The Hijacking of Kayla Mueller’s Legacy

THIRTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Jeremiah 15:15-21
Psalm 26:1-8
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

Prayer of the Day: O God, we thank you for your Son, who chose the path of suffering for the sake of the world. Humble us by his example, point us to the path of obedience, and give us strength to follow your commands, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” Romans 12:19

Kayla Jean Mueller was an American human rights activist and humanitarian aid worker from Prescott, Arizona. She was taken captive in August of 2013 in Aleppo, Syria after leaving a Doctors Without Borders hospital. In 2015 she was killed in uncertain circumstances after being raped several times by her ISIS captors.

More importantly, however, Kayla Mueller was a devout Christian. While in college, she was active in ecumenical Christian campus ministry. Mueller supported a variety of humanitarian aid and human rights organizations. Her personal involvement in human rights activism and humanitarian aid included work in India with Tibetan refugees, advocacy for Palestinians and volunteer assistace for the African Refugees Development Center in Israel. She was also involved in Vrindavan Food For Life, an organization that provides free food, education, and medical care for those in need and, in addition, she worked with the organization, Food Not Bombs. In February 2015, Charlotte Alter of Time magazine described Kayla Mueller as an ideal role model, citing her selfless desire to end suffering, her activism and her humanitarian aid work. According to Alter, “Mueller represented the best qualities of the millennial generation – our idealism, our optimism, and our love of our families – without the troublesome ones.”

In what I can only describe as a cynical move to incite further anti-Muslim sentiment so deeply satisfying to its base, the Trump administration code named the military operation that killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on October 27, 2019 “Operation Kayla Mueller.” During the 2020 State of the Union Address, to which Kayla’s parents were invited as honored guests,  Trump mentioned Mueller as part of his self aggrandizing account of attacks on ISIS insurgent forces and the military operations directed at taking down prominent members under his administration, directly referencing the Barisha raid in which ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed. While one can understand and forgive Kayla’s grief stricken parents for getting sucked into the vortex of Trump’s hateful state of the union circus, I cannot imagine that this quiet, humble servant to those regarded as the “least” among us would be anything other than horrified by this sickening hijack of her legacy.

Like the God they worship, Christians “take no pleasure in the death of the wicked,” but celebrate the death of saints. Saint Stephen did not cry out for God to avenge his executioners with a military show of “shock and awe.” He prayed that they might be forgiven-just as I am sure Kayla prayed for her tormentors. Following Jesus means taking up the cross. Surely Kayla Mueller understood that. She knew full well that serving families struggling to survive in war zones put her life at risk. Jesus said, “where I am, there will my servant be.” Kayla stood with Jesus and was prepared to pay the price. Surely, her violent death at the hands of cruel and depraved men is a great evil. But her short lifetime of corageous service and the faith that brought her to that point is worthy of celebration. She deserves to be enrolled in the hall of martyrs along with Saint Stephen, Saint Polycarp, Perpetua, Felicity, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Trump’s use of Kayla’s story to glorify military exploits and inflame hatred of Muslims makes a mockery of her memory. Worse, his use of her name to glorify an act of vengeance makes a mockery of Paul’s injunction against vengeance.  Donald Trump’s exploitation of Kayla’s memory and her family’s grief turns Paul’s admonition on its head. Vengeance is not the Lord’s, according to Trump. It is his and he boasts of taking it. In the view of Trump and his supporters, Kayla is no hero and her life was a waste. They have reduced her to a naive, dreamy little idealist who got herself killed because she didn’t understand the “real world.” Kayla’s passionate love for others, including enemies,  didn’t accomplish anything, except to prove that love doesn’t work. The only solution to violence is greater violence.  I think it is time that our church corporately stand up and tell Mr. Trump to keep his blood stained hands and hateful rhetoric off the memory of our saints. (Are you listening, bishops?). Kayla’s story belongs to us.

This week Kayla’s parents, Carl and Marsha Mueller, are scheduled to speak at the Republican National Convention that will formally nominate Donald Trump for a second term as president. I cannot predict what they will say. I hope that they will lift up their daughter’s passionate love for people who, at best, we Americans typically think of as nuisances to be kept out of our country or, at worst, enemies to be exterminated. I hope they will testify to Kayla’s courageous choice of love and compassion over hatred and fear. I hope that they will honor her life of discipleship and her faith in Jesus. I hope that they will celebrate her entry into the communion of saints. Such testimony would surely be a beacon of light in what promises to be a hurricane of darkness.

Here is a poem/hymn by Isaac Watts celebrating the death of saints in the spirit that should inform our thinking about Kayla and all whose faithful lives bring them into mortal combat with evil.

How bright these glorious spirits shine!

1 How bright these glorious spirits shine!
Whence all their white array?
How came they to the blissful seats
of everlasting day?

2 Lo! these are they from sufferings great
who came to realms of light,
and in the blood of Christ have washed
those robes that shine so bright.

3 Now with triumphal palms they stand
before the throne on high,
and serve the God they love amidst
the glories of the sky.

4 Hunger and thirst are felt no more,
nor sun with scorching ray:
God is their sun, whose cheering beams
diffuse eternal day.

5 The Lamb, who dwells amid the throne,
shall o’er them still preside,
feed them with nourishment divine,
and all their footsteps guide.

6 In pastures green he’ll lead his flock
where living streams appear;
and God the Lord from every eye
shall wipe off every tear.

Source: this poem is in the public domain. Isaac Watts (1674-1748) was the son of a schoolmaster. He was born in Southampton and showed remarkable precocity in childhood. He is said to have begun the study of Latin at age four and was writing verse at the age of seven. At the age of sixteen, he went to London to study in the Academy of the Rev. Thomas Rowe and became assistant minister of the Independent Church, Berry St., London 1698. He became senior pastor 1712. Watts was in chronically poor health throughout his life. Nonetheless,  he continued his ministerial duties throughout his life, preaching as often as his health would permit.

Watts produced numerous hymns like the one above, many of which are found in the hymnals of virtually all Christian traditions. Some of his hymns were written to be sung after his sermons, highlighting the meaning of the text upon which he preached. You can read more about Isaac Watts and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

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