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From Armistice to Shalom: The Unfinished Journey of Peace (An Introduction and Five Meditations)

From Armistice to Shalom:

The Unfinished Journey of Peace

An Introduction and Five Meditations

 

I. Introduction

It was seven years and almost eight months ago that Frank Buckles died.

Aside from being 110 at his death, his passing marked another, larger passing in the collective memory of this country: Buckles had been the last surviving US veteran of World War I. This same passing of a generation had come upon all of the participating countries in that conflict save for Britain, whose last veteran of the Great War finally died about a year after Buckles.

Even as those last few veterans of the conflict were passing, in truth memory of that conflict had faded long before. Overshadowed in US memory by World War II (in which the US role was much larger, longer-lasting, and demonstrably more “successful”), the earlier conflict receded to the status of vaguely remembered prelude in the minds of most. For those (mostly) European nations whose involvement was whole, from 1914 to 1918, and who saw staggering, unthinkable losses of life and traumatic injury, the war remains a significant part of their memories. It is in those countries where one sees one of the simplest and most effective acts of memorial in existence; the basic red poppy lapel pin, inspired by the popular poem “In Flanders’ Fields,” worn in most every public place in those countries. 

The general absence of this war from our collective memory, mitigated slightly by the commemorations of its centennial over the past four years, is ultimately a loss for our understanding not just of this war, but of the human genius for war, and our rank inability to grasp the things that make for peace. We blunder forward, repeating mistakes and not learning. And so it has gone for a century, now.

We will never learn of peace – true, God-inspired shalom peace – without facing and taking in the lessons of our inability to resist war. This must bear – must bear – on us as the church, the followers of the Christ who called the peacemakers “blessed” and “the children of God,” most heavily of all. Let us therefore remember: remember those whose lives were taken in this conflict, those whose lives or bodies were irreparably scarred or torn apart, those who lived with the consequences of the war for generations, those whose lives could not be repaired.

Let us therefore, ever mindful of our mandate to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God,” listen and learn the lessons of this war. Let us know in our hearts the wrongs and horrors of its beginning, its fighting, and its ending; let us see how it has foreshadowed and fomented more war and conflict over the century that has passed; let us mark with sorrow how even the church failed in its witness during that war; let us be resolved in our hearts that this cannot be the way in which we live our witness; let us be called forth to be blessed peacemakers, children of God.

Hymn: God of Grace and God of Glory

 

Meditation 1: The Rush of War

Reading from scripture: 2 Chronicles 20:1-9

Give Jehoshopat credit for this much: he’s desperate. Invading armies are practically at the door, and they want in. His only real recourse is to plead to God for help. Jehoshophat was not a great king or even a good king, but he was wise enough to understand this much, at least.

Somehow, this does not seem to be how modern wars start. World War I was no exception. England’s king, Germany’s Kaiser, and the Russian imperial family were all related. England and Germany were each other’s biggest trading partners. Yet when one Austrian duke was assassinated on a trip to Sarajevo in July 1914, there was no one wise enough to do anything but be an obedient domino, falling as previously determined, rather than stand up and say “this is madness.” Within about a month, the whole continent was at war. 

The voices seeking caution were few and far between; rather, “war madness” set in. The British author Vera Brittain, in her memoir Testament of Youth, described the rush as follows:

“It is, I think, this glamour, this magic, this incomparable keying up of the spirit in a time of mortal conflict, which constitute the pacifist’s real problem–a problem still incompletely imagined and still quite unsolved. … but the challenge to spiritual endurance, the intense sharpening of all the senses, the vitalising consciousness of common peril for a common end, remain to allure those boys and girls who have just reached the age when love and friendship and adventure call more persistently than at any later time. The glamour may be the mere delirium of fever, which as soon as war is over dies out and shows itself for the will-o’-the-wisp that it is, but while it lasts, no emotion known to man seems as yet to have quite the compelling power of this enlarged vitality.” 

Even though it did not enter the war for another two and a half years, the US saw the same “war madness” set in as soon as it became clear that President Woodrow Wilson was steering the country towards entering the conflict. In particular, actions of violence or repression against Germans or German-American citizens living in the US became a black mark on the country, one which would be repeated against Japanese and Japanese-Americans twenty-five years later. 

That “warring madness,” as referenced in today’s first hymn by Harry Emerson Fosdick, even affected those responsible for planning for the war; the belief (on both sides) that the war would be quickly over and everybody would be home by Christmas proved grotesquely wrong, and the full horror of this war began to unfold itself before unbelieving eyes.

Hymn: O God of Earth and Altar

 

Meditation 2: The Disaster of War

Reading from Scripture: Psalm 53:1-6

In the midst of war, particularly a war with such new and horrific ways to kill one another being introduced regularly, it’s not hard to feel like the psalmist in these verses. In a world in which bombs could not only be lobbed from afar but dropped from the sky, soldiers were routinely ordered to charge into nests of machine guns, and – with the introduction of poison gas – the very act of breathing could kill you, how do you not believe that “they have all fallen away, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one”? 

The truth must be told here: the church did not acquit itself well in this war. Too easily came the accommodating cheerleading for “our side,” without regard to the brutality and bloodshed at all. It was not lost on soldiers, this distance between the official line of the church and its representatives and the characteristics of Jesus. The soldier-poet Wilfred Owen marked this on many occasions in his poetry. One of his more terse examples was as follows: 

I dreamed kind Jesus fouled the big-gun gears;

 and caused a permanent stoppage in all bolts; 

and buckled with a smile all Mausers and Colts; 

and rusted every bayonet with his tears.

A more extensive, somber, and even bitter treatment of this idea came in his poem “At a Calvary near the Ancre,” referring to a crucifix marker that had, like so many soldiers, experienced harm in battle. Owen saves special scorn for those “priests” and “scribes” who had quite lost touch with, if not outright betrayed, the Christ it was their appointed role to serve, and had moved on and found other masters.

One ever hangs where shelled roads part.

In this war He too lost a limb,

But his disciples hide apart;

And now the Soldiers bear with him.

 

Near Golgotha strolls many a priest

And in their faces there is pride

That they were flesh-marked by the Beast

By whom the gentle Christ’s denied.

 

The scribes on all the people shove 

And bawl allegiance to the State,

But they who love the greater love

Lay down their life; they do not hate.

Of course, the staggering toll of lives lost in the war; those who did survive but at unspeakable cost of broken bodies and broken minds and broken souls…one is struck speechless to contemplate it all. Those who endured these horrors, as we have already observed, are no longer with us; we who now live commit dishonor of the worst sort when we cannot be troubled to remember their sacrifice and the horrors they endured.

Merciful Lord Jesus, grant them rest.

Hymn: O God of Every Nation

 

Meditation 3: The Aftermath of War

Scripture Reading: Jeremiah 6:13-16

It’s as if Jeremiah was somehow granted a vision of 1,400 years into the future. His description in this reading is awfully apt for how the Great War ended.

To speak of an “armistice” on this day one hundred years ago means exactly one thing: armies in France stopped shooting at one another. It should not, however, be confused in any way with peace.

Germany sought an end to fighting for one simple reason: its people were starving. A German delegation was escorted across the lines the previous week to complete negotiations towards a cessation of hostilities. An unknown member of that delegation reported of their journey:

“It appeared to me that the drive was intentionally prolonged in order to carry us across devastated provinces and to prepare us for the hardest conditions which the feelings of hatred and revenge might demand.”

Any hopes for a quick peace were dashed quickly; the French, who had endured the vast majority of the fighting, set especially harsh terms for armistice, and also ensured that fighting would be redoubled and repeatedly intensified until the moment of armistice. The guns were to fire, as fast and as far as possible, until the very last second.

This was not an armistice devised with peace in mind. Nor was the final treaty, signed the following year, devised with peace in mind. The extremely harsh terms of the treaty crushed Germany’s economy even more, provoking a slide into totalitarianism that led, yes, to the rise of the National Socialist party, led by a resentful former Austrian army corporal named, yes, Adolf Hitler. Between this and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, this is a lot for World War I to account for. And this doesn’t even address the carving up of the Middle East by England and France, setting the stage for a century of conflict in that region of the world that still rages today.

What President Woodrow Wilson somehow managed to call both “the war to end all wars” and a war to “make the world safe for democracy” had in fact done the opposite of both; it set in motion the events that would lead to World War II and unleashed more tyranny in the world. 

Then there were those who survived.

Many survived with grievously wounded bodies, and many with grievously wounded minds. The term “shell shock” emerged from this war to describe what today sounds awfully similar to post-traumatic stress disorder. Siegfried Sassoon, who unlike his fellow war-poet Wilfred Owen survived the war, penned a poem on the haunted lives of those who survived. The final stanza:

Do you remember that hour of din before the attach – 

And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then

As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?

Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back

With dying eyes and lolling heads – those ashen-gray

Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

 

Have you forgotten yet?…

Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.

Hymn: Dona Nobis Pacem

 

Meditation 4: The Challenge of Peace

Scripture Reading: Matthew 5:21-24

War isn’t a good way to make peace. 

The ongoing such of war, hot or “cold,” that filled the twentieth century would surely lay to rest Wilson’s claim (borrowed from H.G. Wells) that the Great War would be a “war to end all wars.” But what does make for peace? 

We followers of Christ need to be jolted awake to one very crucial thing: the State or Nation – any State or Nation – will never make peace. It is, frankly, not in a state or nation’s interest to do so. Have you looked at military budgets lately? Have you any idea how much money is spent on that? 

Furthermore, wars have been so deeply ingrained in our collective conscious as a nation that we are thoroughly incapable of separating our national identity from them. Were you to ask a representative sampling of Americans what the two most important or most defining events in American history were, there’s a very strong chance that your top two responses would be the American Revolution and the Civil War. The country was born in one war, and defined in another war. How do we escape such pervasive definition of war in us?

For we who claim to follow Christ, there is only one possible answer:

Remember whose we are.

In a country that often assumes that ‘Christian’ and ‘American’ are exactly the same thing, that’s a strong – even dangerous – countercultural claim. Yet how do we state otherwise? How do we make any kind of claim to follow that Jesus who, again, called the peacemakers “blessed” and “children of God”?

The headlong rush to revenge at the end of World War I, Wilfred Owen’s priests who were “flesh-marked by the Beast by whom the gentle Christ’s denied”, the mad rush of clergy of all stripes to be the biggest cheerleaders of almost any push towards war, all call into question the degree to which we as followers of Christ truly understand what it means to call ourselves that. 

Augustine of Hippo, in his monumental treatise City of God, offers up what it means to be a follower of Christ – to live in that City:

…it follows that justice is found where God, the one supreme God, rules an obedient city according to his grace, forbidding sacrifice to any being save himself alone; and where in consequence the soul rules the body in all men who belong to this City and obey God, … But where this justice does not exist, there is certainly no “association of men united by a common sense of right and by a community of interest.” 

Aye, there’s the rub. Peace – actual, not-just-nobody-fighting peace, requires justice. And we humans are awfully bad at that. Oh, we’re good at “law and order,” but bringing about genuine justice, and therefore being able to live in peace … well, we aren’t there.

One of my old high school teachers was wont to bellow “define your terms!” at us when we started to solve word problems at the chalkboard. Maybe that’s where we are? If we truly want to seek a world of justice and of peace, maybe we need to define what those terms mean.

Hymn: We Wait the Peaceful Kingdom

 

Meditation 5: The Meaning of Shalom

Reading from scripture: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

So what is peace, anyway?

We read dreamy invocations like that of Isaiah 11, where the wolf lies down with the lamb and the leopard with the baby goat, and it’s beautiful, but it’s…imaginary to us. How can we possibly get there from here? How do we get from that Armistice mindset of seeing only an enemy to be whacked with all the vengeance we can muster to a place of peace, not merely absence of conflict but true, justice-rooted shalom? 

The Apostle Paul calls into question our angle of vision. Once, he says, we saw from what he calls a “human point of view,” and saw everything and everyone – even Christ – from that “human point of view.” But that’s not how we see anymore, if we are truly a follower of Christ – if we are truly “in Christ,” to use Paul’s words. We are new; the old vengeance-based mindset is gone. The only way we know to view others is as Christ sees them – as children of God.

Then, and only then, can we even begin to start. 

As the hymn said earlier:

When wars of desolation and hate come to an end,

When nation meets with nation and calls the other “friend,”

Still peace in all its fullness will only have begun:

Shalom for all creation begins with justice done.

We need a bit of Amos to go with our Isaiah and Paul. You will remember that Amos is the one, in chapter five of that book, who speaks of God saying “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…” and refusing the sacrifices and the songs of the people, “…but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like and ever-flowing stream.

There is the rub. The world cannot be at peace – true, pervasive, shalom – until justice is practiced in the world. We will never be able to do justice until we are able to see the world around us, and all those who live in it, the way the God we claim to follow sees that world and all those who live in it. As much as I hate to admit it, that terribly sentimental song that starts cropping up around the holidays actually does have something to it: “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin in me…”

Until that day, the violence and bloodshed that is the ongoing progeny of the Great War cannot hope to be ended. There will be no beating of swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks as long as we cling to our very human, very revenge-oriented view of others only as “enemies” or “friends” instead of “children of God.” Laying aside that oh-so-comfortable, oh-so-culturally-popular way of seeing the world, is risky and uncomfortable and may even put us in the crosshairs of those wed to war; but there really is no other way of following Christ. 

The journey from armistice to shalom is far from over. We are still so beholden to ways of seeing the world that are painfully human, not divine. But this is the journey to which we are called and chosen. Christ calls us, Christ guides us, Christ waits for us. Let us go forward.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymn: O Day of Peace

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