War is one of the tragic truths of our world. For as long as humanity has recorded history war has been the focus of that history. For as long as nations have kept armies war has been the source of power. For as long as fear and greed have been the driving forces in politics war has been the result. War seems to be integral to human life and inescapable.
It has been so essential to our ideas of nationhood and governance, honour and virtue, duty and responsibility that we accept war as necessary, inevitable, and even justified. But Jesus came to tell us that there is another way. He came to tell us that love and forgiveness are infinitely better than violence and retribution. Martin Luther King Jr did a really good job of elaborating on this as well when he said:
“Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars…Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
But how does love do that? How can love drive out hate? And most importantly can love be an alternative to war? I would like to share with you a couple stories I took from a package put out by the Central Mennonite Committee. One is a story of how humanity and love shine out through even the darkest times.
How the spirit of community and giving is really what people want to share with one another even in the depths of the most gruelling warfare. The other is a story about how political problems on an international scale can be solved by means other than violence, how war is not our only option in times of distress. The first is called the story of the Christmas truce and the scene is set on the western front of the First World War in December of 1914:
For some months, Allied and German forces had been locked in a stalemate of trench warfare. Often, their trenches were located only a few hundred meters from each other. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, soldiers from opposing armies began to exchange greetings and songs between their trenches.
On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day many of them ventured into “no man’s land” to put up simple Christmas trees, to exchange food, cigarettes and souvenirs, and to jointly bury their dead. Some groups sang Christmas carols together, while others played games of soccer.
Military officers clearly were not pleased with this kind of “fraternization.” The following year at Christmas, Allied commanders issued specific orders to soldiers not to participate in any further Christmas truces, though some smaller ones occurred. Later in the war, they ordered artillery bombardments on Christmas Eve to ensure there would be no friendliness across enemy lines. After all, the war had to go on!
The story of the Christmas truce reminds us of the common humanity of all people – even those we call our enemies. Perhaps it invites us to consider what the world would look like today if the Christmas truce of 1914 could have led to a real truce. Perhaps the spirit of Christ in that day could have made for a lasting peace instead of one that would fall apart only 25 years later.
Our second story is called The Singing Revolution and takes place in Estonia after the Second World War:
Stronger than an army and more powerful than a fleet of tanks, the songs of the Estonian people changed the course of a nation and brought about their independence. Estonia became an independent country in 1920 but was conquered by the Soviet Union following the Second World War. Under Stalin’s plan of “russification,” he tried to suppress Estonian nationalism by banning nationalistic songs, making it illegal to fly the Estonian flag, and encouraging Russians to immigrate to Russia’s newly acquired territory.
But Estonian culture and nationalism persisted, and in an effort to regain their independence, hundreds of thousands of Estonians gathered, over the course of four years, to stage mass peaceful demonstrations. Estonia may be one of the smallest countries in the world (1.3 million people at the time), but they possess one of the largest repertoires of folk songs. They sang these songs in unison in an attempt to regain their independence.
At a music festival in September, 1988, 300,000 Estonians, nearly a quarter of the population, linked hands and sang together. The next year, 700,000 gathered along with millions from Lithuania and Latvia, linking hands in a human chain the length of three countries. After four years of persistent singing demonstrations, the revolution was successful. When Soviet tanks entered the capital, Estonians acted as human shields to protect radio and TV stations. Estonia’s Congress and Supreme Court declared Estonia an Independent State.
The united songs of the people accomplished what tanks and military could not. Estonia freed itself from Soviet rule, peacefully becoming an independent country once again.
It is not easy to put your faith in peaceful alternatives to war. Who would ever have guessed that Christmas would be all that was required for enemy forces to share rations and play soccer? Or that folk songs could liberate an oppressed nation? Especially when you consider that the Soviet Union was not known for its empathy to the plight of the nations under its jurisdiction.
But peaceful tactics have been successful in other situations as well. India gained its independence by means of non-violent action under the guidance of Mahatma Ghandi. The civil rights movement could easily have turned into a very violent situation if it were not for the gentle yet powerful leadership of Martin Luther King Jr.
As a culture I think we have created a false dichotomy where we assume that we either fight or do nothing, we think that non-violence is the same as non-action, but that is not true. We have a completely wrong idea of what power is. We assume power comes from force, from military might, from the ability to be bigger than everyone else.
But Jesus came to teach us otherwise. He came to teach us that the real power is in being humble. That true strength comes not from an ability to over power others but instead from an ability to embrace and heal those who are suffering. True power is being able to force out an oppressive regime with music. Or in dismissing the orders of your superiors and sharing a Christmas meal with your enemy.
That sort of strength requires a deep faith in what you are doing. It requires a faith in love which is really nothing more than a faith in God. Rabindranath Tagore, a great leader in the Indian independence movement, had this to say about faith:
“Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark”.
Even in darkness we can know that morning will come and we can sing in the night. In the midst of war and violence we can stand out as a voice of peace singing of what is to come. The prophet Micah made a beautiful and famous prophesy of the coming Kingdom of God. He said
“They will beat their swords into plough shares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war any more.”
This is a beautiful image that shows us how we can better use our resources. I couldn’t find any up to date figures on what Canada spends for the military but the U.S. spends approximately $700 billion on military defense each year. Numbers like this get confusing. I have trouble picturing a million dollars let alone $700 billion but to put that in perspective some estimates put out by The Hunger Project, a charity dedicated to the elimination of hunger in the world, puts the cost of feeding all the hungry people in the world at about $30 billion per year. This means that the U.S. military budget spends enough in 8 days to feed every hungry person in the entire world for a year.
The spirit of Christ does not change. He has given us the commandment to love our enemies and surely he has not changed his mind. For Christ was explicit that violence is to be avoided, that even to protect yourself it is never to be used. But while Christ did not practice or justify violence he was also not passive. He was not tame and submissive.
He spoke out and changed the face of the world without hurting a single person. He used love, forgiveness, and honest public discourse to alter the fate of humanity more than anyone before or after him. A humble man riding a donkey never carrying a sword has had the most profound impact on humanity and he will be remembered long after the echoes of war have ended.
Since time immemorial we have used war to settle conflicts and bring order to human society but we have yet to accomplish our goal. How many times has there been a “war to end all wars”? How many times will war have to fail us before we realize that it is ineffective? War provides a temporary solution to systemic problems. Peace and love are the only forces powerful enough to bring about real and lasting change in the world. We must, instead of fighting wars, remove the occasion for war. We must look at the underlying causes of war and find real solutions. Instead of fighting we should feed people, we should educate people, we should care for them.
If a nation rises up proclaiming war we should feed every child in that nation and help to heal them. Through compassion we can overcome hatred, through generosity we can overcome greed, and through peace we can overcome war. This is the heart of the Gospel message. But what of the soldiers who have given their very lives to uphold and protect the noble ideals of democracy, liberty, and equality? What about those brave men and women who so nobly sacrificed themselves to protect and serve not only their families and their country but even strangers in foreign lands.
Surely Jesus has given us another message as well. He has taught us that to sacrifice yourself for others is the highest and best use of the life he has given us. Where he died on the cross our finest and best have laid down their lives on the battle field. And surely that is a commitment worth commending.
It is through people with that level of dedication, that deep moral inclination to put the needs of others before themselves, those people who are willing to stand up for what they know to be right and stare adversity in the face with confidence and unwavering devotion, it is through these people that peace will be possible when finally we embrace non-violent solutions to conflict. And it is to these people that we owe a debt of gratitude. The best gift we can give to those who have fallen in war is to make sure that no one after them need suffer the same fate, that we come to reach that beautiful time that the prophets of old spoke of, that time when we beat our swords into plow shares and study war no more. When we turn our resources from the manufacturing of weaponry to the production of food. When we stop investing in evil and start investing in what nourishes those whom Christ loves most – the forgotten and oppressed.
As you go about your week take some time to remember those who suffer from war. And together, let’s make a commitment to find the seeds of war in our own lives and remove them entirely. Let’s really look at the world objectively and try to find a way to remove the occasion for war. Let’s work to eliminate poverty, let’s educate children around the world, let’s share our wealth with the less fortunate nations and preach a doctrine of peace – just as our greatest teacher did 2000 years ago. Let’s take the time to ask difficult questions like: Why do we go to war? Is there another way? And what would Jesus do?
I would to like end my little rant with the words of a great teacher of Christ’s message, a man who lived the Gospel right up until his death. This is a short excerpt from a speech Martin Luther King Jr gave concerning the war in Vietnam, I believe it still rings true today.
“A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.
This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men. This oft misunderstood and misinterpreted concept — so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force — has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man.
When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John:
Let us love one another; for love is God and everyone that loves is born of God and knows God. He that loves not knows not God; for God is love. If we love one another God dwells in us, and his love is perfected in us.
Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says : “Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.”