Updated: Nov 8
A couple of months back, we looked at the passage from Ecclesiastes that says there is a time for everything. One of the questions I asked as part of our discussions at cafe church and at the Wednesday house group was “Does there really have to be a time for everything, or can we call time on the rubbish stuff?” I said when I did a review of that series a couple of weeks ago that this question had sparked some interesting reflections which I wanted to return to, and this is where I want to return to them.
During the house group, I explicitly asked “Is there a time for war?”, and when the question was turned back to me, I really struggled to answer it. I really wanted to say no, but there were too many what ifs niggling at the back of my head to commit so unequivocally. What if we hadn’t declared war on Nazi Germany? How would we have stopped Hitler rolling up the map of Europe or seeing the Holocaust through to its end? Or looking at it the other way, what if the Bosnian president hadn’t refused to build up military forces as tensions rose in Yugoslavia, out of a belief that it takes two to make a war? Would the conflict have been over quicker, and would the concentration camps and the acts of genocide have been avoided? I didn’t want to say that war was ever inevitable or necessary or even the lesser of two evils, but I couldn’t confidently offer another way.
That bothered me greatly, so I went away and did some reading. I looked into what those who had fully committed themselves to peacemaking had to say in answer to my questions, specifically those around Nazi Germany, as that is the historical example most people jump to. The clearest answer seemed to be that to ask how nonviolence can stand against an army is to ask the question far too late, or even to ask the wrong question completely.
Nonviolence does not succeed first and foremost by acting as a shield against bullets, but by stopping those bullets in the first place. In the case of Nazi Germany, greater economic support after the First World War would have reduced resentment and removed the need for arms production to be introduced as a way to lower poverty and unemployment. A more concerted effort to challenge the racist ideologies that proliferated in 1930s Europe may have prevented the deaths of millions in concentration camps. Greater opposition to the authoritarian culture that guaranteed mass civil and military obedience may have made the rise of fascist dictatorships impossible. A serious commitment to preparing for nonviolent resistance may have made opposition movements more effective.
All of this is speculation and eighty years too late...except that it’s not too late because we can still learn from it. We can heed the warning that we must not wait for war to practice peace. I am convinced that the most important thing we can do in our work of peacemaking is to counter the lies that sow fear and hate and lead to conflict. The Holocaust was enabled to happen in part because too many people believed in a false narrative that said that certain groups were dangerous or degenerate. Those lies should have been countered then, and they need to be countered now.
The idea that those who have a different colour or creed or culture are not to be trusted persists, in spite of all the harm it has done. We have politicians telling us that the people who died in the Grenfell Tower died not because of the greed of their landlords, but because of their own lack of common sense. The media feeds us a lie that trans people are a threat, when the truth is that they are among the most threatened groups in society. We need to stand against these lies now, before they spiral out of all control, speaking a truth that is grounded in love and compassion.
I said that nonviolence succeeds principally by preventing war, but that is not to say that nonviolent resistance is only effective before war has broken out, and that once the fighting has started all is lost. Of course it is better to prevent war, but pacifism can stand against it too. A sustained strike by Norwegian teachers led to the cancelling of an order that made it mandatory for teachers to join the Nazi Party and teach Nazism in schools. In the Spring of 1943, six thousand German women protested outside the prison in Rosenstrasse in Berlin, and secured the release of seventeen hundred prisoners, their Jewish friends and husbands. In Bulgaria, most of the country’s forty eight thousand Jews were saved when leaders of the Orthodox Church and farmers in the northern stretches of the country threatened to lie across railroad tracks to prevent Jews from being deported, this pressure encouraging the Bulgarian parliament to resist the Nazis, who eventually rescinded the deportation order.
Of course there was an element of risk in all of those demonstrations, but we are called to lay ourselves down for one another, and if enough people are willing to heed that call, in ways that do not take the lives of others, it is amazing what can happen. Political power is dependent on support from below, and so protest and noncooperation and the building of alternatives - taking a stand and refusing to play by unfair rules and showing better ways of living - are powerful tools of nonviolent resistance. We might not be living in a state of war, but we are living in a state of injustice, and so we too can use those tools to challenge and to change things.
Of course the sad reality is that, even if it may have done more than we realise, nonviolent resistance alone did not end the Second World War. And so if peace without war still seems impossible, then remember that this weekend marks eighty one years since Kristallnacht, but it also marks thirty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Somebody standing amongst the wreck of the Fasanenstrasse Synagogue in Berlin must have thought it impossible that the same city could one day become a beacon of hope, but fifty one years later, the world watched and rejoiced as the wall which had divided a city for twenty eight years was torn down, not as the result of a military defeat but as a declaration of hope.
The fall of the Berlin Wall seemed to many like an unimaginable act of peacemaking. I read of one German student on exchange in Edinburgh, who returned home to be told by a flatmate that the wall was down. His first response was to ask if they’d called a builder out, assuming that there had been some problem in their accommodation. That it could be the Berlin Wall he was referring to was just unthinkable.
But others had imagined it, and did believe it was possible. On the 9th of October 1989, thousands of people ignored death threats and armed police to gather at churches in Leipzig in East Germany to pray for peace, before joining a demonstration of seventy thousand more. A week later one hundred and twenty thousand people marched. A week after that it was three hundred thousand. And exactly one month after that first demonstration, the wall came down. Those demonstrations in Leipzig were the culmination of seven years of weekly prayer meetings. Seven years of ordinary people recognising that the wall was neither normal nor acceptable and coming together to pray and talk in the hope and the belief that they could change things.
Of course there were other factors involved in what led to the reunification of Germany. History is never a simple line of cause and effect, but a complex knot of many causes and many effects. But nothing will convince me that God was not powerfully at work in the prayers of the people. That wall came down at least in part because people prayed and then they put those prayers into action. The priest that led the meetings said simply “we did it because the church has to do it”. We are the church and we have to do it.
I would say the same to any church, but as far as we can tell from the history that has been passed down to us, Stoneygate Baptist Church came into existence because of the pacifism of its founders, and that is a legacy which they invite us to step into. May we be a place that really does proclaim peace on earth and goodwill to all.
I want to finish by telling you two stories. The first is true, the second a kind of parable.
A few of us have been folding paper cranes at the wellbeing cafe, and I was reminded in this past week that they have come to be seen as a symbol of peace, because of the story of Sadako Sasaki. She was two years old when the first atomic bomb was dropped on her home city of Hiroshima. The blast threw her out of her house, but thought her clothes were torn and she was dazed, she was unhurt. Her mother grabbed her and her brother, and together they fled in search of safety, but as they ran they were caught in the black rain, irradiated debris from the explosion. It was this exposure to radiation that caused her to develop leukemia ten years later.
The illness progressed rapidly, and within a month she was confined to hospital, where she spent the final year of her life. Her father told her the Japanese legend which said that whoever folded one thousand paper cranes would be granted a wish, and so she began to fold cranes, using whatever scraps of paper and fabric she could find around the hospital, as well as paper that a friend brought her from school. Some versions of the story say that she succeeded in making a thousand and then kept going, others say that she was only able to make six hundred and forty four, and her classmates finished the remaining three hundred and fifty six so that she could be buried surrounded by a thousand paper cranes.
Whatever the truth of how many she made or why she made them, those cranes came to be seen as a wish for peace. Shortly after her death, her friends began to collect money to build a memorial in her honour, and in 1958 a statue of her holding a paper crane was erected in Hiroshima Peace Park, with the inscription “this is our cry, this is our prayer, peace in the world”. Sadako’s brother Masahiro was fortunate enough not to develop the same disease as his sister, and he took on her legacy. In an article from two years ago, he is quoted as saying this: “Her death gave us a big goal. Small peace is so important with compassion and delicacy it will become big like a ripple effect. She showed us how to do it. It is my, and the Sasaki family’s responsibility to tell her story to the world. I believe if you don’t create a small peace, you can’t create a bigger peace.”
The second story I want to tell you also involves birds. It is called ‘The Weight of a Snowflake’ and comes from “New Fables, Thus spoke the Marabou” by Kurt Kaufer.
“Tell me the weight of a snowflake”, a coaltit asked a wild dove. Nothing more than nothing”, was the answer. In that case, I must tell you a marvellous story”, the coaltit said. “I sat on the branch of a fir, close to its trunk, when it began to snow - not heavily, not in a raging blizzard: no, just like in a dream, without a sound and without any violence. Since I did not have anything better to do, I counted the snowflakes settling on the twigs and needles of my branch. Their number was exactly 3,741,952. When the 3,741,953rd dropped onto the branch - nothing more than nothing, as you say - the branch broke off.” Having said that the coaltit flew away. The dove, since Noah’s time an authority on the matter, thought about the story for a while, and finally said to herself: “Perhaps there is only one person’s voice lacking for peace to come to the world.”
It’s a pretty big what if, but what if all it takes is one more voice to bring peace to the world, one more person committing themselves to acting as a peacemaker? What if it is you, your voice? Or what if it is the voice of the person who hears you and is inspired to be the next one to speak out in turn? Or the voice of the person after that? Isn’t it worth trying? One snowflake can break a branch. A small peace can create a bigger peace. Our voices can change the world.