Once I lay sleepless through a long night inside a tent in Somalia. The African refugee crisis was at its height then, and tents and makeshift shelters stretched out for several acres around me: 60,000 refugees lived in this one camp I was visiting on assignment.

I wanted to stroll through the camp staring upward, where the Milky Way shone spectacularly in the clear, equatorial sky. (In an odd inversion, our galaxy reminded me of the lights of Los Angeles as seen from the air.) But camp workers had warned against nighttime strolls, because of the scorpions.

They told horrific stories about scorpions lurking in towels and clothing, especially shoes. Victims of their bites must endure a pain like no other—“childbirth times 12,” said one nurse—for at least two weeks. A small scorpion had dropped from the slope of a tent onto the face of a sleeping doctor; for days the doctor got Novocain shots in his cheek, one every four hours, in an attempt to quell the pain.

As I lay awake I could hear a faint, eerie sound, like the keening death wail of a Muslim woman, in tone more animal than human. It was the sound of a Somali nomad bitten by a scorpion, carrying through the thin desert air. Each hour I lay in my tent it grew slightly louder. By morning, the nomad had reached the camp for treatment.

After a few days I left the camp, and as the truck pulled away from the thousands of huts squatting in hummocky rows against the horizon, a chilling realization set in. The camp doctor had told me that probably one in six refugees would die of malnutrition or disease within the next month. But it struck me with awful force that during my stay in the camp, I had spent far more energy and time worrying about those damnable scorpions than about the 10,000 refugees who would die.

Once a Hebrew prophet named Jonah sat under the shade of a vine just outside the great city of Nineveh. When a worm chewed through the vine, exposing Jonah to the blazing sun and a scorching east wind, he became sullen and bitter, and he was angry enough to die.

God chose that particular moment to give Jonah a lesson in divine priorities. Even after the episode with the great fish, Jonah had never fully accepted his assignment as missionary to the Assyrians. Assyrians! Cruel, godless—veritable Nazis of their day, who razed whole civilizations and led captives away with hooks in their mouths—they hardly deserved another chance. It was the height of insult to send him, a Hebrew prophet, to his archenemies. Who cared if Nineveh got destroyed in 40 days; they had it coming.

But the Lord said to the sulky prophet, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”

Once, some officials high up in the United States government sat around a table discussing ways to free Americans being held hostage in the Middle East. Of their various attempts, only one bore fruit, a plan that involved the shipment of millions of dollars of military hardware to Iran.

When the news broke, newspapers were filled with stories about the arms-for-hostages swap. Editorials expressed outrage that the United States had bargained with a hostile nation that sponsors terrorism. Congressmen decried the fact that profits from the arms sale had been siphoned off to support an embargoed war in Central America.

Committee members and special investigators pored over shipping documents, the minutes of meetings, and logs of telephone calls. Who knew what, and when? Were any laws violated? Had the White House upset the constitutional balance of power? These were the questions hotly debated each evening on the network news.

Strangely, very few people voiced aloud what seems to me the most basic issue of all, the fundamental moral issue underlying the bartering. Essentially, America was offering 60 million dollars’ worth of weapons—devices brilliantly engineered to cause death—in order to save the hostages’ lives. Or, looked at mathematically, we were bargaining the deaths of scores of Iraqis for the lives of six Americans.

Shortly after one of the arms deliveries to Iran, an Iranian missile fell in the streets of Baghdad, Iraq, killing 48 civilians. Had that missile been obtained in the deal for hostages? Journalists reported the delivery of 2,000 antitank missiles: What if only 10 percent of those missiles found their mark, hitting 200 Iraqi tanks and killing two soldiers in each one? The arithmetic is obvious: 400 dead Iraqis in exchange for six (or three, as it turned out) live Americans.

I do not question our nation’s right to defend its citizens by force. I simply wonder at the fact that this equation of death-for-life is so seldom mentioned in discussions on the whole affair. In the articles I have read, only one man has cast the issue in such blatantly moral terms. That man, a priest named Lawrence Jenco, happens to be one of the hostages freed after more than 18 months of captivity in Beirut. Jenco said, simply, that he “would have preferred to stay” in his cell if his freedom had been purchased with guns, because “the trading of arms symbolizes violence.”

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I do not know personally a single citizen of Iraq, and I realize that nation does not share American values and democratic ideals. But perhaps that is the lesson we are missing in all the fuss, the same lesson suggested by my experience in Somalia and Jonah’s in Assyria. Is my own physical safety more significant than the deaths of 10,000 refugees? Is the comfort of one Hebrew prophet more important than the lives of 120,000 Assyrian children? And how many Iraqi deaths are worth six American lives? Or are these questions we should not be asking?

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Philip Yancey
Philip Yancey is editor at large of Christianity Today and cochair of the editorial board for Books and Culture. Yancey's most recent book is What Good Is God?: In Search of a Faith That Matters. His other books include Prayer (2006), Rumors of Another World (2003), Reaching for the Invisible God (2000), The Bible Jesus Read (1999), What's So Amazing About Grace? (1998), The Jesus I Never Knew (1995), Where is God When It Hurts (1990), and many others. His Christianity Today column ran from 1985 to 2009.
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