adapted from a sermon by Rev. Ken Jones, delivered December 5, 2010
You ever have this experience when you pick up a newspaper just hoping for one nice little story of good news now and then? But then all you find is bad news?
Like the news that we're set to break the Soviet Union's record for the longest futile military occupation of Afghanistan.
Or like the news about the initiation of so-called “war games” between the US and South Korea, apparently in response to North Korea's own version of “war games?”
Or the news about that crazy outfit that published all these “leaked” documents from the US State Department, showing us that our high and mighty diplomatic corps is, at heart, not always very diplomatic? Or how they seem to relish the thought that some repressive Islamic kingdoms that happen to be friendly to our oil companies secretly want the US or Israel to attack some other repressive Islamic clerical states, drawing us further into a religious war between Sunni and Shia Muslims?
Or how about the news about that disturbed young man in Portland who almost blew up a van full of explosives in the middle of a family-oriented Christmas tree ceremony?
Or how about the news that the President we elected two years ago on an anti-war platform, has yet to demonstrate that his year-old “surge” in Afghanistan is doing any good? How about the continued stream of violence and mayhem that eminates from that country? Or about our inability to even be sure who the enemy is?
But Oh, yes! Here we have some good news! Did you hear? The War in Iraq is over! All we have to do is forget about the multi-billion dollar embassy compound we have built in the middle of Bagdhad, the two to six permanent military bases we have established there, and the 50,000+ US troops that will remain for a decade or more. And forget that so-called peace has come to this country only after some two to four million people have either been killed, maimed, or forced to flee their homes in order to maintain a network of ethnically pure neighborhoods. Yes, the good news is that that war is over, and we won! Or, at least we didn't, um, lose.
And sometimes this bad news gets really bizarre, like the interview I heard on NPR recently with a Marine commander in Afghanistan, who to cite a “success” spoke of one particular city – and I swear I am not making this up – in which you could go shopping and find a nice restaurant with friendly wait staff to serve you. I didn't know that that is what we've been fighting for in this remote, primitive country for the past nine years. He went on to tell us that “the enemy” has taken on a new tactic in which they lure our soldiers into areas in which IEDs are prevalent. I felt like someone should explain to this poor man that some of us have been aware of this strategy for nine years, the very strategy that lured our servicepeople into this IED-rich country to begin with.
But before my despair could completely take over, I did find some truly good news, on the home front. It seems that just about every major retailer this year has finally abandonded that liberal, unpatriotic, socialist, commie plot to take Christmas out of the Christmas season. After twenty years or so of most retailers instructing their employees in the fine, inclusive practice of generic holiday greetings, there's been a reversal and literally all of them are using that good old-fashioned “Merry Christmas” once again, despite not knowing whether the customer in question is Christian or not. The newspaper says that this is in reponse to pressure by some Christian communities, people who apparently feel that the world is just too horrible a place for them to go to the shopping mall and load up their plastic bags with all sorts of plastic goods and drop their plastic charge cards on the counter, only to be thanked by the minimum-wage-earning clerk with one of those oh-so-PC phrases like “Happy Holidays.” Thank goodness we'll be hearing them say “Merry Christmas” again! This is, after all, the season of Christmas; and Christ is, after all, the reason for the season, they like to remind us.
Now, I want to set aside the temptation to go into a lengthy explanation of how Christ is not, in fact, the reason for the season; that Christ may very well be the reason for Christmas, but that Jesus of Nazareth has absolutely nothing to do with the ways in which this one relatively minor Christian holiday has morphed into a “season” that transcends cultural, political, economic, and religious traditions and pretty much dominates our lives for a month or more every year. Instead, I want to relate how this one article of good news got me to thinking about how we greet one another, how we greet people around the world, and how we greet life every day. And maybe for a moment all good skeptics might indluge me by seeing this old-fashioned “Merry Christmas” greeting in its most positive light. You know, like we're with George Bailey back in good 'ol Bedford Falls, running down Main Street on Christmas Eve after being saved by his guardian angel, yelling at the top of his lungs “Merry Christmas Everyone!”
Imagine, for example, the signs and decorations on the front door of that massive, high-security embassy complex in Bagdhad, all glitter and garland and plastic lights exclaiming to the people of that country “Merry Christmas!” Or banners hanging from the razor wire surrounding our new military bases in that country, “Merry Christmas, one and all.” Maybe we can even set up some speakers and pipe out some of that wonderful Christmas music for all those good people we saved to hear. Or at least the few who are left.
While we're at it, we could hang similar greetings from the razor wire surrounding each of our seven hundred some odd military bases in over sixty nations of this world this season. Shouldn't the nation with a military larger than all the other nation's militaries in the world combined have the decency to offer proper greetings of the season on the fences outside our compounds?
And how about on all those unmanned drones we're dumping in places like Pakistan and Yemen – why don't we spray paint on each of them this time-honored greeting of the season? “What's that say? 'Merry Christ– BOOM!” And just in case, let's paint a similar greeting on every long-range bomber and aircraft carrier and nuclear-powered submarine and intercontinental missle and every tank and helicopter and humvee and every bomb and every bullet issued to every US serviceperson or private military contractor around the world, so that if we do engage some adversary we'll at least do so offering the greetings of the season – the authentic one! The one that reminds us that this season is really about Jesus, the prince of peace.
And let's not stop there. Let us encourage all our weapons manufacturers and arms merchants – both legal and illegal – to include the proper Christmas greeting on every bomb and bullet we sell that wind up in places like Africa, South Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. Maybe we can even have a special logo of a Christmas wreath juxtaposed on a marajuana leaf on the assault rifles going to the drug lords in Mexico. Just not one that says “Happy Holidays.” “Merry Christmas” is how we greet the world.
And if we haven't sunk too deep into irony yet, let's cap this off by spray painting this same Christmas greeting on the $3 billion worth of fighter planes we recently sold to Israel in exchange for them not building any new settlements for the next ninety days so the peace process can move forward. Merry Christmas, refugees. We'll find you a new home and a new country one of these days.
And perhaps with all these greetings we can include a quote from the book of Luke: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, and goodwill to men'.” We may not have the angel of multitude before us these days, but with something like a $600 billion military budget, we might come close.
I apologize for so much irony in the face of very real death and suffering. It's just that there are not words to describe the depth of our hypocrisy. For if we grant that Jesus is the reason for the season, then we might become aware of what it means for this to be the season of peace. For that, I believe, is one reason this minor Christian holiday has turned into a season to end all seasons – it also happens to be the darkening time of the year, the time our annual calendar comes to a close, the time our families reunite in the cold of winter, the time of harvests and celebrations, of completions and beginnings, of reconciliation and atonement. It is, in a word, the season of peace – a time for us to pause and reflect upon what it is we are doing with our lives.
A friend sent me a Christmas card a few years ago, one that had a nice Christmas-y picture on it with the words “Peace” and “Shalom” and “Saluud” and other words meaning peace in a variety of languages. My friend's only addition to that card was to write four words under these: “Really. We mean it.”
What would this look like? What would it look like if we really meant it when we said “Merry Christmas! On Earth Peace, and to all goodwill?”
My exercise in ironic greetings was to illustrate the profundity of our paradox – to be messengers of peace in a nation at war, in a time of war. But it is not just on distant bases in foreign lands that we are a nation at war – we are a nation born of war, and one that lives and breathes war in just about every aspect of what we do. War and violence have a way of overpowering and invading all other aspects of culture if we let them. So our politics have become war. Our business strategies are war. Our sports are war. Our entertainment is war. We have learned to act violently as our first and foremost way of dealing with the world around us. The way we prepare our food, the way we practice medicine, the way we educate our children, the way we experience the natural world – all these processes have been shaped by our addiction to war. We grow our food not by cooperating with nature but by trying to subdue and control it with machinery and chemicals; we practice medicine not by nurturing our body's natural defenses but by attacking and controlling disease and disease-relating organisms; we teach our children not by exciting their natural curiousities but by scaring them into believing that if they don't perform well then they won't succeed; we experience the natural world almost always protected by layers of manufactured clothing, housing, and transportation devices that both damage the world and isolate us from its true nature. We are, in many way, always at war.
And there's more. We live in a country where approximately 1 in 4 adult women will be victims of physical or sexual assault at the hands of another family member. We live in a country with the highest incarceration rate and the only legal death penalty in the developed world, and still have the one of the highest rates of violent crime. We live in a country where violence is celebrated as sports and entertainment and make millions exporting it to children around the world. We live in a country in which our five percent of the world’s population consumes between a fifth and a fourth of the world’s resources and yet stubbornly refuses any requests that we moderate our consumption. And we live in a country which has, for the last half century, actively intervened, often with military force, in the affairs of other countries rich in resources specifically to maintain our addictions.
And yes, we live in a country that spends some $600 billion a year to maintain a military to protect this way of life. Thankfully, though, we have alert members of Congress who intervened this week by exposing and removing a short video from the Smithonian Institution's website that depicted Jesus with ants crawling on his body. That's simply too close to the natural world for our dear Jesus, and we can all take comfort that alert politicians are taking this opportunity to try to strip the Smithsonian of it's annual federal support of about $600 million, so that that $600 million can be put to more Christian use – perhaps somewhere in that $600 billion defense budget.
Or take the case of nineteen-year-old Mohamed Osman Mohamud, arrested in Portland last week after trying to blow up a van full of fictional explosives provided by our tax dollars through our federal law enforcement officers. This confused and angry young man had two things against him: one, that he was a confused and angry young man – not so unusual in itself – and two, he was Muslim. Also not so unusual, but these two factors together made him a primary target, in our law enforcement establishment's eyes, for the kind of terrorist they think we all should fear. So they encouraged him – yes, encouraged – to develop his violent thoughts by making him believe that he was connected to and supported by international co-conspirators, and provided him the means to attempt to play out his violent fantasies, all in time, coincidentally perhaps, to provide a public example of why we need all these expensive new security machines at our nation's airports. And an example of why we should live in fear – for that is what living in war is all about: living in fear.
One problem, of course, is the nature of war as know it today. Here's how Wendell Berry puts it in his essay “The Failure of War:”
"In a modern war, fought with modern weapons and on the modern scale, neither side can limit to 'the enemy' the damage that it does. These wars damage the world. We know enough by now to know that you cannot damage a part of the world without damaging all of it. Modern war has not only made it impossible to kill 'combatants' without killing 'noncombatants,' it has made it impossible to damage your enemy without damaging yourself."
The folly of war and violence is that they feed on themselves. To counteract war we need not more war, but an active commitment to peace and nonviolence. This is why, I would hate to be the one to have to tell that Marine commander interviewed on the radio, that the tools of war cannot be engaged to create peace; only the tools of love and compassion can do that. War perpetuates itself, and can never be won. As Martin Luther King said, “hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear, only love can do that.” Or what the-reason-for-the-season said: “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also”. The idea of non-violence is to confront violence not with more violence, but through peaceful engagement grounded in love. This is difficult work, and requires of all who practice it a willingness to take a risk.
There is a story that is popular in Japan, called “Faithful Elephants.” It is a story for children, but more importantly a story for all. It is a story of a time when Japan was at war, and many began to worry what would happen if bombs fell on the city zoo and wild animals were released into the city. This was deemed an unacceptable risk by the authorities, and so the army ordered all animals in the zoo killed. The zookeper tells this tale of three elephants who's turn it was to die, slowly by starvation, and of their keepers who wept and who prayed that the war might end so that their beloved elephants might live. It is a story that has seen over one hundred printings in post-war Japan, and is read aloud on the radio in that country every year to mark the anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II. It is also a story that is incredibly difficult to hear without shedding tears, a story that most parents in this country would not think of reading to their children. We're just not used to talking about war and violence this deeply, this painfully, with children, in this country. That they do so in a country that was much more devestated by war is testament to the transforming grace that is possible when one has to deal with the consequences of violence – an experience that our young and immature nation has yet to have.
Hear Wendell Berry again:
"Here is the... question that I’ve been leading toward, one that the predicament of modern warfare forces upon us: How many deaths of other people’s children by bombing or starvation are we willing to accept in order that we may be free, affluent, and (supposedly) at peace? To that question I answer: None. Please, no children. Don’t kill any children for my benefit.
If that is your answer too, then you must know that we have not come to rest, far from it. For surely we must feel ourselves swarmed about with more questions that are urgent, personal, and intimidating. But perhaps also we feel ourselves beginning to be free, facing at last in our own selves the greatest challenge ever laid before us, the most comprehensive vision of human progress, the best advice, and the least obeyed:
Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you."
In case you're wondering, good souls who wish us Merry Christmas, Mr. Berry is here quoting a man named Jesus (Matthew 5:44.)
This is my hope for this and every season of peace: that we can learn to talk about war and violence in a more honest way. As the peaceful darkness of winter engulfs us, as we adorn our homes and churches and workplaces with the decorations of the holidays, as we prepare ourselves and our rooms for times of gathering and celebration with our families and friends, as we surround ourselves with all the joys and music of this special time of year, let us not forget to hear the still present song of the angels from long ago: “peace on the earth, goodwill to all.”
Violence is not something out there that we can simply point our fingers at and blame others for. We are called by our God and our consciences to examine the way we live in the world and to strive to live as peacefully as we can. And the season of peace that is upon us calls us in a particularly strong way. The season of peace calls us not to sit idly amidst the violence of the world. No, the season calls us to create peace, to live peacefully, as best we can. And to do so faithfully, knowing that the enduring spirit of love and the divine, from which these very holidays emerged, is on the side of peace. That is what being faithful means – it means knowing that in a world of war, there is a presence that is on the side of peace, and choosing to stand on that side.
Of all those carols you may hear this time of year, one of particular note is the one written by nineteenth-century Unitarian Minister Rev. Edmund Sears, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” It is a carol that captures the true meaning of the season of peace:
"But with the woes of war and strife the world has suffered long;
beneath the angel strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
and we who fight the wars hear not the love song which they bring.
O hush the noise of battle strife, and hear the angels sing."
May you, in this coming season of peace, find – and make – times of quiet reflection for you and for those you love, in which we can hush the noise of war and violence and truly hear the ancient song of peace. If we listen carefully, we'll find it fills the whole wide sky.
And whatever greeting we use, let's mean it.