Thoughts on Security and Peace after President Obama’s speech at West Point
December 18, 2009
by Reverend Tom Lenhart
Editor’s note: December, for many among us, is a time for contemplation. The very hustle and bustle of the holidays can throw open a window of opportunity for quiet deliberation that stays shuttered tight in the daily grind the rest of the year.
So we propose with our remaining December issues to offer some food for thought for those moments when you stand patiently in line at Starbucks seeking a seasonal pick-me-upper; watch intently as the Chanukah candles melt; wait for pictures to load on a charitable or retail web site; or when driving to drop off a food basket or to get that one last elusive gift. We welcome submissions from all faiths and beliefs.
We offer here a sermon delivered by Reverend Tom Lenhart of the First Congregational Church of Chappaqua on the second Sunday of Advent about “Security and Peace.”
“Security and Peace”
Ephesians 2: 11-18 and Luke 1: 68-79
Let us pray.
Some months ago . . . I sat down to map out the fall worship. At the time I read the lectionary text for today and decided in general what I would preach on. I came up with a title “Are You Ready?” which I thought generic enough to cover whatever I might eventually focus on. But then events intruded and I felt I needed to preach on something else – to be specific, Security and Peace – and so . . . [we ended up with] a different epistle passage then identified in your bulletin.
Traditionally, this Sunday in Advent [December 6] is Peace Sunday. The second candle lit on our Advent wreath moments ago by the Wright family was the peace candle. And, of course, it makes sense at this time in Advent to focus on peace – for in Isaiah’s wonderful phrase it is the “Prince of Peace” whose birth we await with joy. Hope for peace is all around us in this Advent season.
And yet on Tuesday [December 2] at West Point President Obama gave a speech announcing the sending of thirty thousand more American men and women to the conflict in Afghanistan. The speech certainly highlighted that ours is not a peaceful world. The President’s words prompted me to think about what exactly is the peace that comes in the birth in Bethlehem.
The President’s speech never mentioned peace
The President’s speech contained more than 4600 words but not one of them was the word “peace.” I know because I went back and read it for myself on Wednesday. Instead, the word that reappears dozens of time is “security.” The President expressed clearly that his goal was to provide for the common security of human beings and their property. Specifically, he said, “What’s at stake is the security of our allies and the common security of the world.” The President delivered a thoughtful speech focused on realistic but limited goals within a short time frame.
I thought, however, that it was curious that the word “peace” was never used. Perhaps it was because on one level we have taken to considering them – that is security and peace – to be the same. But clearly that isn’t right. Would we ever think of Jesus Christ as the Prince of Security? There is a profound difference between security and peace, though security may be at times a necessary step to peace. Security may be defined as freedom from danger. It is about walls and separation. Security is one-sided and self-centered. To be secure is to focus on how safe we or our group feels. Those on the other side of the wall, barrier or fence are irrelevant except to the extent they pose a risk. We would rather not know them or who they are because it makes it more difficult to erect the fences or walls of separation.
Security during the cold war was based on mutual, assured destruction. Any action the Soviet Union might take would be met with a level of force that would assure that the Soviet Union would no longer be recognizable. And the Soviets felt secure based on the reciprocal assumption. We were separate – knew precious little about each other except for our military capabilities and had a level of security that successfully avoided major conflict.
Peace, shalom, salaam
Peace is profoundly different. In your bulletin you have a small piece of paper with the word “peace” at the bottom. At the top is the Hebrew world shalom, which means peace and in the middle the Arabic word salaam, which also means peace. Interesting, isn’t it, that the Hebrew and Arabic share a common derivation. (Might this shared-word source reflect that all of us at heart have a similar desire for peace?) These two words shalom and salaam also mean completeness. And that I think is a wonderful reminder of what peace is.
Peace, you see, is not simply the absence of violence. A peaceful world is more than a secure one. A peaceful world is one of harmony. It is not a world of walls and barriers. And while I love Frost’s poem about good fences making good neighbors, we should never forget that those fences have freely swinging gates without armed checkpoints to restrict passage from one side to the other. Peace is about connectedness. Whereas security is self-centered, peace is humanity-centered. Peace is about reconciliation.
That is precisely what Jesus represents. The writer of Ephesians said it wonderfully:
“For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both
groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall,
that is, the hostility between us.”
At the time that was written, the movement of followers of Jesus – not yet called Christians – was critically divided between Jews and Gentiles. Many urged that to follow Jesus one must abide by all the rituals and requirements that devout Jews observed, including male circumcision. The point of this passage is that both Jews as they were and Gentiles as they were could be fully followers of Jesus. Gentiles didn’t have to become Jews. In a broader sense what this passage is saying is that the things we share – God’s love for us, our shared humanity – that we all love and die and want the best for our children – are more important than our differences.
In Christ we have the figure that embodied true peace and reconciliation. Here was the one who embraced the outcasts, ate with tax collectors and prostitutes – those who were different. He saw in them the beauty and goodness of creation that was in every other human being. Even in death he embodied reconciliation. He died for all – not simply those on one side or the other of the wall. When he sent the disciples out to preach the Good News it was not just to their kind but also to all peoples. Jesus is the ultimate destroyer of walls that separate. Regrettably even in the church we have forgotten too often in the last two millennia that in Christ there is no east or west, no male or female, no slave or free.
A peace that is not passive
In addition, Jesus embodied a peace that is not passive. This peace requires reaching out – it requires taking risks. It means tearing down walls and engaging those who we don’t know well. The greatest challenges to peace are self-absorption and self-centeredness. To pursue peace means to think of the other as one thinks of oneself, as Jesus did. The most successive dialogues in the strife-torn Middle East are those between the parents on both sides. They share their common fear that their beloved children will be caught up and lost in the endless rounds of violence – robbed of a fulfilling and productive future. When we realize, as Jesus profoundly did, that the other loves, worries and suffers as we do, we are on the way to reconciliation and peace. To use Ephesians’ words, we are beginning to make “one new humanity.”
One final point. To go back to the President’s speech, there is one thing that does trouble me. I’m not a pacifist though I respect those who are. I believe the biblical evidence on this question is unclear. For every statement about turning the other check, we have stories such as that of Jesus forcibly throwing the moneychangers out of the Temple. I cannot condemn the use of force to stop the holocaust or the acts of genocide of recent times. For me there are circumstances when evil is so extreme that force though terrible is a justifiable response. I admire Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and the non-violent resistance they practiced. It worked – thank God. But let us not forget that in each case the nonviolence practiced was in a society with a commitment to the rule of law. Gandhi was jailed as was Martin Luther King, Jr. and at times they were mistreated, but never fatally harmed by the authorities. They always managed to live another day. But nonviolent resistance doesn’t work if the authorities will run over protestors with tanks or make resisters disappear without a trace. So force may in rare circumstances be justified. But never let it be too easy to use force – for history teaches that violence most often begets violence and fails to bring even security.
I leave to each of you to decide whether Afghanistan is a place where force, even limited force, is appropriate. My greater concern is that peace was not part of that speech. We are being asked to settle for security. In the face of terrorism, which admittedly is so difficult to confront and to eradicate, have we given up on peace? Is there a strategy for establishing peace not simply for creating security? The message of Christ is that it is peace that we must strive for – as Lincoln said in 1858, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” By recognizing all that we share and in celebrating the beauty of our differences we can find true peace. And in finding true peace we are the best we can be. What is the message of the Prince of Peace – that peace is not the absence of struggle but the presence of love that connects us to one another. Let us in this Advent season strive not to lose sight of this message. Amen
Celebrate Christmas at the
FIRST CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH
Sunday, December 20 at 10:00 am
210 Orchard Ridge Road
Family Service at 5:00 pm
Prelude at 9:45 pm
Worship at 10:00 pm
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