Peace in a Divided Nation

Isaiah’s image of the peaceable kingdom sounds like taking a family photo: You find a date when everyone can come, you put on your best outfits, get little Jenny to stop picking her nose, oh the baby needs changing and he’s going to cry if he’s got to sit in a wet diaper, hold on, the mention of a potty break sent Grandma off to the bathroom, get the teenager to put her phone down and actually smile and get the bangs out of her eyes. Everybody smile for the camera! Click! And, as you were. Back to real life.


This sounds like the image Isaiah is describing: the wolf and the lamb side by side, the cow and the bear, and so on. Click! Aaaand, as you were. Because the lion is not going to eat straw. It’s just not. That is not what nutrition looks like to a lion. It’s like feeding tofu and kale to a meat-and-potatoes person. They’re looking at the plate and saying, “Where’s the food?”


Woody Allen: The wolf may lie down with the lamb, but the lamb is not going to get much sleep.


We live in a deeply divided nation. And the question I’ve been wrestling with ever since I came up with this sermon title is, How do we find peace in such a time?


Here’s the short answer: If finding peace were easy or obvious, we wouldn’t be in this mess. Think of places that have known division: Russia and the Ukraine. Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistan and India, fighting over Kashmir. North and South Korea. Our own country during the Civil War. Ireland. And on and on.


Isaiah says a new leader will emerge, and he describes this leader’s attributes:


The spirit of God shall rest on him [or her],
   the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
   the spirit of counsel and might,
   the spirit of knowledge and the fear of God.

Wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, and a certain respect of God and humility before God. Christians have for centuries read this passage in the light of Jesus, but Isaiah could have been talking about any leader. These attributes would serve our leaders well today. And Isaiah goes on to talk about how this leader will act with justice and equity for the poor and the meek. Sounds good to me.


So one thing we can do in this divided nation is to seek out leaders who embody these traits. Make it known to our candidates that these are qualities we value. And then vote. Use our voices.


So we do all these things, and still there is a mess. There must be more.


In his book The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace, John Paul Lederach tells stories of people in wartime situations who used their moral imaginations to find a pathway to peace. In one instance in Somalia, the women wanted their marketplace to be safe for people from all the warring tribes to come and buy food for their families. Because the women themselves did not have political power or leadership roles, they started thinking about who they could talk to that did have this power. They found one elder from a smaller, less-threatening tribe. He was able to go talk to elders from other tribes. They found that they all wanted a safe marketplace. In addition, their young men who were out in the bush fighting—they didn’t necessarily want to be fighting, but if they turned in their weapons, then they needed jobs and a role in society that was not dependent on war. At each turn, more people got involved in waging peace. The businesses started looking for ways to offer work to these young men.


Problems were not solved overnight. They were solved by people getting together, talking about the issues, finding commonalities, figuring out who had power to make changes or to talk with others in power to make changes.


In another instance, this time in Tajikistan, a professor began to have conversations with a warlord up in the hills. They met many times over many months. They talked philosophy and art—all kinds of things. Only after they had established trust did the professor bring up efforts to make peace. Finally the warlord said, “If I put down my weapons and go to Dushanbe with you, can you guarantee my safety and life?”


The professor had to be honest. He said, “I cannot guarantee your safety. But I can guarantee this. I will go with you, side by side. And if you die, I will die.”


Lederach writes,

“That day the commander agreed to meet the government. Some weeks later we came down together from the mountains. When he first met with the government commission he told them, ‘I have not come because of your government. I have come for honor and respect of this professor.’” [John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 18-19.]


Unlikely friendships show it can be done: A dog and a deer, or a goat and an elephant. Powerless women and powerful tribal elders. A professor and a warlord.


There is an organization called Seeds of Peace that focuses on creating peace in the Middle East. Jewish and Palestinian youths go to camp together, eat meals together, put faces and personalities with “the enemy,” find commonalities, discuss the hardest issues, seek ways to work for peace together. They return to their communities with new relationships, new tools, new resources, and continued support from Seeds of Peace for any peacemaking efforts they choose to make.


A seminary friend of mine took a trip to that region back around 2008. She came home and made a Powerpoint presentation to introduce us to images and people she had encountered. Images of the wall dividing the region, keeping Palestinians out of “Jewish” spaces that the Palestinians have lived and worked in for centuries. My friend stayed with a Palestinian family: mom, dad, a couple of young children. Regular people. And the one thing the father wanted my friend to convey to folks back home in the States was, “Please tell people that we are not terrorists.”


We can see each other. Get to know each other. Refuse to be put in separate boxes or to subscribe to an “us/them” mentality. Build bridges. Create alliances. Then we are stronger and cannot be pitted against each other.


We can educate everyone all over the world. Including the girls.


Teach peace to young people. We have to be taught whom to hate. We give whole groups of people insulting nicknames in order to dehumanize them. It’s a specific strategy to oppress whole groups of people or to make them into “the enemy.” Think of the “N” word. Or names for the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. Or for the Japanese, Italians, Germans during WWII. It’s part of a strategy to teach us to hate each other.


So instead we can wage peace. We can be willing to put our bodies on the line. Famous 1960s photo of men with guns, hippies putting flowers into the ends of those guns. Luncheon counters: people of color dared to go sit at counters that were supposed to be whites only. Dare to disrupt violent and oppressive systems through peaceful, nonviolent means. We can use our moral imaginations to disrupt hate and oppression, to get to know our opponents, to find our commonalities and move from there.


When people have basic needs met, they are less likely to fight. When they have a certain level of security, employment, food, housing, education, health care, they’re too busy living their lives to go make trouble. Let everyone ‘neath their vine and fig tree live in peace and unafraid.


Waging peace may mean stepping outside of our comfort zones. In the reading from Matthew today, John the Baptist is pushing the Pharisees and Sadducees to get out of their comfort zones, to bear good fruit or be chopped down and burned. Either be part of the solution, or get out of the way.


The sentence that caught my attention in this reading is “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” What does that mean? Try hard and fall short? Or sin hard? Maybe either is okay. Just don’t do nothing. Don’t rest on your family pedigree.


But after further thought, I think “Bear fruit worthy of repentance” means something like this: having repented, live differently. Make that repentance mean something. Show by your works and your changed demeanor that repentance actually changed you. John is angry with the Pharisees and Sadducees, calling them a “brood of vipers.” They are not prepared to take on the oppressive system that is destroying so many people. John, who lives out in the wilderness and eats locusts and wild honey, has stepped outside the system in order to speak truth to it. John calls everyone to repentance in preparation for God’s coming.


Are we like the Pharisees and Sadducees? Have we gotten comfortable within a system that oppresses others—people of color, poor people, non-citizens, people with less education, people with mental and physical challenges? When we are called to wage peace, to live into Isaiah’s image of God’s peaceable kingdom, what are our resources? How do we use any power we have with wisdom and humility?


How do we wage peace within ourselves? Self-awareness. Listen to your deepest anger, deepest fears. Listen with love and compassion. Get therapy if need be. A few weeks ago we posted flip-chart sheets around the sanctuary. One of them was about dealing with our fear: fear about a dwindling congregation, fear of dying alone and broke, fear of whatever. A lot of our anger comes from a place of fear. When we bring those fears to the surface and name them, they start to lose some of their power over us. And when we recognize how opponents are expressing anger based in their fear, we have a window into compassion and relationship.


Some years ago we read in worship the story Old Turtle and the Broken Truth. A truth fell from the sky, and it broke on its way down. The animals found the broken truth, but they saw it was broken and left it alone. A human found it and kept it. The broken truth said, “You are loved.” People started to fight over this broken truth. Finally, a little girl made a pilgrimage to Old Turtle, who gave her the other piece of the broken truth: You are loved, and so are they. [Douglas Wood, ill. Jon J. Muth, Old Turtle and the Broken Truth (New York: Scholastic, 2003).]


Don’t fight over who is better. Learn from each other. Love each other. Celebrate each other. Wage peace with every scrap of moral imagination you can muster. And maybe we can resemble that leader that Isaiah described: filled with


The spirit of God . . . ,
   the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
   the spirit of counsel and might,
   the spirit of knowledge and the fear of God.


In the name of God and Jesus, whose path we follow, let us devote ourselves to waging peace in these divided times. Amen.

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