Neither shall they learn war any more. On this first Sunday of Advent, the first day of the Christian year, we pray for peace and reconciliation among nations. Over two and a half millennia, God’s people have longed for peace, prayed for peace, wished each other peace, and prepared for war. The children of God who call themselves Jew, Christian, and Muslim make war with each other, sometimes in the name of their God whose word declares shalom, peace, salaam. What if, instead of preparing for war, this year, we prepared for peace? What if we actually considered beating our swords into plows, and our spears into pruning hooks? Other nations have chosen not to learn war.
On the 1st of December 1948, Costa Rica disbanded its army in order to avert a civil war, but also and above all, to invest more in education and medicine, improving dramatically the standard of living of its inhabitants in less than 10 years. Disbanding the army was an initiative undertaken by President Jose Figueres Ferrer, "Don Pepe", the head of government at that time, to mark the occasion when he decided to offer the army's barracks to the national university.
I know that it’s totally unrealistic to think that the United States might do the same. We are engaged in the longest war in our history. It has been incredibly costly in terms of lives lost and the irreparable damage done to our soldiers and their families as well as to our economy and our infrastructure. Our enemies have fared even worse. We take pride in thinking of ourselves as the most powerful nation in the world and even as a force for good when we act as the world’s policeman. The power of our weapons is staggering. We are very good at war. What would it take for us to beat our swords into plows, and our spears into pruning hooks? Are we even interested?
Violence is deeply ingrained in our culture. We love explosions and shoot outs in our entertainment. We are willing to tolerate mass shootings in schools, theaters, malls, and businesses in order to preserve our personal freedom to bear arms. We have the highest death rate by gun violence in the world, and not just by a little—exponentially higher than any other country not engaged in a civil war. What would it take for us to beat our guns into plows and pruning hooks?
So far it’s been all bad news this morning. I’m sorry for that. Not sorry for the sermon, but deeply sorry for our reality and deeply discouraged. I honestly don’t know how we even begin to prepare for peace. Our bishop, Grant Hagiya, sent all United Methodist clergy an encouragement to endorse a statement by the Faith Action Network which is partnered with the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, asking for common sense gun reform: requiring background checks for all gun purchases. I gladly signed the endorsement. It is a first step toward peace in our homes, schools, businesses, and streets. But when asked if our congregation would endorse required background checks, I couldn’t answer. Frankly, the first question in my mind had to do with keeping peace in our congregation and knowing that we will not all agree on controversial issues. That’s odd, isn’t it, to be afraid that working for peace might disturb the peace?
Working for peace, preparing for peace, means that we have to respect each other’s views and values, and the more divergent our values, the greater our need for respectful inquiry and honest engagement. Our bishop assures us that it is completely legal for us to stand against gun violence and to encourage our congregations to sign the I-594 petitions. I do encourage you to sign the petition. And whether you sign a petition or disagree with the premise, I would love for us to have serious conversations about preventing gun violence while preserving rights to protection. I would also love for us to have serious conversations about ending wars and the possibility of disarmament. I wish that our grandchildren would not have to have these conversations. But wishing won’t achieve peace. It won’t achieve peace in our families, churches, schools, communities, or among nations.
The prophet Isaiah envisioned God
judging between the nations,
and arbitrating for many peoples—that means working for justice.
Then they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
Then nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
If we want peace, we must work for justice through arbitration. That means give and take with compromise so that both sides’ needs are met in mutuality. Arbitration requires careful listening and a willingness to share power. To prepare for peace we need to develop our listening skills. Only with deep respect and careful listening will we be prepare to negotiate and maintain peace. I long for peace. I’m willing to listen.