Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 8: Jonah in Nineveh, plus Peter Molin and Joe Hoover, S.J.

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 8

Jonah 3:1-10

The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time:
“Set out for the great city of Nineveh,
and announce to it the message that I will tell you.”
So Jonah made ready and went to Nineveh,
according to the LORD’s bidding.
Now Nineveh was an enormously large city;
it took three days to go through it.
Jonah began his journey through the city,
and had gone but a single day’s walk announcing,
“Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed,”
when the people of Nineveh believed God;
they proclaimed a fast
and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth.

Nineveh, located in northern Iraq, was a place of mythic proportions, so large it took Jonah three days to travel through. Before Jonah made it to Nineveh, of course, he avoided God’s call and literally went in the opposite direction of where he was called, which led to the whole episode inside the fish. Jonah, too, went through his own incarceration. How many cells we find ourselves in—some imposed on us, some of our own making.

Some, like Rush Limbaugh, saw what happened at Abu Ghraib as nothing more than a fraternity prank. Today, the words of Charles Graner, arguably the principal sadist of the group, lay bare the falsity of such small-minded light-heartedness. Two reflections on “The Blues of Charles Graner” take us in different directions—one from Peter Molin, an Army veteran, and one from Joe Hoover, a brother in the Society of Jesus.

The Blues of Charles Graner

The Christian in me
knows it’s wrong
but the corrections
officer in me can’t
help but love
making a man
piss himself

“The Blues of Charles Graner” by Peter Molin

Though only a junior enlisted soldier, Charles Graner, a Gulf War veteran, former Marine, and experienced corrections officer, held enormous sway within the ranks of the Army National Guardsmen assigned to Abu Ghraib, especially among the women, one of whom, Lynndie England, he impregnated and another, Megan Ambhul, whom he later married. It was Graner whom the Army held directly responsible for Abu Ghraib atrocities, his lame efforts to excuse himself on the grounds of following orders belied by the fact that he was the one directing his peers and reassuring them that abusing prisoners was OK. “The Blues of Charles Graner” consists of an artful rearrangement of callous words purportedly spoken by Graner when finally confronted by a fellow soldier. Graner probably tossed them off in jest, but they couldn’t more truly convey the sadistic impulse given vent by unfettered power.

The poem’s title reinforces the impression of Graner’s shamelessness. If Graner—who while working as a civilian corrections officer was accused of terrorizing African-American prisoners—can lay claim to the dignified authority of the blues, the proud populist artform of mid-20th-century black America, then the blues have no meaning. A monster’s victim can have the blues, but the monster can’t have the blues about that which makes him a monster.

--Peter Molin is a retired US Army infantry officer who currently teaches in the Writing Program at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ. He blogs at Time Now: The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars in Art, Film, and Literature.

Code (On “The Blues Charles Graner”) by Joe Hoover, S.J.

Code of Ethics of the American Correctional Association (founded in 1870, Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes its first president):

“The ACA expects of its members unfailing honesty, respect for the dignity and individuality of human beings and a commitment to professional and compassionate service.”

And: “Members shall respect and protect the civil and legal rights of all individuals.”

And: “Members shall respect, promote and contribute to a workplace that is safe, healthy and free of harassment in any form.”

It seems, then, as if the speaker in this poem has it reversed.

It is not that Graner has ignored his Christian side and done what is wrong (make a grown man piss himself.)

Rather, it is that he has discarded his corrections officer side and failed to do what is right (follow a code and respect the dignity of a grown man.)

Graner has wrongly opposed these two states of life: Way of the Christian v. Way of the Prison Guard. When in fact you could say that, according to the code, a corrections officer behaving well looks a lot like a Christian.

But take this a step further. Even if it was his “Christian side” that did the wrong thing, is that so bad? Is that so “un-Christian?”

The Christian in me knows a lot of things are wrong and the Christian in me does them anyway. And the Christian in me who eventually confesses and repents of the wrong gets closer to God because of this. My sins can take me back to Jesus.

This is the terrible thing about the Christian faith, for all those who come into contact with Christians. Our sins are good. The awful things we do to other people can bring us back to God.    They return us to humility. They deposit us into the shock of reality--the only place God lives.

So, you could say it is the job of Christians to do wrong. Because how else can we get closer to God?

And if none of this makes sense, or even seems outrageous (humiliate a man and become a truer child of God), consider what we are reflecting on. Men, piss, prison, torture, war and a kind of hell blistering the world. None of it makes sense. The only thing that makes sense is the most senseless thing of all: that God, as they say, holds the whole blistered world in his hands as it continues to pitch and sunder. Senseless, all of it. But to whom else shall we go? You, me, Graner. To whom shall we go? To one who has the code of everlasting life.

--Joe Hoover is an actor, writer and the poetry editor at America Media. He is a Jesuit brother.


Josie Setzler said...

I'd like to respond to the last part of Joe Hoover's reflection. Yes, our faith enables us to repent of our sins and come closer to God in the process. I'm not sure, however, why that means the sin itself should be regarded as "good." And if I were the human being who was the victim of the sin/torture, I could grow stronger and more compassionate if I were willing to rejoice that my tormentor repented and was forgiven. Yet I doubt I could ever call the sin good. In fact, it might be a sin against human dignity to do so, it seems to me.

Philip Metres said...

Josie, I think you make a very good point. I can't speak for Joe on this particular point, but what struck me most about his reflection is that it set us alongside Graner in a most discomfiting way. Perhaps it was a sort of provocation, to remind us that Graner is still part of us.

Josie Setzler said...

OK< yes, to be provocative in this way is "good." I consent to being discomfited!