We shouldn’t be surprised to find a reference to war in the Hebrew Bible as a matter-of-fact matter, especially in the book of Ecclesiastes, and the killing referred to in these sets of poetic opposites is killing in the context of war. One rabbinical source says that when one goes to war, she or he goes with the singular purpose of killing enemies and as many as possible, but after it’s over the warring peoples should be nice to each other and get along famously. Easy enough, right?
Again, I remind you that the writer of book of Ecclesiastes has no real axes to grind; he has no comment on what is right or wrong, good or bad in his list. Rather, he is simply listing recurring components of life as he has observed it. He would be lying, wouldn’t he, if he pretended that war was absent from ongoing human experience?
One history source lists 739 wars--not skirmishes, but actual war engagements--documented as having begun and ended in human history. There probably have been many more as some large gaps exist regarding what we know about certain eras in ancient history. For example, scholars are very much undecided about whether or not the Trojan War was ever fought at all or if it was one major war in the mid-1200’s BCE as Homer suggests in his Iliad and his Odyssey or if what has been recorded as a singular war really was a compilation of the details of several smaller wars all rolled into one for purposes of preservation.
This same source lists twenty-four wars ongoing in the world today; twenty-four of the 739 are active. I simply don’t have the knowledge of either history or current events to verify this claim, but it seems reasonably accurate to me. I want to list these for you so that you may pray for peace in more focussed ways:
Kashmir Conflict, ongoing since 1947
Colombian Armed Conflict, ongoing since 1964
Islamic Insurgency in Southern Philippines, ongoing since late 1960s
Independence War in Cabinda, Angola, ongoing since 1975
Free Papua Movement in Western New Guinea, ongoing since 1984
Lord’s Resistance Army Rebellion in Uganda, ongoing since 1986
Myanmar Civil War, ongoing since 1988
Casamance Conflict in Senegal, ongoing since 1988
Somalian Civil War, ongoing since 1988
Ethnic Conflict in Nagaland, India, ongoing since 1993
Nepal Civil War, ongoing since 1996
Ituri Conflict (Democratic Republic of Congo), ongoing since 1999
Second Chechen War (Russia), ongoing since 1999
Intifada in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, ongoing since 2000
Conflict in Laos involving the Hmong, ongoing since 2000
Civil War in Côte d'Ivoire, ongoing since 2001
South Thailand Insurgency, ongoing since 2001
Afghanistan Occupation, ongoing since 2001
Insurgent Rebellion, Iraq, ongoing since 2003
Conflict between Pakistan and Baloch Warlords in Balochistan, Pakistan, ongoing since 2003
Darfur Conflict, ongoing since 2003
Waziristan War, ongoing since 2004
Western Sahara Independence Intifada, ongoing since 2005
Niger Delta Conflicts, ongoing since 2005
Another source lists more wars than these as active at this moment. I’m not going to do a comparison here, but from the second source I want to list the seven most critical ongoing wars in terms of loss of life. The first wasn’t on the list of twenty-four I just gave you for some reason.
The Sri Lankan Civil War, ongoing since 1983 with 70,000 lives lost
The Second Congo War also called the Kivu Conflict, ongoing since 1998, with 5,400,000 lives lost
The Second Chechen War, ongoing since 1999, with 100,000 lives lost
The War in Afghanistan, ongoing since 2001, with 20,000 lives lost
The War in Darfur, ongoing since 2003, with 400,000 lives lost
The War in Iraq, ongoing since 2003, with 1,125,000 lives lost
The War in Somalia, ongoing since 2006, with 8,225 lives lost
I’m sure as smart and compassionate people you are aware that lists of numbers dead in a war in no way reflect the number of serious injuries including a significant number of persons injured who will never be well again.
My friend, Marcus Foster, who has visited here with us a couple of times, is a military nurse, and he keeps reminding me of this fact. “The numbers of dead military personnel they list,” he says, “is only part of the picture of the true devastation of the war. The number of women and men who are wounded and especially those who can never get well again needs to be announced too.”
It’s confusing, isn’t it, to be people who try to live by the teachings attributed to Jesus and what we know of how he lived and also to keep bumping into the advocacy for violence elsewhere in the Judeo-Christian scriptures, especially in the Hebrew Bible? One of several titles for the ideal leader of God’s people, borrowed from Hebrew scripture and applied to Jesus, was “Prince of Peace.” This, Jesus truly was, and it cost him widespread support and popularity.
There wasn’t a single ancient Hebrew expectation for a Messiah; there were several. To do what many people expected the Messiah to do when she or he came, that person would had to have been decidedly militaristic and willing to kill those who showed themselves to be enemies of God’s people. Jesus was unwilling, entirely unwilling, to do this; he could probably have preserved his life had he been.
One of the messianic hopes from ancient Israel was dramatically contrasted with a military messiah. In their book, The Last Week, Dr. Marcus Borg and Dr. John Dominic Crossan look at Jesus’ last six days on earth. There are many fresh insights along with the results of some new discoveries about the events leading up to Jesus’ execution ordered and carried out by Rome. We talked about some of this at our midweek gathering this past Wednesday, and it will surely come up again on Palm Sunday. For our purposes today, however, there’s a segment I want to share with all of you.
Borg and Crossan say that two processions, not one, entered Jerusalem on a spring Sunday in the year 30. The Jewish sabbath had ended the previous day at sundown so travel and the effort to travel could not violate any of the Jewish standards for no-work sabbaths.
Procession One: The Peasant Procession. From the east, Jesus rode a donkey colt down the Mount of Olives, cheered by his followers, some of whom were waving leafy branches, and he rode into the great city already filled with Jews who had come from all over to celebrate the most sacred of their annual festivals, Passover.
Procession Two: The Imperial Procession. From the west came Pontius Pilate; Roman governor of Idumea, Judea, and Samaria; heading the imperial cavalry along with a host of foot soldiers. A rather full display of military power potential.
Jesus intended to create a dissonance right at that moment. According to the Hebrew prophet, Zechariah, there would come a time when a ruler would enter Jerusalem (Zion) “humble and riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (9:9). If Jesus were going to be a ruler, which by the way he never was, he was going to be the kind Zechariah had envisioned; his kingdom would be a kingdom of humility. The ancient prophet Zechariah had said more that influenced Jesus: “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations” (9:10). The no-war ruler or even the no-war messiah if you like.
The Prince of Peace was the perfect title for Jesus concerning his politics and his stance on violence. Zechariah was one of several of the ancient prophets who influenced how Jesus saw himself and his ministry. If he were the leader, he would put a stop to war all over and “command peace” to ALL the nations.
Are you ready for a no-war Jesus?
We need time to heal after small injuries--physically and emotionally. If that is true, then how much more do we need healing after serious emotional and physical wounds?
What often happens when there isn’t time allowed for healing or when there isn’t the proper tending and attention to a wound is that there is no healing or at least no complete healing. It is much easier to deal with external physical injuries as far as promoting healing is concerned than with internal injuries; the reason is obvious. Certainly, it is also much easier to keep watch over the healing progress of an external wound than it is a wound to one’s emotional self that even we ourselves can often not see.
The passage that gives us our foundation for today insists that in life there are times when humans kill, and with that being a given there must be times when there is healing. Among the many Native American tribes, the peace-loving Pimas of Arizona required their defensive warriors to undergo a period of isolation/recovery for self-healing after the insanity of having had to kill other human beings. “To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under the skies...a time to kill and a time to heal...a time for war and a time for peace.”
There is no possibility for healing while the war wages on. Remember that the biblical writer deals in opposites. The warriors cannot be healed from all the ravages of war to which they are subjected if healing is supposed to be a reprieve in a MASH tent only to be sent back into the battle frays.
Back in April, there was an article in the New York Times about the scars to families and relationships the war in Iraq is causing. The story focused on a Major Levi Dunton who, since he returned from that fighting, had ongoing problems being involved with his family--his wife and two sons, ages three and five. The difficulties were numerous, but the most disturbing pattern to him was how “little things made him angry”; and the most complicated part of trying to get well and get things back to normal was how numb he constantly felt.
In Iraq, Major Dunton was an Apache pilot and commander of 150 soldiers. He realized that others, in his view, had things much worse to deal with in Iraq, but staying aware of that only added to his guilt. In what was supposed to be post-Iraq for him and a time to heal, he and most others he knew upon returning had trouble relating to others in a non-war setting. There was marked emotional distance even from signifiant others, those whom he loved profoundly, but he felt he was no longer in possession of the ability to feel it or express it.
His wife told a reporter that before the war her husband “used to tell jokes and funny stories.” He doesn’t do that any more. She said that she knew the moment she saw him after his return to the States he was different. She thought it would all pass, but in his case it hasn’t.
There’s a website, a very telling website, called iraqwarveterans.com. Just glancing at the links for further information says more than most of us want to face living in our protected, comfortable environments “safe and secure from all alarms.” The first standout link is to a course of study, “PTSD101” (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder 101). The blurb intended to draw potential readers/users further in advises that this information is intended for those professionals who help military personnel overcome the long-term effects of combat stress.
Scrolling down, the next link in view is a personal perspective piece written by the director of communication for the Iraq War Veterans Organization. The title of the piece is “Iraq Never Leaves Us.”
If you keep scrolling, you see next a link for chaplain services, and immediately after that one a link in red that really stands out because of the color even before you read it, “Veterans Affairs Suicide Hotline, 800.273.TALK.” That rips my heart out--to think that someone survives combat but can’t survive the emotional wounds of having been in combat. There are people who live physically through the battle, but end up calling it quits to this world because their emotional wounds may be dressed and gauzed, but the puss of infection finally tells them that they can never be well again, that healing will never come.
There can be no healing from the killing of war until the killing stops completely, until the war is no more. This biblical writer doesn’t envision that there will ever be a time in human history when war has been erased from the list of possibilities; he was certain, as a matter of fact, that, based on his observation of patterns, war definitely would recur.
I’d say that most people in the world today agree with the ancient writer. Anybody who is naive enough to believe that war will end conclusively is dismissed as absolutely ill-informed and out of touch. Certainly not everyone who believes that war will continue to punctuate human experience accepts the reality of war as a good thing; rather, she or he is a realist like the writer of Ecclesiastes.
There are only three ways war can be erased from the menu of human choices. One, people decide that there will be no more war, and they end it. This option can only work if all players agree to it; it can’t work if only some of the potential players agree to it.
Pause. Sigh. Well, we’ve had much time and tons of opportunities to make this happen, and it’s never yet happened, which doesn’t make the future for this option promising.
Two, in the modern technological world we find ways to fight enemies using machines only without having people directly involved to get killed. There are efforts alive to accomplish this.
Three, we destroy ourselves and our world, and then there will be no more war because there are no more people to make war. This third option seems to be the one viable solution presently available. The problem with this is that if humans annihilate themselves healing is a moot point. There’s no need for it. Healing only matters if there are ways and reasons to live on in this world.
I’m going to put myself in that category of naive types who believe that peace can prevail in this world and, thus, that wars can cease giving way to a time for healing. This would make me the kind of person you wouldn’t want to be stuck sitting next to at a dinner party, much less in a waiting room where I was the only person to talk to. This would make me the kind of person you wouldn’t want to have to introduce your friends to, and this would certainly make me the kind of person whose views you wouldn’t want to have to defend to your friends on the other side of the issue. Even so, I tell you outright that I believe there can be peace in the world, that war is not a necessity, and that the way to end a war is to stop fighting.
There is a time to heal. The healing, it turns out, needs to happen to all humanity and not just to those who have been active warriors; healing also needs to come to the earth itself, often tattered and torn by same instruments that destroy human life.
Until that great day, though, the only healing we can hope for is between wars. We can only do that, though, on a country by country or region by region basis since there has never been a time when some part of the human family wasn’t at war. World healing is too much to hope for then, isn’t it? Even Jesus himself is said to have confirmed the fact that there will always be wars and rumors of wars. I’d be happy for a while with rumors of wars; rumors are often based on inaccurate information after all so maybe after a sufficient number of false rumors we will have found that we can survive just fine, even flourish, without war.
In 1981, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution declaring an International Day of Peace. In 2001, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a new resolution declaring September 21 of each year to be the International Day of Peace. The latter resolution declares that the International Day of Peace “shall henceforth be observed as a day of global ceasefire and nonviolence, an invitation to all nations and people to honor a cessation of hostilities for the duration of the Day.” In addition, the resolution invites “all Member States, organizations of the United Nations system, and non-governmental organizations and individuals to commemorate, appropriately, the International Day of Peace, including education and public awareness, and to cooperate with the United Nations in the establishment of the global ceasefire.”
Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has said that peace is “one of humanity’s most precious needs.” He has directed that all United Nations departments and agencies expand their observances of the International Day of Peace, extending a special invitation to civil society and highlighting the Minute of Silence at noon.
What’s today? September 21. I had not made any connection between that date and my sermon subject for the day. I didn’t even remember the International Day of Peace until I began to prepare the sermon. Some would say, “God works in mysterious ways,” and others would say, “David is forgetful.” It matters not what you think of how these two realities converged; they did.
At the very least, I ask you to join Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and all peace-lovers on the face of this endangered planet at noon today for a one-minute prayer for peace, in whatever way you pray. If you want to pray, but you don’t think you know what to say, simply say, “I long for peace on Earth and am willing to be a part of making it a reality.” Don’t worry about the mechanics of prayer or how God hears. Please do offer this prayer and believe, first, even if just for that sixty seconds, that world peace can be a reality and, second, that prayers can change things--not by getting God to do what we want, but by aligning us to what is clearly the way of God. No one wants world peace more than God.
In the poetry of Ecclesiastes, peace and healing are intricately connected. They are not one and the same, but there can be no healing in the midst battle; peace is needed for healing to occur.
It is heartening to me that some of those persons of faith closer to the earliest days of the establishment of monotheism believed that the one God who had created the skies and the earth would lure the people who inhabited the planet to peace. This wasn’t supposed to come at the end of time, seconds before life as we know it in this world was coming to an end anyway. What would it matter then? It would be kind of pointless. And what good is it to us if peace only prevails in the next realm, where people dwell beyond their earthly labors?
Some of biblical writers saw peace in this world while human history was in progress, and today I am focussed on three visions of such peace by First Isaiah. Listen for the images of peace in what he wrote to his people as they struggled in terribly treacherous times.
The fulfillments of these beautiful hopes are in no way connected to the coming of Jesus into the world at his birth or at the end of time as some conservative Christians believe. The burden for making peace a reality, if it ever can be or will be, rests on people determined to make this world what it was intended to be all along. The identity of those who seem to be key individuals in these passages you’re about to hear are actually all the people of God spoken of poetically as one individual. Also remember as you hear these words that the geographical references also are merely poetic ways of referring to the whole earth, the places where the people of God dwell--namely, all over the place.
The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that God may teach us God’s ways and that we may walk in God’s paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. God shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they 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 any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a baby of hope given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and she is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Parent, Prince of Peace. This adult child’s authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and the Davidic kingdom. As an adult, this child will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of the roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the awe of the Lord. Her delight shall be in the awe of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness she shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth....Righteousness shall be the belt around her waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
Someday, hopefully not long from now, someone will be able to rewrite the poetry of Ecclesiastes, and war will along with the killing of war will be passe, things only discussed in the past-tense for the purposes of teaching history. There will be no words for “killing” and “war” in the present tense, and the juxtapositions in Ecclesiastes 3 will fail.
The world will be different. There will still be a time to be born and a time to die, but there will no longer be killing or war or the need for healing from them; in that regard there will only be peace. “For everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under the skies...a time to be born and a time to die, but never, ever in battle as God’s peace prevails all over the face of the earth.”