Sarah Sentilles has made my life more challenging.
I know because of how I just responded to a news story that broke as I was writing this piece about her. I’ll get to that breaking news in a moment. But first, some background on the author.
Sarah Sentilles was a theology student at the Harvard Divinity School, aiming to become a priest, when a violent image in the newspaper from the war in Iraq – an image we have all seen – led her to change course.
She was driven by the following question: “What should I do when faced with images of violence?”
Sentilles spent the next ten years searching for answers through researching, writing, and teaching.
“The students’ desks faced the screen onto which all semester I’d projected image after image of other people’s pain.”
Among her students was a young man who had served as a prison guard at Abu Ghraib – the place where the very photo that prompted her professional pivot was taken. The result of her quest is Draw Your Weapons.
The New York Times reviewer called the book “unclassifiable,” in part, because it draws on such a diverse range of fields and her presentation feels, in some ways, like a series of meditations.
She told the Times, “I tried to put pieces together that you wouldn’t otherwise put together.”
One of her many memorable juxtapositions was triggered by her obsession with drones. She actually downloaded an app that sends an alert to her phone every time there is a report of a U.S. drone strike. I asked her why she is so consumed by the subject.
“I cannot stop thinking about the fact that we kill people using cameras and images; we kill people based on what we think we see, despite the long history of photography that shows us images never show us the whole picture, and even if they do, our eyes don’t.”
It must be her theology background that led her from Drones to Genesis and the story of Abraham’s binding of Isaac – how close the father came to sacrificing his son. “Abraham lifts the knife and sees the ram. He unbinds his son. He binds the ram.”
Now, imagine what Sarah Sentilles imagines.
“What if instead of a knife, Abraham had used a drone? Imagine him in a windowless room in the desert, watching several screens at once. There he is, he says and points to the monitor that shows his son. He does not see the ram. There is no time to change his mind.”
That powerful exercise of imagination, one of countless in her book, is highly relevant to the breaking news I alluded to earlier -- the announcement of the 2019 Pulitzer Prizes for journalism. The awards included coverage of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, and, for international reporting by the Associated Press:
“…a revelatory yearlong series detailing the atrocities of the war in Yemen, including theft of food aid, deployment of child soldiers and torture of prisoners.”
One of those AP stories, accompanied by a striking image, is entitled: In Yemen, a race to save a Boy from al-Quaida and a US drone.
That race evolves in a way that is eerily similar to how Sentilles imagines Abraham and Isaac in the age of the drone, with a particularly unexpected tragic turn. Normally, I’d simply share the story and leave it there. But because of Sarah Sentilles and Draw Your Weapons, I am struggling to figure out a more meaningful response to her animating question: “What do I do in the face of a violent image?”
I hope you’ll come to my conversation with Sarah Sentilles and watch us struggle together at the Great Hall of The Atheneum on Sunday June 16th at 11am.
Don’t expect easy answers from Sentilles. She has said she wants her book “to be an invitation to think, and not a polemic.”
Sarah Sentilles might have made a good priest. But she is not a preacher.