Courtesy of James Loney
Christian peace activist James Loney was captured by Iraqi militants in Baghdad in November 2005. He and two other hostages were released four months later, while a fourth was killed. Loney lives in Toronto, where he remains active in the peace movement.
I believe all things and all beings are interconnected.
I saw this most clearly in the time I was a hostage. For 118 days, when the world was reduced to what could be heard and said and done while handcuffed and chained with three other men in a cold, paint-peeling, eternally gloomy, 10-by-12-foot room. But despite being vanished off the face of the Earth, there were times when the walls around us would dissolve and I could see, with perfect blue-sky clarity, that everything I needed to know about the world was immediately available to me.
One day, our captors treated us to some Pepsi. We were very excited — more about the bottle than about the Pepsi, because it meant we could now relieve ourselves in urgent circumstances. As you might expect, it's not easy to relieve yourself in urgent circumstances when your right and left hands are handcuffed to someone else's right and left hands. Sometimes, despite our most careful efforts, we ended up with an unfortunate mess.
On a later day, after bringing us a particularly greasy lunch (fried eggplant rolled up in a tiny bit of flatbread), the captor we called Uncle needed to clean his greasy fingers. He saw a rag hanging on the back of a chair and used it to wipe his hands. He did not know that it was our Unfortunate Mess Rag, and that it had been used earlier that morning.
In that moment I saw how everything we do, even the things that seem most insignificant — cleaning up a mess or wiping our hands — affects everything and everyone else. Uncle thought he was simply rubbing some grease off his fingers, but in reality he was soiling himself in the squalor and degradation of our captivity — without him knowing it, or us intending it.
Uncle was one of our guards. With keys in one hand and gun in the other, his power over us seemed absolute, but he was not free. He said so himself on one of those interminable days when we asked him if he had any news about when we would be released. He pointed glumly to his wrists as if he himself were handcuffed and said, "When you are free, I will be free."
I believe there are many ways we can hold one another captive. It might be with a gun, an army, a holy book, a law, an invisible free-market hand. It doesn't matter how we do it, who we do it to, or why. There is no escaping it: We ourselves become captives whenever we hold another in captivity. Whenever we soil someone else with violence, whether through a war, poverty, racism or neglect, we invariably soil ourselves. It is only when we turn away from dominating others that we can begin to discover what the Christian scriptures call "the glorious freedom of the children of God."
This essay was produced by Anne Penman for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. NPR's This I Believe is independently produced by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.