The National Catholic Review

Lance Corporal Lu Lobello was among the first marines to enter Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad. His detachment was assigned to assault a secret-police compound, but, as Fox Company entered an intersection near their target,

Corporal David Vidaria, the radio operator, fell backward, shot in the head. There was a volley of bullets, and a rocket-propelled grenade exploded in the street...Five roads met at the intersection, and bullets were coming from all around: from the street, from the secret-police compound, even from a mosque. Marines were getting hit, and the company commander’s radio had failed.

The Kachadoorian family, ethic Armenians, lived near the secret police compound. Like other Christians, compared to what would follow, they had prospered under Saddam Hussein. When American bombs began to fall, they sheltered with relatives, but, when that house was hit, the family decided to return home. “There were nine of them, piled into three vehicles: Margaret and her husband, James; their two sons, Nicolas and Edmund; Edmund’s wife, Anna, and their infant son, Sam; Nora; Dina; and a young cousin, Freddy.” Terrified, the family raced toward home, ignoring the shooting around them. Entering the five-point intersection, they were unaware of the marines, heard no command to stop.

Fearing that the vehicles racing toward them contained combatants, the marines opened fire.

Bullets ripped through the cars, and the three drivers — James, Edmund, and Nicholas — were killed. Nora’s shoulder was shattered, and Anna and her baby were covered in blood. Nicholas, seated next to Margaret, tumbled out of the car and into the street. “Nicky is dead!” she screamed. She improvised a surrender flag...by pulling off the baby’s white undershirt and waving it above her head.

When the marines realized their mistake, they immediately offered assistance. “I still have nightmares about that day,” their commander, Staff Sergeant John Liles, said.

So does Lu Lobello. Like many a soldier, demons of memory followed him home. Back in Las Vegas, he enrolled at the University of Nevada and took up boxing to control the erratic aggression he felt. Time passed; the anger didn’t.

One time, Lobello ran into the parking lot of his apartment building in his underwear, clutching his AR-15, preparing to shoot a man he believed had been following him. A few months later, he was detained by police inside the veterans’ clinic: he’d lain down on the floor and refused to leave until a doctor examined him. He was given a diagnosis of severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

Like so many lost souls, Lobello began to wander the web, where he discovered a New York Times article about the Kachadoorian family. Contacting Dexter Filkins, the reporter who had written it, he learned that Nora Kachadoorian and her mother were now living not far away, in Glendale, California. Lobello tried to write them but couldn’t. He produced a video instead. In reply, he received a note that read, “Hi Lu, me and my mother we both forgive you, we know we will see them in the kingdom of Jesus.”

At first Lobello was elated, but not for long. He had been absolved, yet atonement eluded him. Saying one is sorry and being told that one is forgiven are an exchange of words. And words are not reality.

Eventually Lobello arranged to meet Nora and her mother. According to Filkins, in his October 29th New Yorker article, “Atonement,” the conversation frequently stalled.

“You saw us,” Margaret said, from her place on the couch. “You are better now?”

“I want to make sure you guys have everything you need,” Lobello said. “If there is anything I can do, I am here for you.” He cleared his throat.

“You are crying,” Margaret said. “You know, I cannot cry. My eyes have no tears left...You said you are suffering.”

“I never sleep,” Lobello said.

“I, too, not sleep, every day, you know? Yesterday it was four o’clock. I not sleep. I take the Bible and go to the kitchen and began to read,” Margaret said. “I have the same, this depression, you know.”

“There is not a day or a week that goes by that I don’t think about what we went through,” Lobello said. He seemed to be posing a kind of equivalence between him and his victims. If this was self-serving, there was also an undeniable truth to it: of all the people in the world, no one else could better understand what had happened.

Lobello left the Kachadoorian home glad that he had sought them out but still far from peace. Shared words do not undo the exchange of bullets. Atonement eluded him.

Around the time of the Reformation, many Christians began to insist that God’s word, because it was God’s word, could simply declare men and women to be righteous, and, if that were true, what need was there for a sacrament like confession? Why do penance for one’s sins or pray for the dead. And, if it wasn’t true, wouldn’t that limit the very power of God?           

They failed to realize that God set limits to divine power in the very act of our creation. God creates us, but, for us to be free, God must withdraw, leave room within creation for us to choose and to fashion ourselves by the decisions we make.

In the face of human sin, the question isn’t whether or not God can declare us righteous. It’s how we become righteous in reality, how the twisted and broken human spirit again becomes whole. Succinctly put, because sin occurs in the world, in our web of relationships, so must salvation.

That’s why we celebrate the sacrament of confession, because we need to encounter, in our person, the promise of God. “Now once for all he has appeared at the end of the ages to take away sin by his sacrifice” (Heb 9:26). Christ opens the portal to God; we enter by gathering together the disparate parts of ourselves. Confession, penance, prayer: these are ways of pulling together the broken pieces of self.

Jesus praises the widow’s mite, because “they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood” (Mk 12:44). It’s a small amount of money, but, a full share of herself. Typically one doesn’t lose or gain the self in a single moment, though that’s all that’s needed to change direction. There are moments when all can be lost: a firefight in Iraq. And moments of atonement when everything can be gained: the widow’s mite. What determines the weight of an action is the amount of our humanity it contains.

Kings 17: 10-16 Hebrews 9: 24-28 Mark 12: 38-44

Rev. Terrance W. Klein