Prisoners of hope

Letter to a friend kidnapped in Iraq

by Ken Sehested

Introduction: On 27 November 2005 a group of four members of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) were kidnapped by a jihadist group following a meeting in a mosque in Baghdad, Iraq. One of the four was a personal friend, Norman Kember, a 74-year-old peace activist from England. I wrote the reflection below the next day. Having traveled in Iraq twice, once with CPT shortly before the 2013 US invasion, I took the news pretty hard.

Right. CPT kidnap victims (l-r): Tom Fox from the US, Norman Kember from the UK,  and Canadians James Loney and Harmeet Singh Sooden.

I NEARLY GAGGED ON MY GRANOLA  when I saw your name, about 10 paragraphs into a story summarizing the weekend’s violent episodes in Iraq. Having been among the references for your application some months ago to join the delegation, I knew, but had almost forgotten, you were there.

        The two-sentence account said that four “humanitarian aid” workers in Iraq had been kidnapped, naming only you: Norman Kember.

        Earlier, during the phone interview with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) staff checking your suitability for this trip to Iraq, I remember thinking: this will be a stretch for you. But then, being stretched is as integral to spiritual formation as the slower, more incremental kinds of growth. Besides, I have come to admire not only the courage of CPT but also their intelligence and street-smarts. I knew you would be in good hands.

        Even so, none of these thoughts—even knowing now that your three companions were seasoned travelers in conflict zones—could dispel the grief that washed over my breakfast table. It’s interesting what comes to mind in such stunned moments. Like my first night in your home, when I slept soundly through the history-making storm that came crashing through London in 1987.

Right. A photo of Norman Kember released to the media by his kidnappers.

        I referred to that story in the prayer vigil we did here for the four of you. For that occasion I created a poster with your enlarged photos. It was propped on the altar of the local Episcopal Cathedral and surrounded by votive candles, serving as the visual aid for our petitions. I mentioned that all of you would be embarrassed, maybe annoyed, that your faces are displayed rather than the millions whose lives have been taken or tattered by a quarter century of oppressive rule and violent conflict in Iraq. But your faces are not only yours. They are our intercessory portal into the larger world of which we know very little. I think that’s how intercession works: moving from the familiar to the slightly less familiar, on and on, until we find connection with the stark “otherness” of creation—and thereby with God.

        When news of our friendship reached British media outlets, several called for interviews or wrote asking for background. “Who is this person; and why is he doing this?” Odd how common it is to assume the soldierly commitment to face danger for the sake of national honor. But how outrageous—foolish! naïve!—at the thought that Christians might do likewise, for the sake of the beloved community. “What would happen,” as the CPT mission states, “if Christians devoted the same discipline and self-sacrifice to nonviolent peacemaking that armies devote to war?”

        As you might imagine, cynics abound. Popular talk show host Rush Limbaugh laced disbelief with gruesome glee in recent commentary on your kidnapping: “I’m telling you, folks, there’s a part of me that likes this.” Our own Commander-in-Chief’s blustery appeal to patriotic vigor in defense of the war sounds like history unfolding in reverse. Just this past Sunday he assured us that “we can win the war in Iraq—we are winning the war in Iraq,” now more than two years after having claimed “Mission Accomplished.”

        I’m confident that what you and your captive companions were finding is what CPT has been steadily reporting (including the first news of torturous happenings at Abu Ghraib prison), first-hand, for a decade: the escalating loss of faith in the purported U.S. reconstruction, stunning absence of security, scandalous lack of basic services, and continued violent reprisals by every armed sector in the country. A quarter of a trillion dollars doesn’t buy what it used to.

        Ironically, despite our plummeting international reputation, your kidnapping has provoked a global outpouring of Muslim and Arab protest against your captors and on your behalf. Notoriously as contentious and sectarian as their Christian counterparts, a stunning array of Muslim leaders and organizations have united to call for your release. I can only hope that some of these developments have made their way to your ears.

        Norman, if I could steal into your cell and whisper in your ear, I would say: “Fear not those who can only kill the body” (Matt. 10:28). Look what you’ve done, without even meaning to—which, more often than not, is typical divine protocol. I would also chide you for your self-depreciatory comment, before you left, about how “cheap” your Christian witness has been heretofore. There’s nothing cheap about 74 years of persistent advocacy for those with no place at the table. The race, my friend, is not to the swift.

        In the end, though, I would draw from your memory the assurance spoken by that ancient Semite, Joseph, whose ancestral home is not far from where you are shackled: They have done this for evil, “but God intends it for good” (Genesis 50:20).

        Whatever comes next, be confident of this: nothing is wasted. The heavy night of those who rule this dark solstice season shall end. For you, and all who sit in the shadow of darkness, light is coming. The Advent word is rarely heard outside the context of threat. "Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope" (Zechariah 9:12).

© Ken Sehested @
This article was originally published 23 December 2005 in
See Ken Sehested's writing from his 2003 trip to Iraq: "Journey to Iraq: Of risk and reverence" and the "Caitlin letters."