Updated: Nov 8, 2020
On Sunday we marked one hundred years since the end of the First World War. November 11th 1918 is often known as the day the guns fell silent, but the truth is that they were not silent for long, and the past one hundred years have been filled with wars and rumours of wars. And so during our service, we spent time remembering the past and reimagining the future.
Before the two minutes silence we heard a musical setting of In Flanders' Fields from Howard Goodall's Eternal Light: A Requiem, then after the two minutes silence we heard a new hymn for this Remembrance Sunday called Hope for the World's Despair. This extended time of silence and music gave us the space to remember and to reflect and to pray. We then heard readings from Micah 4:1-5 and John 14:27, before singing Peace, Perfect Peace.
I chose that hymn because it promises the peace of Christ, but also acknowledges our fear that such peace is impossible. The fact that its questions are answered doesn’t invalidate them, but rather the fact that they are asked says that they are incredibly valid.
How can we know peace in world so full of hate, anger, greed, injustice, uncertainty?
The world is not as it is meant to be. When God created it, he looked at it and said it was good, but I’m not sure he could say the same now. Of couse there is goodness in it, and that must be recognised and celebrated and treasured, and of couse God still loves the world fiercely and deeply and unendingly, but there is too much that is wrong to say so unequivocally that it is good.
Because there is so much that is wrong. The fact that the world is still riven by conflict one hundred years after war to end all wars...that is wrong. That millions are displaced because their homes are no longer safe...that is wrong. Our own government selling warplanes to a country where one civilian dies every three hours...that is wrong. That there have been 307 mass shootings in the US this year and five fatal stabbings in London in less than one week...that is wrong.
And we have to confront these things and say they are wrong or they will never be right.
So how do we make things right? Or to go back to our original question, how do we find peace?
Our song contains the answer as well as the questions. Jesus.
His incarnation, his crucifixion, his resurrection changed everything. They didn’t make everything right in an instant, but they showed us that things could be different. My childhood church had a cross with a figure of Jesus that could be removed, leaving a Christ shaped hole in the centre, and that always struck me as a profound image. If the cross stands for death and pain and sin, what that images reminds us is that Jesus has smashed hole right through all them, a hole through with his light of love and joy and peace can shine.
That is perhaps a bit abstract so let's think again in more concrete terms. I spoke a couple of weeks ago about how Jesus omits all talk of vengeance when he cites Isaiah 61, and I suggested that this was a deliberate rejection of the idea that God would come in wrath. There is a similar pattern elsewhere in scripture, as when Jesus says “you have heard it said...but I say to you...” (which means something more like “you have heard God's word interpreted to mean that...but I say it means that...”), he often does so in order to reject violence. “You have heard it said an eye for an eye, but I say do not resist evil...You have heard it said love your neighbour and hate your enemy, but I say love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”.
This pattern is central to Jesus’ message. There is no striking down of enemies but instead they are embraced as friends. There is no more us and them but a more generous understanding of us. In Flanders Fields calls us to take up the "quarrel with the foe", but we don’t have to do that with guns and trenches. We can transform the quarrel into conversation. One of the things I like about Hope for the World's Despair is the way it takes up the trumpet and the drums of military music, and transforms them into something altogether more gentle.
So Jesus rejects the way of violence, but that doesn’t mean he embraces the way of simple surrender. He doesn't just leave violence to do its thing. “Do not resist evil” seems to mean something closer to “do not revenge evil”. This is not about being passive in the face of evil, but about being creative in our response to it.
Walter Wink talks about Jesus’ third way of nonviolent resistance, and he illustrates this using the famous passage in which Jesus calls on his disciples to ‘turn the other cheek’. Masters would strike slaves with the back of their hand, and so if the slave turned the other cheek, not only did they say “your first blow did not work because it did not humiliate me”, but they put master in impossible position, as they would then have to strike with an open hand or a fist (which was how they would strike a peer in a fight), or they would have to use their left hand (which was considered unclean). This was not a passive act, but a creative and nonviolent act of resistance.
Wink offers a checklist for this creative and nonviolent third way: Seize the moral initiative. Find a creative alternative to violence. Assert your own humanity and dignity as a person. Meet force with ridicule or humour. Break the cycle of humiliation. Refuse to submit or accept the inferior position. Expose the injustice of the system. Take control of the power dynamic. Shame the oppressor into repentance. Stand your ground. Force the powers to make decisions for which they are not prepared. Recognise your own power. Be willing to suffer rather than to retaliate. Cause the oppressor to see you in a new light. Deprive the oppressor of a situation where a show of force is effective. Be willing to undergo the penalty for breaking unjust laws. Die to fear of the old order and its rules.
It would be (perhaps will be?) a whole sermon series to unpick the ways in which that checklist was lived out by Jesus, but perhaps some examples have already come to mind. And perhaps you can already see how this way of creative and nonviolent resistance has been lived out by others, in life and in fiction. [For the sci-fi nerds among you, Doctor Who is a really interesting example of an attempt to explore and work out pacifism and the third way in popular culture.]
Of course this third way leaves us vulnerable. Perhaps we do get slapped on the other cheek. Perhaps we lay down our weapons and the other side doesn’t. But Christ made himself vulnerable and it was in his vulnerability that he won the victory.
I don’t know what nonviolent resistance looks like in the face of bullets and bombs and threats of nuclear warfare, because we have never really committed to it. And Wink does admit a degree of pragmatism to his pacifism, allowing that sometimes we cannot find the third way and must result to violence where it is a lesser evil than allowing others to suffer. But I believe that Jesus’ third way is not only possible but necessary. That is why we need new imagination, and a willingness to risk all.
Last week I was at Catalyst Live, a one day conference organised by BMS, and throughout the day, performances from (the world's favourite comedy-rap-jazz duo) Harry and Chris gave a much needed dose of positivity. With apologies to Harry for my attempt at rapping, I shared these words on Sunday morning: “The way things are is not the way they have to be / No one’s asking you to save the world singlehandedly / Tomorrow will bring worries of its own / But for every step today there is less that’s left to go”
It goes back to what we said last week about doing what we can now. We can place so much hope on things being right in eternity that we can forget we don’t have to wait until then to make things better. In the Lord's Prayer, which we pray together most weeks, we pray “on earth as in heaven”. That means here and now. The passage we heard from Micah spoke about the end days, which sound to me like they are on this side of eternity. We can beat our swords into ploughshares and stop learning war here and now.
So what steps can we take today? And how can we develop our imagination for the third way?
Starting with the obvious, we can pray and we can read scripture. As we root ourselves deeply in relationship with the one in whom we live and move and have our being, something happens in that dynamic. I believe that prayer affects God, but I am certain that it changes us, bringing our heartbeat into time with his and teaching us to see the world through his eyes. And becoming more familiar with Jesus’ third way by reading again and again of his life will train us to it.
We can make our own peace. We can find rhythms of prayer that sustain us. We can find places of nature and works of art and pieces of music that refresh our souls. We can disengage from the things that do not bring us peace, and from which we can afford to disengage. We will have to turn back to the things that are wrong, but those moments of peace will strengthen us.
We can live prophetically. We can make every effort we can to live in right relationships with others to model another way. That means forgiving. That means speaking gently. It might feel like a tiny thing, as if we are too small to make a real difference, but to quote Harry and Chris again, “incremental make monumental changes”. We don’t know how far the ripples go.
And through all of this, we can change our thinking. We can change our expectation that war is inevitable, that peace can only follow conflict. Because when our expectations change, our imaginations can flourish, and we can start to see a different kind of world, the one that can be glimpsed and even reached through that Christ shaped hole.
On Sunday we committed together to work for justice and peace. I invite you to do the same now, answering with affirmation these three questions, and taking on the words of this prayer.
Will you strive for all that makes for peace?
Will you seek to heal the wounds of war?
Will you work for a just future for all humanity?
Merciful God, I offer to you the fears in me that have not yet been cast out by love. May I accept the hope you have placed in the hearts of all people, and live a life of justice, courage and mercy. Through Jesus Christ our risen Redeemer. Amen