Congregational Church of Grafton, May 28, 2017
Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address: Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. . . . Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. . . . Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
Micah 4: 1-4 . . . they shall beat their swords into plowshares. . .
Matthew 5:43-48 . . . But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
I was raised to be a pacifist, one of those who refuse all military service out of devotion to the clear pacifism of the Christian Gospel. And yet, at an early age, I began to see the paradox of our commitment to that way of living out the Gospel. My mother’s younger brother, and her oldest nephew – both also devoted, committed Quakers — served in the Pacific campaigns of World War II. They killed people.
I knew the evils of the other side in the war and yet everything I learned in church said they’d made the wrong choice.
Our life, our faith life, was steeped in contradiction. We worshipped every week in a meetinghouse that was almost brand new when Revolutionary War forces fought the Battle of the Brandywine right on our doorstep. Our building was a hospital. We of the church school joked that the dark stains on our benches were the blood of the Marquis de Lafayette, who’d been wounded in the battle. It was no joke that there was a mass grave behind the meeting house, where the unknown dead of the battle had been buried. There we were, pacifists one and all, and yet living on a battlefield.
And, in a sense, isn’t that where we all are… pacifists in one sense, but living in a world that is, all too often, a battlefield.
And so we stop on this weekend to contemplate, if only for a few minutes, that conundrum, that paradox. Our faith tells us to turn the other cheek, to pray for those who persecute us, to walk the second mile, give up our coat, and yet. . . we recognize that sometimes that just doesn’t work, just doesn’t stop the aggression, and then we find ourselves doing that which we know is contrary to God’s hopes, dreams, plans for us. And how do we live with ourselves?
It is that very conundrum which drew me away from the Society of Friends. I admire the commitment of those who follow the path of total pacifism, who refuse to carry a weapon, or to serve in the military in any way.
The clerk of the meeting I belonged to when I was in college was a professor of physics at the University of Florida. In World War II, he’d been asked to work on the Manhattan Project, to develop and perfect an atomic bomb. He refused, and spent the war picking pineapple in a detention camp on Hawaii. I admired his willingness to pay the price at the same time as I realized that he depended on those who were willing to serve to keep him safe.
All of that led me to understand that when John Calvin said we were all imperfect, when he built a whole system of belief on Romans 3:23 (all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God), he was recognizing the inherent paradox of Christianity. Yes, we are to refrain from war, but sometimes war is necessary because we are not perfect, because it’s not possible for us to be perfect, certainly not all the time.
But that doesn’t mean war is glorious. That doesn’t mean it’s all glamour and noble death – or even glamour and honorable life. War marks every person who participates in it. We just don’t see the scars.
We don’t know the story of the ninety-year old veteran of the European conflict who still has nightmares, almost every night, about what he saw and did. We just see an old man, well-preserved, but in full possession of his hands and feet, not outwardly marked by war, and so – today or on Veteran’s Day – we glibly offer “Thanks for your service” and go on by, not knowing he’s still paying the price.
We don’t know the story of the younger guy who drinks to forget that grandma he had to kill during the Korean War. We never hear the stories of the veterans who come back these days from the Middle East. We don’t see the father tracing his son’s name on the Vietnam Memorial Wall.
We try to forget the truth General William T. Sherman uttered, years after the Civil War when he said “all war is hell”. The latest figures suggest that about 750,000 people died in that War, more than half the total number of Americans killed in all wars.
The question still is how do we live in the tension of being a people dedicated to peace in a world torn by war?
In so far as there is an answer, I think it lies in looking again at those texts we heard this morning. Micah tell us that under God’s leadership, people will beat their swords into plowshares. In the text from Matthew, Jesus tells us to love our enemies. And therein lies the seeds of the peace which endures.
Micah calls us to work to create a world in which it is safe to put aside the tools of war, to take up the work of day-to-day living. And we know that’s not just about saying “it’s safe”, but making the world safe. We make our world safe for all by creating a community where all have access to basic needs – jobs which pay enough to live on, education which educates, health care which everyone has access to, law which is enforced equally, and a social climate where contempt and shame are simply unacceptable.
It is economic instability which drives conflict between people, communities, nations. You have, I have not, and I want the same as what you have. At least at first, I don’t necessarily want what you have, but I, too, want access to good schools, jobs so my kids don’t go hungry, maybe the chance to go to Disney World…
In Matthew, Jesus calls us to love our enemies. Make no mistake, that’s one of the hardest things to do, to love those who have nothing but contempt for us, to care about those who are trying to destroy us.
Perhaps we might begin by trying to understand our enemies. Instead of assuming that everything “they” say is wrong, everything “they” dislike is their bigotry or greed or whatever, Christ is calling us to pay attention, to take the other’s concerns seriously. We cannot love those whom we ignore.
This weekend there will be parades and prayers, remembrances and military honors. They’re all good, all needed, all important. There will be speeches, medals will be worn, and maybe the last World War II vet will slowly ride down the street in the back seat of a convertible, in much the same way the last Civil War vets rode back in my early childhood.
Our faith calls us, however, to take an additional step. It’s not enough to put flowers on graves, to decorate markers with American flags. It’s not enough to shake my hand and thank me for my service. There is more for us to do, because we are the peace-loving followers of Jesus Christ.
Men and women are still dying for our country today; we best honor them by standing up for peace here, and when we have the opportunity, standing up for peace around the world.
People still lose themselves, lose their lives in war. Can we not offer them in thanksgiving our commitment to build a world constructed of love, laid on a foundation of mutual respect?
The building blocks of peace.
© 2017, Virginia H. Child