Playing Cello in Hell

For the last few weeks Karim Wasfi, cellist and former conductor with the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, has been playing music at the site of car bomb explosions in Baghdad. With the debris and bodies barely cleared, Wasfi arrives, dressed in concert attire, seats himself in the precise spot where the carnage occurred, and plays. People gather, cheer, and take pictures. Reminiscent of the “Cellist of Sarajevo,” Vedran Smailovic, who played music in the ruins of his city when it was under siege in 1992, Wasfi has been dubbed the Cellist of Baghdad.

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Why would any person, let alone a creative artist, take such a risk at public sites of devastation, chaos, and terror? Surely Wasfi knows he could be killed at any moment.

Responding to interviewers, the cellist stated that his action is a counterpoint to violence and destruction, his personal act of resistance to the insanity of terror, and a testimony for peace. In the comments that follow these stories online even those who acknowledge his courage debate the rationality and efficacy of what he’s doing.

Why pursue peace, especially at such personal risk, when peace remains as it has since the dawn of human history an elusive, ethereal, seemingly impossible goal? Why risk one’s reputation or life, devoting energy and time and passion to demonstrating, advocating, praying, working for peace?

Karim Wasfi’s story came over the airwaves of my car radio just as our church is discussing embarking on a ministry of justice and peacemaking, spurring me to reflect on the pursuit of peace. And while I don’t envision many of us stodgy Presbyterians making music or anything else in the kinds of hellish places Wasfi and Smailovic have played their cellos, the question Why bother? still deserves to be taken seriously.

Why bother to try to understand The Other – the other culture, race, religion? Why bother to pray for peace? Why advocate to our government for peaceful resolution of international conflicts? Why urge just treatment of those we perceive as a threat? Why care if our federal budget reflects far more passion for war than concern for peace? Why seek to build bridges with people of other faiths? What evidence is there that any of it makes any difference?

An analogy that occurs to me derives from nearly 30 years of parenting. As most parents discover, massive amounts of time and energy are expended in trying to encourage, cajole, or command children to pick up after themselves – hang up their clothes, put away their toys, wipe up their spills and so forth. And very often these efforts appear to be futile, even over decades. In fact, I have no idea how tidy my now adult children keep their personal space or how well they take care of their belongings. A mother can only hope.

But what I do know is that bit by bit over those decades, nearly invisible in the daily grind of parenting, a vision of personal responsibility was being constructed, a framework of order, a connection between action and consequences. Parents see the fruits of our labor in children who gradually began to take responsibility for their academic, personal and professional lives. The lessons are not in vain despite oftentimes seeming so, their value deeper and more transcendent than we might imagine at the time.

Just so Wasfi and Smailovic create a vision of peace and sanity amidst chaos and terror. Music is an affirmation of life and hope and all that is good in human beings. To offer that music courageously in defiance of terror, and on the very spot where mindless destruction has occurred, is an inspiration for those who might otherwise despair.

Why pursue peace? Because sometimes kids remember to pick up their toys, without even being asked. Likewise, sometimes the peacemakers of the world are richly rewarded for their efforts. Here’s such a story, which you might not have heard about in a world where violence and terror sell far better than peace: http://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/liberian-women-act-end-civil-war-2003. And isn’t any day, even one day, free of violence and war a good day for those upon whom they have been so grievously inflicted?

Why pursue peace? So we can live in hope and inspire others to have hope as well. We in the church have been given a stirring vision of peace, when swords will be beaten into plough shares and the lion will lie down with the lamb. We join billions of human beings throughout history and from other cultures and other faiths in believing that there is a God who wills peace on earth. We believe we are called to take the long view and imagine peace even when it seems an unattainable goal, and because of that vision we are also called to work for peace, advocate for peace, pray for peace.

To play our cellos in Baghdad, Sarajevo, and yes, even in Greensboro, North Carolina.

– Melanie Rodenbough

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