On November 5, 2006, less than a month after his trial began and less than three years after he had been found hiding in a six by eight foot hole by American military forces, the deposed president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, was convicted of killing 148 Shiites from Dujail in 1982 and sentenced to death by hanging. I was twenty-two years old, in my final semester of undergraduate work at Texas A&M University, and sitting at a stoplight in my gas-guzzling, American-made truck on the south side of campus listening to NPR when the news bulletin came through that Saddam had been sentenced to death. I cried then, and I’ve cried every time I’ve remembered and reflected on that day ever since.
Saddam Hussein had been a constant presence in my life for as long as I could remember. When the U.S. participated in the Gulf War a decade and a half earlier, my mother was on bed-rest, pregnant with her fourth child, my sister Abigail, and she watched the nearly non-stop news coverage of the war from her bed from the time the U.S. positioned troops in Saudi Arabia to protect their vast oil reserves from Saddam’s advances in August of 1990 until President Bush declared a ceasefire in February of 1991. I was seven. I daily laid at the end of my mom’s bed watching TV and worrying about her health, my unborn sister’s health, and the health of my world engaged in war with this man named Saddam Hussein.
As I grew up, I watched as two more presidents sparred with this Middle Eastern man on the other side of the globe, and I learned to call him my enemy. During this same time, I also learned more and more about another Middle Eastern man who called me to love my enemies, who challenged me to forgive those who trespass against me, who offered unrelenting grace to even the vilest of sinners, who would die rather than destroy anyone or anything he created. If it was true, as my presidents told me, that Saddam Hussein was my enemy, then that meant that he was one of the ones I was called explicitly to love by my Lord.
So, as I sat idling in my truck, burning the gas that fueled the conflict that I watched on TV when I was seven years old, the conflict that eventually led to the capture, conviction, and execution of Saddam Hussein, I was pierced by the lapse in love that Saddam’s sentencing represented. Saddam Hussein was the world’s enemy for many, many reasons. Allowing that he was as deserving of death as any tyrant on the planet, the world missed an opportunity to love its enemy, to extend grace and mercy and forgiveness to a man who needed grace and mercy and forgiveness. Had we, the people of the world, been able to forgive Saddam Hussein, who couldn’t we forgive? The world, very publicly, failed to remember forgiveness, we failed to remember grace, and it grieves me to this day.
For Windrider participants, the Sundance Film Festival is more than just the movies chosen for exhibition in the festival. Windrider students also get the opportunity to screen award-winning shorts from the Angelus Student Film Festival. This past year, that program included the film Thief, written and directed by American Film Institute student Julian Higgins.
Thief recounts the fictional story of an Iraqi farmer who encounters Saddam Hussein at both ends of his life. In 1959, as a young boy, the farmer and his parents unwittingly shelter a twenty-two year old Saddam on the run after a failed US-led assassination attempt on then Iraqi ruler Abd al-Karim Qasim. Saddam steals the family’s new truck leaving them destitute. Half a century later, Saddam reenters the farmer’s life, this time on the run from US and Iraqi forces in 2003. The farmer has harbored a grudge against Saddam his entire life, and he has the opportunity now to get revenge by killing the disenfranchised dictator. The farmer elects instead to show him mercy, effectively forgiving Saddam for taking advantage of his family’s hospitality all those years ago. Saddam soon leaves the farmer’s house, and the farmer rides off on his bike to alert the authorities of Saddam’s presence in the area. The movie ends with a caption indicating that Saddam was eventually located following tips from multiple Iraqi sources hiding in a hole in the same area he hid out in when he was a young man similarly on the run. As the credits rolled, I cried.
Thief’s narrative is constructed in such a way as to inspire a desire for forgiveness in its audience. The viewer does not want the farmer to take revenge on Saddam Hussein. The viewer cheers for mercy. As a boy, the farmer’s parents teach him that a person’s moral quality is the byproduct of the choices he or she makes – make good choices, be a good person; make bad choices, be a bad person. When Saddam robs his family, the boy also learns that doing the right thing doesn’t necessarily guarantee pleasurable results.
Years later, Saddam’s reappearance proves to be a profound challenge to the farmer’s character. The question the farmer, and by extension, the audience, faces when Saddam Hussein stands before the farmer defenseless isn’t only, “Does Saddam Hussein deserve punishment?” Instead, it is also, “What kind of man/people will I/we be?” This second question is the question the world forgot to ask in 2006 when we executed Saddam Hussein. Instead, we only asked the first one, and so we failed to love our enemy and ourselves. We missed an opportunity to become a better world.
I wept as Thief ended, because through the movie, writer/director Julian Higgins shows Saddam Hussein the mercy and forgiveness the world proved incapable of showing him. (Perhaps, given humanity’s limited ability to balance justice and mercy, cinematic grace is the only grace we can conceivably give men like Saddam Hussein.) I wept, because for the first time I was enabled to witness the kind of love I believe Christ calls us to show to the world. Thief is a window into a better existence. It is a microcosmic redemption of our history. Thief is a clarion call for the mercy, grace, and forgiveness the world needs.