Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, whom Richard Nixon once called “a ruthless little bastard,” had been a key architect of the invasion of Afghanistan and the Iraq war after the attacks on New York’s World Trade Center on 9/11/2001. By the end of 2006, he’d resigned, battered by controversy over the torture of enemy combatants. He was accused even by his generals and officers in Iraq of poor military planning and strategic incompetence.
Then one Sunday he showed up at my church.
In the early 1980s I’d been on the big search for a church where God shared an unbuttoned space with the intellect. I had exhausted myself in eastern religiosity, women’s Bible studies, spiritual communities of light and love, and the emotional squeeze of evangelical Christianity. And then my friend Paul Galloway told me I’d like Pastor Elam Davies at Fourth Presbyterian Church on Michigan Avenue. “He’s a great orator,” Paul said. Davies’ exegeted sermons, intellectually agile, always distilled into one message: love God, love your neighbor. I became a Presbyterian.
And now Donald Rumsfeld, a fellow Chicagoan, a neighbor, was sitting alone in the pew in front of me under the pulpit.
I had never seen him in church before, but I knew he was a member. Everybody knew. Church people had wanted him thrown off the rolls, banned, shunned. Pastor John Buchanan, a true statesman who had denounced the Iraq war in every sermon, once had to announce to the congregation, “Donald Rumsfeld is a member of this church, and that’s all I’m going to say about it.”
All through the service that Sunday I stared at the wisps of white hair on the back of his neck, formulating what I would say to Rumsfeld after the closing benediction. Perhaps I’d ask him if he regretted what he did, or perhaps I’d ask how many civilian deaths he was responsible for. I settled for one word which I intended to deliver with samurai precision, swift and deadly.
Pastor Buchanan, who knew about my activism against the war, jumped down from the pulpit as the service came to a close. He didn’t stand at the center to recite his usual benediction. He walked swiftly over to Rumsfeld instead, greeted him with a handshake, and quickly escorted him towards the side exit.
I lunged forward from my seat intending to chase after Rumsfeld with a clenched fist, sputtering: “Murderer!” But he got away.
The church places a white rose at the podium whenever a member dies, and lists the decedent in the bulletin. This week the bulletin read: “The white rose in the chancel signifies a change in the life of our congregation. Donald Rumsfeld died on June 30th 2021. We give thanks to God for the promise of eternal life.”
And I give thanks to the church for continuing to teach me about love.
Excerpted from “In That Number”. Chicago: Tortoise Press (2020)