrible Biblical moral logic that insists that he who starts a fire is responsible for everything the fire does as it spreads, we became responsible for the Sunni against Sunni bombings on Tuesday and for the "at least 50 people" blown up at the funeral on Thursday. We are responsible for more than four thousand of those most horrible knocks on the doors of our fellow citizens, and for tens of thousands of serious, life altering injuries to our soldiers. And since we started the fire, we are responsible for how it has spread, for the lives not only of Iraqis we have killed, but for all the Iraqis killed by Al Quaeda in Iraq and killed by their fellow Iraqis. We are responsible for all the Iraqis in the field no matter how they died because we started the fire. We are responsible for the standing corn, and the stacks of corn, and the field itself, and everything in the field, and that means not only our own soldiers, and the Iraqis killed in the war, but the more than 100,000 Iraqis killed since the occupation began.

I sure would like the 3 would-be presidents to discuss how we can both find a way back out of Iraq and at the same time own and claim our responsibility for all those already consumed or who will be consumed by the fire we started by arrogantly invading Iraq without Libyan donkeys or coils of rope to help us get back out. Instead, all we get is John McCain trying to convince us the war was the right thing to do from the start no matter how disastrous it has been, and Hilary Clinton trying to convince blue collar workers that she is really one of them, and Obama trying to convince people he isn't elitist even though he uses big words and bowls a 37.

In the meantime, what should we do, while we cling to that dark mountain in the dark, with the Libyan donkey and the rope, and hope for the way back out? We have to find the way back out of this continual nightmare that is Iraq. As we grope for a way back out, we should at least admit to the world and to ourselves in absolutely un-American humility that though we came in as arrogant conquerors and liberators, we are going back out as those who grope in the dark, clingingly hesitatingly to dark mountains, held by uncertain ropes, following foreign donkeys.

And as we grope in the dark on our way back out, there are certain things we should definitely not be telling ourselves. First, we should not blame the Iraqis; we should not think that everything we did would have worked fine if only those people in Iraq had been able to get along; this will be widespread temptation # 1 for our fellow citizens. Second, we should not put blame only on the Bush administration, as if a few people in the administration were responsible for everything that has happened; Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rice have proven themselves experts only in lying, deceiving, and manipulating, but you cannot deceive and manipulate just anyone. The majority of Americans were only too willing to believe, trust, and support the Bush administration as long as they did not have to make any sacrifice themselves. This great calamity occurred because the Bush administration's skill at deceiving and manipulating was perfectly matched with the indifference and flat out ignorance of most Americans, who know many things and have many skills but seem intransigently ignorant about the world beyond our own shores. Third, though it is I think very important to remember and distinguish between those who supported the war from the start and those of us who opposed it from its origins, how can those of us who opposed the war from before its beginning really tell ourselves and tell our fellow citizens that we did everything we could to prevent the disaster, to keep the fire from starting in the first place? Have you ever talked to someone who lost a son or daughter or brother in this mess? Could you really tell them you did all you could to prevent it? I know I can't. I have twice seen parents of soldiers pushing their kids in wheelchairs, with their kids only have there, with the lower half of their body completely gone. If they had come up to me and talked to me, could I really tell them I did all I could to prevent this from happening in the first place? I could tell them I opposed this stupid war in the first place, tried to lead a community organization to argue against it, spoke at a rally, tried to get other ministers in the community to do the same, preached to the choir at the Unitarian Church out of two passages from the Talmud. Big deal. If they asked me, well what did you do after that? Did you go to Washington? Did you picket at the White House? Get yourself arrested? What would I say? That I couldn't do anything else because I had papers to grade?

Even if we opposed this war before it began, it is still our nightmare. We, as in our country, started this fire. And somehow we have to find the way back out of this endless nightmare. But we can't leave in the same arrogant way we came. We should admit that we are leaving by groping our way in the dark, fastened to a dark mountain by uncertain ropes, trailing unfamiliar donkeys. And as we grope our way back out, we should also admit that we haven't even begun to own responsibility for all the damage we caused by starting this fire.

The closing words are from John McCain from his appearance on the "This Week" show this morning (April 20, 2008): "If we stay and win this war, at some point we can look back and say with pride that we gave the Iraqi people a better life than they would have had under Sadam Hussein."

©2008 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Rev. Dr. Rob. 2008. Trailing Lybian Donkeys or The Spirituality of the Way Back Out of Iraq, /talks/20080420.shtml (accessed July 7, 2020).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.