This past Thursday, September 21st, was the International Day of Peace, instituted by the United Nations in 1982. It was celebrated this year by America vowing to “totally destroy North Korea,” which struck me as a bit of an over-reaction, and somewhat ironic, but then what do I know. Bill Smith and I celebrated International Peace Day by digging a hole for our peace pole, which I wanted to do in two minutes with a gas-powered posthole digger I use at the farm, but was advised against it by Jim McClung, who feared we might hit the electrical line out to our well pump. Then Jim promptly left for Maine, so it was just Bill and me, laboring for peace. It was 80°, with 85% humidity, and about three minutes into the task, Bill faked a heart attack, which I had planned to do about four minutes in, but he beat me to it. And that ground was hard. I never knew peace could be such difficult work. The next time someone tells you peace is simple, don’t you believe them. You’re going to break a sweat every time.
Peace is hard work. It’s war that’s easy. The hatred, the intolerance, the bigotry, the ignorance, the hyper-nationalism that give birth to violence, we can conjure those things up without breaking a sweat. War is easy. That’s why there’s so much of it. It’s peace that’s hard work.
In the book of James, the writer asks, “What causes disputes and conflicts among us? Don’t they arise from the cravings that are at war within us? We want something we do not have, so we kill to get it.”
When I first read that, I thought it was a reference to the battles between nations, wars fought for land and wealth. But reading it this week, it occurred to me that James wasn’t speaking to nations. That wasn’t his audience. He was writing to his own faith community, to the “twelve tribes…” It says so in the very first verse of James, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.” This is a man writing to his own people. “What causes disputes and conflicts among us?”
So it made me think of what I crave, what I want so badly I would harm someone to get it, and I thought of respect, how much I crave respect, how much I want to be admired. Now, I won’t kill someone for not admiring me, at least not literally, but I will do this: I will diminish their importance to me. Who cares what they think? I will tell myself. I’m better than they are, I will tell myself. They don’t matter, I will tell myself. I will set my mind to work “shrinking” them, reducing them, negating them, lessening them, until in my mind they are a non-entity, a non-being. While I won’t literally kill them, I will reduce their importance until they are no longer alive to me.
I once heard a woman say of her sister, “She is dead to me.” It didn’t mean she killed her sister. It meant her sister was of no consequence to her, no importance to her. From that day on, she would live as if her sister did not live.
So who is dead to you? What caused disputes and conflicts among you? James said this is where all violence begins. What would it take to be at peace with them? Oh, that could never happen, you say. You don’t understand what they took from me, what they did to me. But I do understand. I understand that peace is hard work, perhaps the hardest work we will ever do.
Growing up, there was a bully in our town, who was very cruel to me when we were children. He was older than me, and big and strong and cruel. He once held my hand down and smashed my finger with a wrench. His father, however, was a very kind man, who helped me on countless occasions. When the father died, his son, the bully, phoned to see if I would conduct the funeral of his father. I told him I couldn’t, that I had other commitments the day of the funeral, even though I didn’t. I wanted to punish the son who had been mean to me, more than I wanted to honor the man who had been kind to me.
What causes disputes and conflicts among you? Don’t they arise from the war that is waging within you?
Today, we’re going to install our peace pole outside our meetinghouse door. Written on our peace pole—in four languages: English, Spanish, Arabic, and Ukrainian—is the phrase May Peace Prevail on Earth. I hope peace does prevail on earth, I truly do. But if it doesn’t, I hope at the very least, it prevails in me. And in you. It won’t be easy. Peace is hard work. We’re going to have to break a sweat. Today, tomorrow, and the day after that.
Would you do our world a favor? Each time you walk past our peace pole, would you think of someone who is dead to you? Someone you have reduced, negated, lessened. Someone who has become a non-entity to you. Then would you, in the deepest places of your heart, let them be alive to you again. You don’t have to become their best friend. Perhaps it is even wise to keep your distance from them. But could you acknowledge the wars that wage within them? Could you recognize the pitched battle warring within them, how in wars boundaries are invaded and overran, and how the battle within them once spilled over onto you, hurt you, degraded you.
When you walk past our peace pole, would you say to yourself, “God, wherever the battle within me has spilled out and harmed another, may I be forgiven.” Would you say that, please?
If you could say that, could you also say, “God, wherever the battle within others has spilled out and harmed me, may I forgive.”
Could you do those two things?
Well, you don’t know what they did to me…
No, I don’t.
I just know peace is hard work.
We Quakers aren’t big on symbols, sacraments, and rituals. But if every time you passed our peace pole and touched the language of your enemy and forgave them, well, wouldn’t that be something. What if we just wore those letters off, forgiving people? Wouldn’t that be something?