Peace Repent, Peace Remember
I want to share three brief stories to introduce the topic of war
and peace as a part of our worship and faith and mission. These stories
help us to ponder what to say, what to do, but moreover what to
believe, in church. You may agree with everything that I say or very
little of it, but try to listen for what God says to all of us, and
then come to sermon feedback to continue in conversation.
First, sometime this summer Matt Aufman sent me an Internet link to
an interview with the Roman Catholic priest who served as Chaplain on
Tinian Island in the Pacific in 1945. Fr. George Zabelka was the priest
for the men who dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
This Lieutenant Colonel was a career chaplain, and his interview was
conducted in 1984, when he was on his way to Nagasaki, as he puts it,
to repent his sins. So his interviewer asked him what they were.
Zabelka said that he thought he was a good priest, keeping his
flock, as he put it, close to the heart and mind of Christ. He listened
to their stories and nightmares and shared the sacraments. But he says
he was brainwashed -- his term -- by his superiors in the Church
who never addressed the moral dimensions of air raids and the mass
killing of civilians in that war. They never addressed how you can keep
communion with Christ while disobeying his clearest teachings. And
their silence, he said, was a stamp of approval for war. He called that
corruption of the faith and, in strong language, Christ-killing. He
points out what I never knew before: Nagasaki was the first and largest
Catholic city in Japan, where three orders of Catholic sisters were
destroyed on August 9th, 1945, as the Roman Catholic pilot of the
bomber flew what he called his mission. And Zabelka said, still the
hierarchy of Church was silent: they did not speak to the morality of
war. That was his sin, too, he said: silence. And he wanted to
Second story: when I was a high school senior, shortly after the
Congress approved another $700 million dollars to fund war in Viet Nam,
I registered for the selective service. I grew up as a Quaker, and I
had every defensible reason to be a conscientious objector as well as
every logical reason to believe that I might still be sent to a
confusing and deadly land, but I went alone -- and felt very lonely --
to the post office one day to organize my registration forms. Most of
you know how conflicted, divided, and concerned our entire nation was
in those days, when we spent years, lives, and billions of dollars
pursing an unwinnable conflict to keep our enemies over there
and another region democratic, against the moral values that we claim
when we invoke the founders of this country. Yet at that time, other
than stand in a few demonstrations, I did not do anything much to avoid
that fighting company or registering in it. Was I
brainwashed? I was afraid. I was loyal. And perhaps did not know what
Third story: in 1998, the brilliant theologian Dr. Walter Wink
published a volume of analysis of Christian faith amidst corrupted
culture entitled The Powers That Be. And I am about to reduce
four volumes of his work to a few sentences, but here is one of the
central assertions of his text: there is a spiritual reality at the
heart of everything in the created world, but much of this reality has
become corrupted so that some powers in our midst have become
destructive, and here he highlights the human tendency toward idolatry.
That is, some powers in our midst -- groups, institutions -- have come
to value, pursue, and even worship the wrong stuff. Their god is not
our God. Hence, he says, parts of our culture have come to embrace what
he calls "the myth of redemptive violence." Again, reducing
enormous text to a single idea or two, this myth can easily be revealed
in cartoons, such as Popeye and Olive Oyl among dozens of other
narratives, where a hero is attacked and suffers grievously, appears
doomed until he miraculously breaks free, perhaps with the aid of
spinach, then vanquishes villains and evil with great destructive shock
and awe and restores order. Wink points out that this narrative and
notion that we have to beat the life out of the evil ones, and that we
are justified in doing it, is also at the heart of the Babylonian
creation myth and the thinking of many cultural and national leaders
but that it is not our Christian story.
The absence of knowing our Christian story well, in addition to the
silence of our best people at times and the inaction of so many at
others, all together leaves a tragic mix of danger in our world. As has
been said before, if we don't stand for something, we may fall for
anything. Neutrality is capitulation. And silence can be death.
We are again at war in our nation. This war includes offshore
prisons, torture and almost global spying. And often it seems as though
there is nothing that we can say, especially if we wish not to be
called unpatriotic. Often it seems that there is nothing that we can
do, because the influence of individuals seems so inconsequential. And
often the prevailing beliefs in our culture, those about why we
are at war, those about who is worthy to comment, those about
whether good soldiers and their families are injured by criticism of
the war, and above all those about what is moral and what is Christian,
beliefs are convoluted and corrupted and confused.
There are many ways to view and receive the teachings of Jesus and
many revelations that rise from the prosecution of his violent death.
Thousands of morals and messages also are woven in the fabric of the
Hebrew Scriptures, but there are several central themes that flow
through them all and stare us in the face whenever we do not turn our
back: there is a God, and we are called to acknowledge God's way: thou
shalt have no other objects of ultimate truth or power or concern
before Me. This God is not simply the god of our culture or
self-aggrandizement or even success, nor of any single nation or truth:
this God is holy and other. This is the God of all being, of Shalom,
community, reverence, and even sacrificial love, say the scriptures.
This is the God who says love your enemies. This is the God of flesh or
incarnation. There are, historically, culturally, personally, even
intellectually many, many powers that seek to distract us from the God
of creation and resurrection, and these powers sometimes take the form
of nation or wealth or beauty or wisdom or empire, but these are not
God as they stand. They are all too often destructive and whenever we
follow them, religious history asserts, we die, collectively or
individually. And, yes, we are an imperfect people -- none of us what
we are meant to be, but, to quote Walter Wink, "Nothing is outside
the redemptive care and transforming love of God" in our story.
Just think of today's words from scripture. To a world that knew
warfare and faithlessness upon the very territory that today is Iraq --
ancient Babylon -- Isaiah the prophet says that warfare will be over.
Whatever is corrupted, bent, distorted can be fixed, which is also
Walter Wink's belief. Isaiah, however, puts it very simply: when we
live in God's ways God is with us, and when God is with us we live in
new ways. These are the ways of peace, so Isaiah calls our hope Prince
of Peace, and that is his reign.
In what could otherwise seem a tortured explanation of the blood of
Christ, the author of Ephesians asks us to focus on both the message
and the means of good news. Christ is our peace, and our peace is to
break down the dividing walls of hostility, seeking transformative
reconciliation, and in an exposition that would inspire Rene Girard or
anyone who seeks the integration that unifies the divided self, he
speaks of gathering together the far off, the near, the divine, the
spiritual, the multitudes, and the individual in one holy temple of the
Lord that is Christ. Now that may sound like too much, but if nothing
else he is saying that our hope, Christ's work, and true peace are all
of the same cloth in God's way. God gives us a vision and a story in
What to make of all these lost items in Luke? How do they speak of
peace? Well, they tell us of a God who never gives up and will not rest
until all the dimensions of the realm are in place. In a faith that has
so much to do with community and nation and group, every individual
counts and God, along with we who would follow divine challenge, have
the task of getting back every person and power to its created purpose,
if you believe that sort of thing. God doesn't write folks off very
easily. God doesn't give up, no matter the powers.
So what can we say today, many years, many lives, many billions of
dollars into another war? How will we be criticized for saying it? And
what can we do and believe?
I preface my answer by saying that I asked a colleague how and why
his church had gotten so involved in the campaign to protect Darfur,
which is wonderful. He told me that it was because it was too
controversial for them to address the war, so he had stopped. I can't
We will have diverse opinion in this room, but do we have
diverse conviction? That is, aren't we all here somehow to seek
and somehow to serve the God who somehow comes to us in Jesus Christ?
And if that is the case, then our call is not so controversial or
complex: we must say something about our faith, even if we are not the
policy-makers who determine how precisely to apply this. We must do
something to represent that faith, something non-violent and
love-based, which leaves a lot of inclusive room. And we must
constantly inquire of each other when we are confused, listen to each
other so we can learn, and even chide each other a bit -- a Biblical
value -- press each other, when we are adrift or confused or in such
pain that we cannot think and see.
Fr. Zabelka used this example to analyze war in 1984. He said if
someone asked him if it was acceptable to kill an innocent child so
that you could pursue some personal or corporate or national policy, he
would clearly say that this was un-Christian and mortally sinful
without doubt. Nine men in a mine shaft, one Haitian beaten by
policeman, Terry Schiavo connected to life support all inspire our
highest moral analysis and concern. They all energize us to talk and
write and think and send donations and letters because they all have
such urgent moral dimensions. Save those lives. Protect those rights.
So shouldn't war, with hundreds of thousands of innocents injured,
assaulted, imprisoned, and bankrupted inspire the same? Shouldn't war
inspire our Christian moral analysis and engagement? Isn't this
outrageous to our family values?
Our webmaster Steve Willner told me that one
of my sermons simply entitled Peace has the largest number of hits
from outside our own website, which means some people not looking for
us are looking for that and have chased it down. In it I talk more
about the theory of war and peace in our history, so you might enjoy
Today I ask that we find ways to end our silence, or if we've
already been speaking, speak up a little bit more. Today I ask that we
find ways to learn ever more about non-violent resistance, which I know
you know is what Jesus preached, and Gandhi and King learned from him.
It is something we can do for our world, our community, our children,
too, teaching them alternatives to the myth of redemptive violence.
Today I ask that we learn a little bit more about our core values and
beliefs: everyone here would enjoy Wink's Powers that Be, or
just the interview with Fr. Zabelka or my sermon
on the web.
Fr. Zabelka is on some levels inspiringly old fashioned, which I say
as a compliment. He said that he was worried about a Day of Judgment,
when we died, and his hope that God would be more
merciful than just. He didn't think his life's actions were sinless.
That's what drove his activism.
In 1956 Albert Camus wrote in The Fall, "I shall tell
you a great secret, my friend. Do not wait for the last judgment. It
takes place every day."
Jesus never made it precisely clear which of these perspectives was
just right. And some of us dismiss these notions and images as
unnecessary to our faith. But our faith is constant in its images of
harvest and of reaping what we sow. It's another of those themes that
run through century after century and book after book in the Bible. It
is a call to care for our world and our actions and our friends and our
Whether or not you decide to sign the letter that our UCC offers to
us, or write another one, or something clearly alternative, I commend
you to the active love of God as your inspiration. God wants us
engaged. Whether or not you read volumes on just war theory or many
verses from the scriptures, I commend to you one thought that you can
even read quoted at sporting events: For God so loved the world that he
sent the Son… that the world might be saved. This is not partisan
politics on our plate today but practical Christianity. Ours is not a
faith without clear themes that span the millennia and confront our own
culture. Our faith is not always simple but also complex and even
mysterious. Yet our word from the scriptures is consistent: seek peace,
vanquish violence, restore the lost ones, and know that this is a
Speaking of another war, another time of violence but the same
concerns, in his 1983 Templeton Prize address, Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Over half a century ago, while I was a child, I recall hearing a
number of older people offer the following explanation for the
greatest disasters that had befallen Russia: "Men have forgotten
God; that's why all this has happened." Since then I have spent
well-nigh fifty years working on the history of our revolution.
In the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of
personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my
own words towards the effort of clearing away the rubble left by the
upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as
possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up
some sixty million of our people, I could not put it more accurately
that to repeat: "Men have forgotten God; that's why all this
But remembering is not that hard. And God remembers us, always. And
as Walter Wink says, "Nothing is outside of the redemptive care
and transforming love of God." And that is good news.
Amen.Copyright © 2007
Kenneth F. Baily. Used by permission.