“The Things That Make for Peace”
March 20, 2016
When Jesus rides into Jerusalem, his
followers cry out with a loud voice for all to hear: “Peace in heaven, and
glory in the highest heaven.”
These words are an echo, of sorts, of
the song that Luke says the angels sang at the birth of Jesus: “Glory to God in
the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favors!”
In a week’s time, the risen Christ will
stand among his disciples and say to them: “Peace be with you.”
While the followers of Jesus could speak
of “peace in heaven” and while the Risen Christ could offer peace to his
followers, we are well aware of the lack of such peace on earth.
Between the years 66 and 70, the
simmering conflict between Israel and the Roman Empire broke into open war,
resulting in the siege of Jerusalem. In a great military surge, the Romans
built earthworks and walls around the city to choke it off. No food or supplies
could get in. The people were reduced to starvation.
As the people began to run out of food,
many fled the city. Those who were caught were promptly and publicly crucified.
For nearly a year “something like ten thousand crosses sprouted in a ring
around the inner city” of Jerusalem.
When the city finally fell, the Romans
destroyed the temple and completely leveled the city, so that, as the ancient
historian Josephus put it, future visitors would have “no ground for believing
it had ever been inhabited.”
Titus, the Roman general, giving voice
to a deep religious piety, said: “God indeed has been with us in the war. God
it was who brought down the Jews from this stronghold.”
By the time Luke’s Gospel was written in
the late first century, the war was history—and descriptions of the
destruction: “…they will crush you to the ground, you and your children…they
will not leave within you one stone upon another…” were put into the lament of
Jesus as he approached Jerusalem, even as his followers were crying “Peace in
The peace of heaven was in no way apparent
on earth. Indeed as Jesus weeps over Jerusalem, he cries out: “If you, even
you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!” The
opportunity was there; but the things that make for peace—even the One called
the Prince of Peace—went unknown and unseen by most of the people.
And Jerusalem fell.
And later Rome fell.
And cities and nations and empires
continued to fall.
And here we are today—thirteen years ago
this very day our country invaded Iraq, seeking “regime change” under the
pretext of disarming its weapons of mass destruction, which, as many thought
then and we know now, did not exist. We have been engaged in what is becoming a
decades-long, ongoing war against “terror”–continually being drawn into new
conflicts with new “enemies.”
Five years ago this past week we
witnessed the beginning of the long war in Syria that has displaced 6.6 million
people within that nation and created 4.8 million refugees outside of Syria.
The rules for airstrikes in Syria and
Iraq have been relaxed that might result in more civilian casualties, and there
are hints that more American ground troops may be deployed. With the withdrawal
of Russian troops, new uncertainty arises.
Earlier this month, Charles Blow
summarized the situation, writing, “We are a country stuck in perpetual warfare
that is now confronting the threat of the Islamic State terrorist group. The
Republican candidates”, he said, “have proposed the most outlandish approaches
to that threat, including everything from war crimes such as torture and
killing terror suspects’ families to carpet bombing in the Middle East until we
can see whether ‘sand can glow in the dark.’”
Lest this be seen as partisanship, we
need to remember that the Democratic frontrunner has also supported most of the
“War on Terror” efforts, even if in a more “civil” manner. And one of the
perplexing realities of these days is that the billionaire real estate
developer and the self-proclaimed socialist are the only two that can agree
that the invasion of Iraq was a “mistake,” a “disaster”—their words—although
there are certainly significant differences between the two as to how to
proceed from where we now are.
Scripture reminds us that war brings
with it the judgment of God. With war, the Roman general, Titus,
notwithstanding, we do not have the comfort of saying “God is on our side.” The
prophet Joel imagines God telling the warring nations: “Come up to the valley
of Jehoshaphat”—a word that means “God is the judge”—“and I will sit to judge
all the neighboring nations.”
War places all of us and all of our
arguments under the judgment of God. While we must act out of a sense of who we
are and who God is, we must always be careful not to confuse the two. We must
continue to work for peace in a world that favors war. We should continue to
work for peace even—even—when our own hearts want war.
In almost every instance, violence
begets only violence, dragging us further into a brutal and vicious spiral of
death and destruction, and threatening all that we value as much as protecting
us. So Alexis de Tocqueville warned that “No protracted war can fail to
endanger the freedom of a democratic country. If it does not lead to despotism
by sudden violence, it prepares men for it more gently by their habits. All
those who seek to destroy the liberties of a democratic nation ought to know
that war is the surest and the shortest means to accomplish it.”
Could it be that thirteen years of protracted
war have been a significant factor in the rise of authoritarianism in our
This Palm Sunday, the words of Jesus as
he wept over Jerusalem come crying out to us across the centuries: “If you,
even you, had only recognized the things that make for peace. But now they are
hidden from your eyes.”
Jesus speaks of a way that differs from
the way our emotions might tell us to go. He speaks of a way that differs from
the way our thinking might tell us to go. He speaks of a way that differs from
the way politicians and pundits and policy analysts and even preachers might
tell us to go.
Jesus speaks of a way of peace. We are
frightened by the foolish way of peace and we are reluctant to be fools for
Christ. When force seems to have failed, our nature is to think that more force
just might succeed. As G. K. Chesterton once said, however: “The way of Jesus
has not been tried and found wanting. It is still found wanting to be tried.”
What then are the things that make for
I confess that they are as much hidden
from my sight as from the eyes of any others. But bear with me as I try to
discern some dim outlines.
Prayer makes for peace. Our speaking and
our acting find their grounding when we bring our lives and world consciously
before the living God. In prayer we can root ourselves in the deep peace that
we long for as individuals. In prayer we learn once again that we are not God and that God is greater than our fear,
our cowardice, and our own small plans.
When God seems remote, when our souls
are troubled by violence, when our hearts are weary from war, we discover in
prayer the vision of Martin Luther King, that: “God is able to conquer the
evils of history. If at times we despair because of the relatively slow
progress being made . . . let us gain new heart in the fact that God is able. .
. . With this faith we can transform bleak and desolate valleys into sunlit
paths of joy.”
In prayer we find once more the power of
God even when—especially when—that power seems absent in our lives and our
world. God is able to act—to act in us and through us. Prayer will sustain us
until this happens.
Prayer makes for peace.
But we must also speak out in anger, in
compassion, in lament. Our speech in these days must be something other than
“Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. We must take the exile and the wounds
and the deaths of the people with a heaviness that weighs not only on our own
souls but on the soul of this nation.
Throughout these years of war the voice
of Titus, that ancient Roman general, has echoed from pulpits and podiums
across our nation. Like Titus, preachers and politicians have told the American
people: “God indeed has been with us in this war.” Many have been so quick to
claim God’s support for bombs and drones and boots on the ground. We must be
aware of such words and we must beware of those words as well.
We are called to speak a different word,
not claiming that God is with us but questioning whether we are with the God who
in Jesus entered Jerusalem in peace, humbly on a donkey.
Proclamation makes for peace.
To prayer and proclamation, I would add
practice—action in the world.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is clear that
the things that make for peace are concrete actions in the world: repentance—a
turning from evil, the establishment of just economic policies, an end to
oppression, the welcoming of strangers, the love of enemies. Take the time to
read through all of Luke this coming week—see what I mean.
We give little attention to such things.
As Jesus says, they are hidden from our eyes. But they are hidden in large part
because we keep our eyes closed. We do not want to see how our military actions
lead to anger, hatred, and more violence. We do not want to see how turning away
immigrants fleeing war leads to resentment and radicalization. We do not want see
how the growing income inequality in the world increases hopelessness and
despair that only feed the flames of war and terror.
The things that make for peace—looking
beyond ourselves, seeing in others our common humanity and our common hopes for
well-being, hospitality and welcome, and recognizing, yes, that some are
pursuing barbaric violence and warfare in ways that need to be stopped and in
ways that we do not yet know how to stop.
There is a basic human sinfulness—in all
of us—that needs to be confronted as well. This, of course, is one of the great
themes of the season of Lent. But when this season ends, we will still need to
confront our human sinfulness. It is a year round task.
Once again we find ourselves, as the
prophet Joel put it, “in the valley of decision.”
in the valley of
For the day of
the Lord is near
in the valley of
What will our decision be? What will we choose?
How shall we live into the future in this uncertain time?
Plowshares into swords? Pruning hooks
Or the courageous reversal, the hope of the
ancient prophets, Isaiah and Micah: that in making a new choice, the people
“shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war
anymore.” Frederick Buechener says: “That is our Palm Sunday hope, and it is
our only hope. That is what the palms and the shouting are all about. That is
what all our singing and worshiping and preaching and praying are all about if
they are about anything that matters. The hope that finally by the grace of God
the impossible will happen.”
Palm Sunday brings us to Jerusalem, the
city of peace, once more. We take up the branches, we walk and shout before
Jesus. As we enter the city with him, we remember again that God enters into
the deep suffering of the world. We
remember again our own human condition as those who betray, to desert, who
don’t understand, who are ready to give up and give up hope.We despair over the violence and
disasters that we are bringing to our world and our lives. And we hope that as
we give closer attention to the events of this week and the events of every
week, we might yet be saved from that same violence and those same disasters.
Let us hope—and let us pray and speak
and act in such ways that our eyes might yet be opened and we would know the
things that make for peace.