A Memorial Day Reflection on War and Peace
The following reflection for Memorial Day was originally delivered as a sermon at the Setauket Presbyterian Church in 2005. Our scriptures included selections from Genesis 6 -8 (the account of the flood and subsequent peace) and from Matthew 7 (on non-violence). It was the first Sunday after Pentecost, Memorial Day weekend, and the opening of several summer blockbuster films. I offer it for reflection on Christian witness in the face of war. The sermon was called “Kingdom of Heaven” after the film of the same name.
“The Kingdom of Heaven is here (touching the forehead), and here (touching the heart). It cannot be defended, or taken, with sword or bow. It is a kingdom of conscience, or it is nothing at all.” Thus says the actor Orlando Bloom playing the Christian knight Balian, defender of Jerusalem, just before he surrenders the city to the Muslim leader, Sala-ha-din.
In Kingdom of Heaven, the first blockbuster movie of the summer, director Ridley Scott (of Gladiator fame) has given us a contemporary morality play laid gently on top of a historical tale of twelfth century pilgrimage, crusade, and the pursuit of peace in a land knowing very little peace. For a very brief time between the second and third crusades, King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, and Sala-ha-din, the military leader of Islam from Egypt to Damascus, had managed to establish a truce, a peace of sorts, in which Jerusalem was a city open to all faiths – Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Christians and Muslims still represent enemy camps, but King Baldwin, Balian and Sala-ha-din, all historical figures, model a respect between enemies which allows them to keep their peace. These leaders offer an important lesson in how moderate leadership in one camp can strengthen moderate leadership in the enemy camp. The ‘Kingdom of Heaven,’ mentioned in the title of the film, is this uneasy, negotiated peace. It is fragile: the kind of kingdom, Scott tells us, which is always threatened by those who prefer peace-through-victory over any peace that includes the enemy. But this kingdom means life, a way of life, for those who live in the city.
At the end of the movie, Jerusalem has passed from Christian hands to Muslim hands, provoking the third crusade to retake the city, a spiral of violence that lasted three years and cost countless lives, ending where it began, with a truce between the Christian King and Sala-ha-din. The movie invites us to meditate on how we reconcile the honor of military service with the death tolls of war; and the difference between those who make war and those who fight wars. Our attention is continually drawn to the common people who suffer, and we must reckon with the ambiguous accomplishments of war which we are told make it all worthwhile. Scott particularly focuses on those who seek war and profit from it, the real evil men in the movie, who support themselves with a religious ideology that ‘God is on their side.’ Not all who say ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.
I have seen the movie twice, once with historians, and once with high school students and none of us were really sure what the movie was about, or what we were supposed to think. I was grateful for the very respectful portrayal of Islam, and disappointed in negative portrayal of religious faith primarily as a source of division. The brief period of religious co-existence in the middle of an age remembered only for its bloodshed felt hopeful, but the historical event that ended the peace, a claim by Rainard du Chantillon that the enemy possessed weapons, which were never found, was no doubt supposed to ring contemporary bells. I could not help remembering that President Bush several times in 2001 called the ‘war on terror’ a crusade in which ‘we will prevail’, and that his religious advisor Franklin Graham was at the same time calling Islam an evil religion, but I found my anger over that cold. Even the religious intolerance of our own tradition failed to outrage.
Instead I mostly felt sad, and numb. And the need to grieve.
Near the end of the movie, during the epic battle over Jerusalem, we look down over a breach that has been made in the wall of Jerusalem. We see Christian soldiers pushing from one side against Muslim soldiers pushing from the other, neither side making headway as countless soldiers lose their lives. As the camera rises above and pulls away from the field of battle, the soldiers begin to look like so many ants, no longer men, neither Christian nor Muslim, just bodies pushing so hard against one another that they appear to be standing still. The stillness of bodies in this scene recall another scene just before the battle had begun, in which we see Sala-ha-din and Balian each standing before the graves of their soldiers fallen in battle. Sala-ha-din weeps for the loss of life, Balian tries to find the words for a blessing but they catch in his throat. It is a rare scene, the only one in the film that I think every member of the audience could identify with. There were no sides, only a common weeping for all the lives lost. The point of the relentless violence of the previous two hours coming home. Sacrifices to visions of victory that do not lead to peace.
In the last three years, just under two thousand American soldiers have lost their lives in Iraq, with another 12-24,000 injured. I want to grieve for those soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, whose bodies we have not seen. I want to grieve for their lives, along with the more than 21,000 Iraqi dead, and countless more wounded. For those who have died in this last century of warfare, along with those who have died of the poverty, disease and neglect that accompany the making of war, and the funding of war, that takes money from the poor. I want to grieve without sides, to have my blessings catch in my throat. I want to grieve without defense, without a sense of gratitude for sacrifices made or for accomplishment achieved, that might call their deaths worthwhile; to grieve without agenda. I want to weep the tears of my enemy. For perhaps here peace can begin.
Memorial Day always makes me uncomfortable because I feel death dressed up with purpose. I don’t want to justify the loss of life but to mourn it, to cry for it, to weep for it. To put my hands to my face and hide. For in the end, the kingdom of heaven is not in our accomplishments, our victories, our houses built on sand, but “here, and here” in a way of life than cannot be defended with sword or bow, with gun or missile. It is in a fragile, negotiated, desire to live together with our differences in communities defined not by our boundaries but by our respect for one another.
In our reading from Genesis, we meet a God who destroys, who saves, who grieves, and who in the end renounces violence as a way to deal with disappointment and human failing. God hangs his war bow in sky, hangs it up, never to be used again, violence-renounced as a sign that peace must be built on new foundations, covenant relations, God’s promises and our responsibilities. And when God makes a new beginning, God chooses Abraham, the father of three faiths. // With the help of the choir, let us pray:
In Solemn Silence
Text by Cecil Cowdrey and Peter Wilhousky
Music By M. Ippolotov-Ivanov, arr. By Peter Wilhousky
In solemn silence, Lord, we bow our heads before Thee,
Our Maker and Father most holy.
Unto Thee now we raise our pleading cry.
Unto Thee now we raise our pleading cry.
Bless those who have fallen on the field in line of duty:
Let their bodies and their souls be healed.
Forget not those who have died without shelter
from the cruel bombing and slaughter,
Children doomed to silence forever.
We pray, O Lord, that Thou their sacrifice remember!
Console the bereaved, those who loved them,
As their grief cries for Thy compassion, Lord;
And grant new courage and faith to all people,
That their hope of peace be not shaken.
Rule them, O Lord, in Thy wisdom and mercy,
Grant that war’s dark horror forever cease.
In Thy name we pray, heav’nly Father,
Give us true peace and calm.
© 2012, The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary
White Plains Presbyterian Church