To run the brutal photo or not, that's the question

To run the brutal photo or not, that's the question

May 31, 2003
Written by Staff Reports

Evan Golder

Shortly after the war started, I drove to Toronto for a scheduled meeting with other editors of religious publications. War news was everywhere—but it differed from ours. Whereas CNN broadcast images of buildings exploding and retired generals pointing at targets on floor maps, CTV (Canadian) showed the human suffering resulting from the U.S. bombing. Canadian newspaper stories and photos similarly differed from U.S. papers.

One story by Robert Fisk in the Sunday Star and one photo in the Globe and Mail particularly haunted me. Could we—should we—run these in United Church News?

Back in my office, I obtained permission from The Independent in London to reprint the story (it's on page 11). If readers started the story and did not want to finish it, they could stop, we reasoned. But, the photo ... Once readers turned the page and saw it, it would be too late.

On the whole, this issue of United Church News represents a diversity of perspectives on the war. The front page story and photo show how the war affects U.S. families with small children, as a seminarian puts her life on hold to care for her grandchildren. A first-person account on page 9 portrays the war from a UCC chaplain's point of view. And a montage of stories on page 10 show how different UCC congregations respond to the war.

The question came down to whether a photo this brutal belongs in a church newspaper. But if not here, then where? The Christian faith offers the most substantial resource for dealing with war, because it witnesses to a God who sent a son to live among us and die at human hands. Evil and suffering are caught up in the two most basic Christian stories: Christmas and Easter. Although we often skip right over it, the birth of the babe in the manger resulted in the massacre "of all of the children around Bethlehem who were two years old or younger" (Matthew 2:16). And, of course, the resurrection story is possible only because of the crucifixion, the preferred means of capital punishment in Jesus' day.

In these biblical accounts, God confronts us with hard truths. Likewise, in Isaiah's story of the suffering servant (53:3), "he was despised and rejected" and others turned their faces from him.

"It may even be true that the suffering of the innocent can be a kind of Ôshock treatment," wrote the late Robert McAfee Brown in "The Bible Speaks to You." "If I see that something I have done has caused suffering to an innocent person, this may have a real effect on whether I do it again. It may cause me to act very differently, as I become drastically aware of how I have hurt someone else."

Just as the world was gearing up for a second Gulf war, Anthony Swofford's book, "Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles," was published. He ends his memoir with this thought: "The men who go to war and live are spared for the single purpose of spreading bad news when they return, the bad news about the way war is fought and why, and by whom for whom, and the more men who survive the war, the higher the number of men who might speak."

War is brutal. Printing that photo (on page 11) is one way of spreading that bad news—and of encouraging persons to choose alternatives to going to war, should the occasion come again in our lifetimes.

The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor of the national edition of United Church News.

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