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March 23, 2007

Suckled on Revenge, Part III

Fire The most heart-breaking aspect of A Long Way Gone is Ishmael Beah's loss of his own family before being forcefully recruited/coerced into the life of a child soldier.

Honestly, I can't fathom the pain he must have experienced. After being separated from his mother, father, and younger brother during the initial attack on his village, Ishmael spends about a year in survival mode with a band of other boys and his brother Junior. With no word on his family, and brutal atttacks happening all around him, it is hard to imagine his family even surviving. As I read the book, I had given up hope of Ishmael ever seeing his parents again. To add to the pain, eventually, he is also separated from his brother Junior.

This in itself would be a cruel journey, but to me there is nothing worse than what follows.

Finally, Ishmael gets word that his family has survived and is--miraculously--together living in a nearby village. He and his traveling companions are approaching the village when they see a man they had once known from their home-town. He tells Ishmael that his family is alive and looking for him, but he asks for help with a bananna crop as he is taking Ishmael into the village to find them. This slows them down a bit. In the interlude, RFP forces sweep into the village. As Ishmael narrates (Warning: violent material follows):

When I got into the village, it was completely on fire and bullet shells covered the ground like mango leaves in the morning. I did not know where to begin looking for my family. Gaesmu and my friends had followed me, and we all stood looking at the flaming village. I was sweating because of the heat, but I wasn't afraid to run in between the houses. Nails were popping off tin roofs, and they flew, landing on nearby thatched roofs, increasing the wrath of the fire. As we were watching a flaming tin roof in flight, we heard screams and loud banging a few houses away. . . .There were people locked in it. The fire was already too much inside. It showed its face through the windows and roof. We picked up a mortar and banged the door open, but it was too late.

The horror of this grips me in the pit of my stomach. Finally, Ishmael finds the house where his family had lived and finds it also consumed. He describes his grief in such vivid terms, I ache with him:

My entire body went into shock. Only my eyes moved, slowly opening and closing. I tried to shake my legs to get my blood flowing, but I fell to the ground, holding my face. On the ground I felt as if my eyes were growing too big for their sockets. I could feel them expanding, and the pain released my body from the shock. I ran toward the house... I screamed at the top of my lungs and began to cry as loudly as I could, punching and kicking with all my might into the weak walls that continued to burn. I had lost my sense of touch. My hands and feet punched and kicked the burning walls, but I couldn't feel a thing.

Lanston Hughes once wrote about the agony of a dream deferred. To have a dream deferred for so long, and then to get so close and have it fiendishly ripped from your hands and burned before your eyes--it is difficult for me to imagine a more cruel agony than this loss. This is the chasm of pain inside young Ishmael. The thirst for revenge is not difficult to imagine in this context. In fact, it seems natural. What is difficult to imagine, is finding the capacity to forgive. And yet, Ishmael did.

Speaking at the Q&A session on Monday in downtown DC, Beah described what he had come to understand, saying, "Revenge only exacerbates the problem. More violence just causes more suffering." He doesn't want anyone to get the wrong idea about this forgiveness, however. "It wasn't an easy process. But if you don't forgive, you don't heal."

No matter where I see such forgiveness, I still find it breathtaking. I have to take a step back and blink a bit. But always, it is a breathing reminder of the infinitely greater wonder of a God who offers forgiveness of our own treachery through the death of His son. We often sing at my church the hymn that begins, "How deep the Father's love for us, how vast beyond all measure." In the hymn, one line says, "It was my sin that held him there, until it was accomplished, ashamed I hear my mocking voice, cry out among the scoffers." Some would argue with whether it was really our sin that held Him there--probably more correctly we know that Christ's love held Him there--but the idea is still the same. God's forgiveness is unfathomable. The agony of Ishmael gives me some glimpse into how much greater God's forgiveness is and what it means. Passion comes from a root which means to suffer. Oh, that we would understand the depth of God's passionate love for us and offer it in turn to others. My words seem pallid. I pray God would reveal this in more vividness than I can express.

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