Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’” (Matthew 25: 34-36)
PVT Chelsea Manning’s story is tremendously complicated, but it often given over to simple narratives. Some will say Private First Class Manning, the U.S. soldier who was sentenced to thirty-five years in prison on charges of leaking classified government documents, is a hero who served her nation bravely. When confronted with the terrible truth of the war in which she was serving, she bravely chose to sacrifice her life and her freedom to show the world what she knew, to send out the information that would be released through WikiLeaks, to eventually come out as trans and to own her true identity when under all the threats that come with incarceration.
Others will say that she is a villain, an oath breaker who turned her back on those that depended on her in US Army and who put many in danger. They will say that even if she felt the need to blow the whistle of what she believed to be war crimes, it was her responsibility to go through proper government channels, not to simply email it to Julian Assange to be sent out into the world.
I have a deep sympathy for PVT Manning—she was not the only closeted trans woman serving the US Army in Iraq from 2009-10.
I was there too, down in Basra, Talil, and Al Kut. Like PVT Manning, I was and am horrified by the war in Iraq. According the Lancet Study that came out in October of 2006, there were more than 600,000 civilian causalities in Iraq by that point in the war, about 2.5% of the Iraq population. As the war dragged on year after year past that point, it’s possible we topped a million civilian deaths.
Those numbers are staggering. I still sometimes wake up in the middle of the night full of anger and guilt over the death and destruction that the Iraqi people suffered. I understand the need to do something radical to address the horror of this war.
When faced with horrors, how are we to respond? As a Christian, I believe that it is always right to look to the teaching of Jesus. In Matthew 25 Christ talks about separating the sheep and goats, the righteous and the unrighteous. The criteria he gives aren’t the ones modern American Christians would always expect. Jesus doesn’t mention baptism or conversion or praying the right prayers or anything. He talks about looking after people, looking after the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, and the sick.
We do not know Chelsea Manning’s religious faith, but from her words and actions we can see where she put her faith.
In her letter to President Obama asking for pardon she says:
It was at this time I realized that (in) our efforts to meet the risk posed to us by the enemy, we have forgotten our humanity. We consciously elected to devalue human life both in Iraq and Afghanistan. When we engaged those that we perceived were the enemy, we sometimes killed innocent civilians. Whenever we killed innocent civilians, instead of accepting responsibility for our conduct, we elected to hide behind the veil of national security and classified information in order to avoid any public accountability.
I understand that my actions violated the law; I regret if my actions hurt anyone or harmed the United States. It was never my intent to hurt anyone. I only wanted to help people. When I chose to disclose classified information, I did so out of a love for my country and a sense of duty to others.
If we are to say we follow Christ, then it is our responsibility to care about people. If we are going to talk about caring for gay, lesbian, bi, and trans* people, if we are going to talk about caring for prisoners, if we are going to talk about caring for humanity, then we also have to talk about caring for the Iraqi people.
We have to care about and those hundreds of thousands of people killed because of the actions of our own home country.
I understand being angry at the action PVT Manning took. I deployed to Iraq with my unit in 2009 because they were my people and I felt it was my responsibility to take care of the people in my unit, to be with them in the misery of a deployment to war. Because my feeling of responsibility to those people, I put off transitioning for several years and stayed closeted. It makes perfect sense for people to be angry at the possibility of exposing their loved ones to risk.
Still, as Christians we need to be careful about making a monster of someone whose crime was motivated by such care for people suffering violence. Whether or not we agree with Manning’s action, it is our responsibility as Christians to care about her having her medical needs met, about her being in a safe environment in prison, and in a prison appropriate for her gender.
As Christians, we must do the difficult work of caring for the well being of many people, even when their interests may seem in conflict. We must care for soldiers and strangers, transgender folks and cisgender folks, Christians and Muslims, queer folks and straight folks, Iraqis and Americans.
We must care about all of God’s children in all our complexity and diversity, in all our apparently competing interests.
How do we bear up under all these complicated, interrelated burdens? There is no simple answer. We must walk humbling in the example of Christ day by day, refusing to see our neighbor as anything less than perfectly human.
Photo via flickr TruthOut