Editor's note: This column is excerpted from Norris Burkes' upcoming book, “Lessons of Forgiveness From a War Zone.”
On Easter morning 2009, I was the chaplain in the Air Force Field Hospital in Balad, Iraq, when three patients were brought to our ER from a Black Hawk helicopter.
The first patient had shrapnel in her right eye and a broken hand, but seemed OK. She blurts, “I couldn't save him! He's dead, isn't he?”
“Who?” someone asks. “Our team leader,” she says.
In the next moments, the 98- pound-soldier recalled riding as a medic in a vehicle hit by an explosive. When the half-blinded medic found that her team leader lost a leg, she pinched the femoral artery closed.
“You did the right thing,” our trauma czar told her.
“He kept talking about his wife and unborn child,” she added, “but I couldn't maintain my hold.”
An anesthetist told her, “There's no way to close a hemorrhage that close to the groin.”
Soon, after she'd been sedated, I made my way to another soldier with shrapnel to his left leg. As soon as I offered help, he made a request.
“I want you to pray, chaplain.” But there was something in his voice that implied an incomplete sentence. It was as if he was saying, “It's your turn to pray now.”
He'd been praying since the explosion and now, with the spent fury of a relay runner, he was stretching his prayer baton to me. “I want you to pray that the insurgents will understand that we are trying to make their country better.”
“I can do that,” I said. “The Bible does say ‘Pray for your enemies.' ”
“Yes,” he said, “but it says more.”
With that cryptic remark, I felt my eyebrows furrow and neck stiffen as he offered further guidance. “I want you to pray that God will forgive the insurgents that killed my friend.”
“What would that kind of prayer sound like?” I asked.
“You know the prayer Jesus said on the cross?” he coaxed. “ ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.' ”
Of course I knew it. It was the prayer Jesus prayed as he, too, bled out. The prayer wasn't for himself; it was for the mob who crucified him.
Jesus had seen his killers not as evil people, but as ignorant ones, ignorant of their complicity in their own downfall. His prayer echoes through the eons, for me, for the wounded squad, and for the insurgents.
“I think that's a great prayer, Private,” I said, still a little unsure of whether I was placating his battlefield shock or mine.
Then, after I said the prayer, but before I allowed my eyes to open, I saw something: the flash of a bloodied collage. I saw the insurgents planting the bomb, the explosion, the struggling medic, the team leader bleeding out, and the private praying for them all. At that moment, I understood. Our world will remain an unending circle of revenge until we learn, as did this wise soldier, to continually repeat Jesus' prayer. And as we pray it with all our hearts and souls, it will be answered. If not in this world, then in the next when we hear Jesus' promised words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Reach syndicated columnist Norris Burkes at thechaplain.net.