THE REV. ROBERTO DESANDOLI
Plowshares to Plowshares
What happens when brothers pick up arms against brothers?
What happens when Christian nations wage war against other Christian nations?
Between 1914 and 1918 the world got its answer to these questions in the form of The Great War.
The Great War.
The War to End All Wars
The human toll of the Great War is difficult even to comprehend:
Between 8.5 and 11 million military deaths.
Another 8 million civilian deaths.
And yet another 22 million military wounded.
Taken together, the total number of dead and wounded from The Great War totals the 2018 population of Canada, plus the populations of American cities San Antonio, San Diego, and Dallas.
These 4 years took lives from every family. They changed every family tree. They changed hills and fields into images of hell-on-earth. These 4 years changed the world forever.
On this day, November 11th, on this, the 11th hour, 100 years ago, the world celebrated the end of this catastrophic war.
On November 11th, 1918, an Armistice was signed between Entente and Central Power forces; ending the war.
100 years ago.
One hundred years since the world was horrified to learn what happens when Christians fight Christians.
One hundred years since the powers of science and industry learned how to turn sabres, horses, and rifles into tanks, machine guns, heavy artillery, and poisonous gas in just a few years.
One hundred years since the world breathed a sigh of relief at last.
At last it was over: The War to End All Wars. Surely humanity would never again embark on such folly.
But this was not the case. Those same Christian nations went right back to war less than 20 years later: in Spain in 1936 and then all across Europe, Northern Africa, and Asia three years after that; World War II. Which cast “WWI” (formerly “The War End All Wars”) into sickly ironic relief.
In 1945 the world said again: “surely, now that we have the capacity to destroy whole cities with the power of the atomic bomb, war will be a thing of the past! How can war be possible when destruction is mutually assured?”
But, of course, this too was not the end of war in the 20th Century.
The Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, The First Gulf War, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, The Second Gulf War, Libya…and those are just the ones Canada was involved in.
When will humanity learn to stop waging war?
And is that really the right question?
Friends, I must admit that I struggled greatly with today’s message.
Remembrance Day and war are difficult topics for worship.
Even though on Sunday; in this robe, in this pulpit, I am a Minister of the Gospel of Peace first and a Canadian second, I am still a Canadian as well.
I’m still that boy who went to Canadian schools and each November coloured pictures of poppies, and recited “In Flander’s Fields,” and listened to local WWII veterans tell our class of their experience, and began to wrestle with those ideas of war and peace; of humanity and sacrifice that we—as a country—still struggle with today.
Remembrance Day is difficult to get right because history never stops long enough for us to say something independent of the present:
If we say that war is terrible and should be avoided at all costs, we are accused of cheapening the sacrifice of our current men and women in uniform.
If we say that war is sometimes necessary, we run the risk of promoting the questionable military action of the day.
There’s 101 ways to come across as “too conservative,” or “too culturally conditioned,” or “too liberal,” or “too hawkish,” or “too pacifist,” or “too political,” or “not political enough”.
War is difficult to speak about in worship because it requires a kind of split-mind:
To be able to say “war is not the answer” in one breath and “support our troops” in the next.
So what are we to do?
What are we as 21st century people, as Christian people, to say?; as people living- in and still affected-by a world that went to war with itself 100 years ago?
What are we to say about the justification for war?
What are we to say about sacrifice and about veterans?
What are we to say about poppies?
About mustard gas, barbed wire, and mud?
What are we to say about 19 million Christians, dead at the hands of other Christians?
What are we to say in just 18 minutes on a Sunday morning, 100 years after the guns went quiet? Even if only for a moment?
The answer, and the most difficult thing of all, is to say nothing and to allow God to speak through our confusion, our brokenness, and our hope.
If the last 100 years have taught us anything we can firmly grasp, it is that humanity needs God’s help in unlearning war.
Humanity needs God’s help in taking the technology of destruction out of our hands and putting it to use as a tool for peace.
Humanity needs God’s help in removing the map-drawing pencil from our hand, so that we can stop playing colonial “games” with real people and real lives.
Humanity needs God’s help in allowing our farmers to remain farmers and not to become soldiers.
Because the loss of life on some far-off battlefield is only one half of the tragedy.
The other half is what those lives might have become had they had had the chance to live in peace.
Between our two Old Testament lessons this morning, we have perhaps the most accurate story possible of a nation that learned war and struggled to unlearn it.
A nation that beat its plowshares into swords and eventually realized that only God could turn these swords back into plowshares. A lesson that we still struggle with each Remembrance Day.
In our reading from 1st Samuel, we heard the story of Saul and Jonathan, Israelite leaders who used their cleverness and ingenuity to arm a nation that was armless against the Philistines.
The text tells us that the Israelites went down to sharpen their plowshares, their mattocks, their axes, and their sickles into implements of war.
In an age when we have gotten so skilled at making not only tools but weapons as well, the victory of Saul and Jonathan may not seem all that extraordinary: they took what they had, their farming tools and they made them into weapons.
But consider this story in an age when metal tools of any kind were treated as sacred family heirlooms:
Imagine if instead of a well-stocked toolshed, you had just one plowshare for the farm that your family depended on for its livelihood.
Not one plowshare for each farmer but one plowshare for the farm!
Your farm has just one plowshare, for generations, countless handles but only one iron plow.
And likewise, your neighbour’s farm has just one mattock, or one axe, or one sickle.
You live in a world of subsistence farming.
No money, no social security, only the crop.
Good weather means survival and maybe even growth.
Drought means death.
Flood means death.
Pestilence means death.
The loss of your only plowshare means…death.
In such a difficult and high-stakes life, why add war to the equation?
What could poor, humble farmers possibly gain from a war between nations?
This high-stakes reality of war that the Israelites lived with would have still made sense to the families who sent their sons to fight in The Great War:
Whether your ancestors were in Canada, or Scotland, or Italy, or Germany, or Somaliland, or Nigeria, elsewhere in 1914, your family’s choice would have been similar to the one that Israel made in the days of Saul:
How does one decide to risk their future, their livelihood, their farm or business or legacy on war? Either by going themselves, or sending their children to go?
It reminds us of the widow and her two small copper coins from our Gospel reading this morning.
Jesus taught the disciples that “it is one thing to give out of abundance, but it is quite another to give out of poverty…”
Anytime these two realities: “war” and “poverty” are lined up side-by-side, there is a temptation to lapse into mere cynicism.
To helplessly say that war is nothing more than a rich man’s game of chess, played with real-life pawns.
But what happens if we resist cynicism and choose compassion instead.
When I say compassion, I mean Christ-like compassion, the kind of compassion that suffers with the sufferer, not the cheap kind that covers up a different kind of cynicism.
Christ showed compassion for the poor woman and her two coins; not by pretending she was any less poor and helpless than she was but by loving her where she was.
Cheap compassion looks at the woman at the treasury and says:
-Surely, her faith will make her well
-Surely, because she has prayed for it, God will give her what she needs
-Surely, because Christ has seen her, he will save a place for her in paradise
That’s cheap compassion.
Real compassion, Christ-like compassion actually looks at the woman without stepping back.
-It looks at her poverty
-It looks at her tattered clothes and her poor health
-It looks at her shaking hands drop those two measly coins into the treasury and doesn’t look away out of shame or sorrow that is not its own
This is how Christ calls us to look at war:
-To look at the trenches: both of the Entente and the Central Powers
-To look at the mud and barbed wire and the artillery shells
-To look at the dead, the dying, and the sick and to see how much they gave out of their poverty
-And (most importantly) to avoid the temptation to say anything.
-There’s a reason we observe a moment of silence each Remembrance Day, it’s because memory and compassion and Christ-like witness requires us to be silent and to look (to behold, to witness, to love) without speaking.
Regardless of nation, regardless of occupation, regardless of language, one reality is true for everyone in time of war (even those far-away Kings, Presidents, and Prime Ministers):
War is larger than our individual lives.
War is greater than we are.
War doesn’t give everyone a choice, war doesn’t wait for volunteers, war doesn’t always discriminate between military and civilian lives.
War rolls on under its own power.
It may be difficult to sharpen our plowshares into swords (whether we have a choice in the matter or not) but it is even more difficult to turn them back into plowshares. And if we trust in the Scriptures, it is something that God alone can do.
When we call Christ “Prince of Peace,” we ought to do so out of the conviction that peace really is in His domain.
His to wield.
His to bring about in the Kingdom to Come.
Saul may have been the first to lead God’s people in the craft of making war, but they were certainly not the last.
There were at least 17 more generations of Kings and Queens in Ancient Israel before the time of Christ. Each with his or her own campaigns, his or her own battles, his or her own wars; either won or lost.
And perhaps it was difficult, perhaps it did take great leadership for Saul to make Israel’s first swords out of those plowshares. But there is apparently something even more difficult to do – that is, to learn to stop making swords, to stop making war.
Turning to our second Old Testament lesson from the Prophecy of Isaiah we find that war, for the Israelites, as for us, is a difficult habit to break. One that requires God’s intervention.
In our Isaiah reading, the prophet brings the circle to a close; describing the time when those swords will be beaten back into ploughshares.
Isaiah may not give the time or the day when true, lasting Armistice will take place for Israel, but the prophet is clear in telling us that it will not come until God’s Kingdom reigns.
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.
3 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 he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
4 He 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.
Faced with the same question we began with: “when will humanity learn to stop waging war?” Isaiah tells us to have faith not in the ways of men but the way of God.
Humanity does not learn to stop making war, God’s Kingdom intervenes.
The promised Good News of Isaiah’s 3000-year-old prophecy is still good news for us today, even if it is difficult to hear: and this Good News is that while, yes, we are still waiting for true armistice, God’s Kingdom is coming… and on that day:
“[God] will judge between the nations”
“They shall beat their swords into plowshares”
“Nation shall not lift up sword against nation”
“Neither shall they learn war anymore”