When putting up the white ribbons on our front yard trees in honor of Anne Smedinghoff’s life, Beverly and I could not help but marvel at the hundreds of white ribbons we saw on front yard trees all over town. It’s an unprecedented outpouring. We’ve lived in River Forest for over half a century and not seen anything like it as a tribute to one of our town’s finest and her family.
It’s something we can do as an expression of how we feel. Kudos to the River Forest Presbyterians and St. Luke parishioners for handing out reams of white ribbons and flags. Their gift was so timely, so welcome.
In my view, the white ribbons also stand as a defiant symbol against the insanity, the sinfulness of war, and the universal heartbreak that violence inevitably imposes.
As I go to bed tonight with prayers for the Smedinghoff family, I wonder about that Afghan man, the one who killed Anne, four other American Soldiers, and himself — the suicide bomber. How well did he sleep the night before? Could he have ever imagined the devastation he would bring to a household thousands of miles away? Did he find some perverse satisfaction in anticipating such a hate-filled action?
The temptation in me is strong, very strong, not to pray for him as I ought. It is to regard him not as a fellow human being but as an abstraction, a crazed terrorist, a monster driven by an ideology that can only be countered by another bomb, set to kill others like himself.
If that’s where I leave it, with my mind and emotions locked up tight in bitter resentment, thus giving myself permission to retaliate evil with evil, then that distant, anonymous Taliban man has performed a double atrocity, one over Anne Smedinghoff and another over me.
Then I am left all the more blind to my own unawareness of the Afghan family that grieves tonight for their son or daughter, killed by a drone strike triggered by one of my own countrymen from a technological device somewhere in Kansas. Is their grief any less because they are “collateral damage,” that phrase which surgically removes persons from personhood, which has slipped into our vocabulary as part of the numbing effect of war’s brutal insanity?
It will not do to turn people into abstractions, regardless of who they are, where they live, what their motives are. I am not allowed that option as one who believes that the living God created us all, one Savior redeemed us all, one Spirit seeks us all. Nor am I allowed that option by Ann Smedinghoff’s life, as she represented the best in our American tradition. She died as a State Department diplomat on her way to deliver school books and organize games for Afghan children. I’m humbled by being her neighbor, and proud of what she embodied in being that kind of American in today’s world who is admired rather than scorned.
Her life inspires me to keep on trying to pull the pendulum of statecraft in the Anne Smedinghoff direction. In the long view of peacemaking, she was doing what we all do when we’re at our best. Hers is the action with lasting promise. I say that with some experience in international bridge-building for peaceful purposes. Over the past dozen years, I’ve made use of my contacts as a Christian, meeting hundreds of people in 32 countries on five continents, in their homes, listening to them, learning from them, and connecting their life stories with people here — including some who live on the same block where Anne Smedinghoff grew up.
Blessed are the peacemakers, past, present, and ongoing. That ancient benediction still holds for the dangerous, hopeful work that has been brought closer home by this gifted, dedicated young woman. Her short life will yet have a longer reach, well after the ribbons have come down, but not our hopes and actions that are inspired by following in her steps.
F. Dean Lueking is pastor emeritus of Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest.