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He Buries Pieces of Suicide Bombers

shovelIn last Sunday’s New York Times reporter Habib Zahori wrote a front page article about a citizen of Kabul, Khwaja Naqib Ahmad, who buries pieces of suicide bombers and unclaimed bodies of their victims.  Muslim custom requires burial of the dead within twenty-four hours, so Mr. Ahmad hastens to finish this onerous and thankless task.  In winter when the roads are impassable and he cannot use a car for transport he lifts the bloody burdens across his shoulders, smearing his clothes with the scent of the dead.  Five years he has born this distasteful duty. It is taking both a physical and psychic toll.  He wants to be relieved, but no one is stepping forward.  In fact, when word comes of another bombing, villagers make fun of him, telling him to make ready for more work.

Some would say that terrorists don’t deserve a proper burial. By their heinous disregard for the safety of innocents they behave so inhumanely that they forfeit any right to be treated humanely themselves.  But Mr. Ahmad doesn’t see it that way.  “I look at them as humans and treat their bodies with respect because I believe that they were full of hope and life when they were alive,” he declares; and continues, “Every single Muslim’s duty is to bury his Muslim brother, no matter how rich he is, poor he is, or what social status he comes from.  To me, my job is important.  I don’t care who I am burying.  I see no difference between the addict or the bomber.”

Such radical compassion offends conventional morality.

In the early seventies I attended a sermon in the Duke University Chapel delivered by the Baptist minister, writer, and white civil rights activist, Will Campbell.  In the early 60s Will risked his life in the deep south registering black voters.  His text for the morning was Matthew 25:40 where Jesus taught his listeners through a parable that whenever they feed or clothe or shelter people in need, “even the least of these” (i.e.,Jesus’s outcast brothers and sisters), they feed, clothe, and shelter Jesus himself.

Will went on to say that preachers usually interpret “the least of these” as society’s dregs, the pitiful poor, the powerless and helpless, the almost invisible people.  But these are not really “the least of these” contended Will, for in the pile of social rejects they are not at the very bottom.  Below them are the grossly bad actors: the incorrigible criminals, the sociopaths, the very meanest of the mean.

Had Will stopped right there this interpretation would merely have been a new twist on an old verse, something interesting to ponder as one shakes the preacher’s hand on the way out, thanking him for a fine sermon.   Will didn’t stop there, however. One of the really “least of these” in his own life, he continued, was an officer of the Klu Klux Klan who came to him for counsel on a family matter.  Will didn’t turn him away, didn’t tell him to repent of his racism.  He gave the counsel requested.

I didn’t shake Will’s hand that morning.  I was too angry.  As I saw it, he had consorted with the very enemy he had so long opposed. I could neither understand nor forgive this act, for it seemed a betrayal of justice.  Surely, Will had carried compassion too far!

Christians sometimes boast that among religious teachers Jesus was unique, for he commanded loving one’s enemies.  Reading about Mr. Ahmed burying pieces of suicide bombers confirmed an intuition that first dawned meekly upon me, then gradually took shape and conviction: that loving one’s enemies is not a uniquely Christian aspiration.  Besides, whatever one’s spiritual practice, it’s damned hard to live by.


  1. Susan Moseley Susan Moseley

    Excellent and timely article, Tom! Thank you so much for writing about this. I agree that the kind of radical love that includes even our enemies is not just a Christian value; such love is expressed rarely but powerfully by people of every faith and creed. I think Jesus was trying to teach such radical love through the Good Samaritan parable, and I wonder if he took it one step further than Will Campbell. It is very difficult to imagine caring for a member of the Ku Klux Klan (I would have reacted the way you did). Might it be even more trying to receive such help and care from a KKK member? Would the KKK member be equivalent to a 1st Century Samaritan?

  2. Thanks for your comment, Susan. Yes, the KKK leader corresponds to the Good Samaratin in Jesus’s parable, inasmuch as he is thought very poorly of, but as far as I know the KKK member didn’t act kindly, so there the correspondence breaks down.

    • Susan Moseley Susan Moseley

      True, but my scenario is a “what if?”. So what if a KKK member showed compassion to me? Would I be able to tolerate it, yo receive it? I know the the main point of the parable is to highlight the one showing mercy, but I was in aBible study once that talked about the other side – being able to receive kindness from someone we hate. Just a thought.

  3. Rob Dugger Rob Dugger

    Tom — Thanks for posting this. It reveals the duties of faith and in a very important way the limits on those duties.
    The only aspect of my life I can use as a lens into what you’ve revealed is AA — my only “church” or faith. Sometimes in a meeting a person whose background I find truly immoral, will ask for my help. I always help — but just as Khwaja’s help is limited to the kind of burial required by his faith, my help is limited to what it takes to keep sober within AA.
    God’s gift to me of sobriety, family, health and wellbeing brings with it a responsibility to help all others regardless of how I feel about them personally. But within AA this responsibility extends only as far as the 12 Steps take it — one drunk helping another. I feel this is an important aspect the issue you’ve raised. I’m not a Bible expert, but I believe Jesus did not say, “Father, help them build more crosses.” He said only, “Father forgive them for they no not what they do.”
    Acceptance and forgiveness are crucial keys to AA sobriety. A court’s decision about what to do with a man who beat his son to death in a drunken rage, is another matter. Our responsibility in AA is to help that man, within the 12 Steps, remain sober through this enormously difficult phase of his life and enjoy the blessings of sobriety throughout his life.
    So far, I’ve been able to accept, forgive and work with people with quite extreme backgrounds. Will I ever be asked for help by someone I truly can’t stomach? I don’t know. I pray for the strength to always be able help. I believe this is the love Jesus taught — Jesus and martyrs like Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is a love that is, within our faith, unlimited.

  4. Dear Rob,
    Thanks for your thoughtful and lengthy reply, and for your candor. I have heard a number of 12 steppers say that the community they experience while working the program is very deep, like that of a devout person of faith who has found home. As I do interfaith work I find that the chief common denominator among people in this movement is their their cherishing of a community of persons with whom they can participate in service and to whom they can be responsible and accountable. For you, AA is that community. I count you as an interfaith brother!
    TCDavis recently posted…He Buries Pieces of Suicide BombersMy Profile

  5. Andy Jacob Andy Jacob

    Dear Tom,
    Thanks, as always, for helping us connect some dots in the faith and life puzzle. This puts so much in perspective…

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