WE WRITE at a moment when Tehran is full of rumor that some of the hostages are about to be released. But our brief little sermon today will not have to do with the promise, anxiety or obscenity that mingles in the circumstances of those hostages in Iran. No disquisitions on how the point is not -- and never was -- whether the cruel and opportunistic captors of the Americans in Tehran would or would not allow them a good Christmas; no more -- at least not today -- admonitions about how dangerous and foolish and lulling it was for the rest of us to fall into the let's-make-the-holidays-nicer-for-the-hostages trap. And Christmas being the day it is, we will even let pass for the moment the unspeakable, if predictable, showboating of the Rev. William Sloane Coffin on the eve of his trip to Tehran.
We ask you only to meditate on the importance of the hostages, not as political pawns, but rather as human victims whose experience of terror and injustice has caught the country's and the world's imagination. What has been so heartening is that the sense of their misfortune and the widespread anger it has generated have withstood the inevitable sophistries that those gifted with superficial, witless and cynical minds have regularly offered up. As, for example, the relative insignificance of the hostages when you count them -- 50 persons held hostages, compared with 50,000 American dead in Indochina and however many dead the people who ply this line like to throw in from scenes of 20th-century carnage around the world.
This approach is dismissive. In suggesting that only vast numbers of victims and high degrees of goriness can qualify as suffering worthy of public consternation, the "quantifiers" of anguish merely prove that nothing matters. If it takes hundreds or hundreds of thousands of human casualties to count, what is even being counted? Does the cruelty inflicted on a single human being matter or doesn't it? It is our observation that generally those who use whatever outrage or tragdey is at hand to point to another larger one that has gone unnoted are not arguing for heightened attention to the plight of those numerous others -- they are only suggesting that the subject be changed.
The subject of the hostages should not be changed until they are all home -- and even then the subject should not be dropped. But for now, for Christmas Day, it seems enough just to observe that they have at once remained, in the public mind, maltreated individuals and in some sense, by virtue of that, sorrowful emblems of suffering and injustice elsewhere. Concern for such people does not limit your sympathies or narrow your ability to imagine the plight of people in other, perhaps far worse, circumstances.It enlarges that capacity and makes the result more vivid, more real. Let us think about the hostages today.