Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Prince of Peace

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. (Isaiah 9:6-7a)

I’m very mindful that, as we gather to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace tonight, we do so as citizens of a nation at war. Even as we hope for the endless peace that the Messiah promises, we are engaged in a seemingly open-ended, if not endless, war against terror. The yoke, the bar, the rod, and the tramping boot of which the prophet Isaiah speaks – all images of military oppression – are still very much with us.

Recall that Isaiah celebrated the birth of a child who would bring peace even as the Assyrian Empire was occupying Israel and Judah. Jesus, whose birth we believe is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, came into the world when Israel was again occupied – this time by the Roman Empire. Today, the American Empire continues its occupation of Iraq. We are still waiting for the day when the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

Make no mistake: there are plenty of garments rolled in blood to be burned. As we approach the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, nearly 4,000 American soldiers and 700,000 Iraqis have died. Another 60,000 or so Americans have been wounded, and millions of Iraqi’s are now refugees. While the value of the lives lost and displaced is incalculable, the amount of money the U.S. has spent to destroy, occupy and rebuild Iraq is not. It amounts to roughly $478 billion thus far, a rate of $275 million per day.

The costs associated with the war aren’t simply a matter of money spent, but also of money not spent. Spending an additional $24 billion per year would reduce world hunger 50% by 2015 – improving the lives of 400 million malnourished people. Allocating an additional $10 billion annually would bring the AIDS pandemic under control in the world’s most affected areas. A mere $3 billion per year would ensure that all of the children in the developing world were immunized against preventable diseases.

To bring this a bit closer to home, consider that the people of San Francisco have contributed approximately $1.5 billion in taxes to the Iraqi occupation. That same amount of money could have provided healthcare for 632,000 people, or built 4,611 units of affordable housing in this city, or provided renewable energy for 2.7 million homes. It’s even enough to clean-up one of the nation’s most toxic Superfund sites: the old naval shipyard in Bayview, which is poisoning the people of that neighborhood while no one seems to notice. The cost of this war isn’t only in terms of the suffering we have caused, but also the suffering we could have prevented.

We know what it is to dwell in a land of deep darkness, as Isaiah described nations caught in the spiral of violence. The question is: can we see the light in the darkness? Later, the prophet will declare, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you. For behold, darkness covers the land; deep gloom enshrouds the peoples. But over you the Lord will rise, and his glory will appear upon you. . . Violence wills no more be heard in your land, ruin or destruction within your borders.” (Isaiah 60:1-2, 18a,b)

This is the messianic hope – the promise of a world without violence, in which prosperity, joy, and peace are established on the basis of justice. As Christians, we celebrate the birth of Jesus as the dawning of the glory of God of which Isaiah spoke, the coming into the world of the divine light that will dispel the darkness of violence and injustice. Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, is the fulfillment of our hope for the Prince of Peace.

Why is it, then, that so many Christians embrace war? In part, because of naked self-interest, frequently cast in terms of national interest or national security. War makes some people very, very rich as well as powerful. And, as Chris Hedges has eloquently argued, “war is a force that gives us meaning.” It provides a sense of purpose, of identity, of belonging – we can give ourselves over to the national or ethnic or religious causes that wars signify. In all fairness, however, there is also a long and venerable Christian tradition of justifying war as the lesser of two evils: sometimes violence may be necessary in the face of grave injustice; a plausible idea given the genocidal age in which we live.

And yet, I’m left with a nagging suspicion that Christian justification of violence betrays faithfulness to the Prince of Peace. Miroslav Volf puts his finger on the problem in noting that

There are Christians who have a hard time resisting the temptation to seek religious legitimation for their (understandable) need to take up the sword. If they give in to this temptation, they should forego all attempts to exonerate their version of Christian faith from complicity in fomenting violence. Of course, they can specify that religious symbols should be used to legitimate and inspire only just wars. But show me one warring party that does not think its war is just! Simple logic tells us that at least half of them must be wrong. It could be, however, that simple logic does not apply to the chaotic world of wars. Then all would be right, which is to say that all would be wrong, which is to say that terror would reign – in the name of the gods who can no longer be distinguished from the devils. (Volf, p. 306)

Thus, the spiral of violence continues, with the complicity of most Christians, as if the Prince of Peace were never born; or, at least, as if his birth didn’t really make any difference. Perhaps we have not yet fully understood the way in which Jesus fulfills the promise of peace; perhaps the fulfillment of the promise depends upon our response to Jesus’ invitation to follow him – to discover that the path of peace follows the way of the cross.

James Alison rightly has pointed out that the significance of Jesus birth can only be understood backwards: through the lens of his death and resurrection. It is only because of his death and resurrection that his nativity has become of any interest to us. The theological point of the narratives of Jesus’ birth serve to underscore the meaning of his death and resurrection: that peace can only be bought at the price of self-giving love. The only way to break the cycle of violence is to resist it nonviolently; by acknowledging the truth of injustice, restoring wholeness, forgiving sinners, and reconciling enemies.

By suffering violence as an innocent victim, Volf argues, [Jesus] took upon himself the aggression of the persecutors. He broke the vicious cycle of violence by absorbing it, taking it upon himself. He refused to be sucked into the automatism of revenge, but sought to overcome evil by doing good – even at the cost of his life. Jesus’ kind of option for nonviolence had nothing to do with the self-abnegation in which I completely place myself at the disposal of others to do with me as they please; it had much to do with the kind of self-assertion in which I refuse to be ensnared in the dumb redoubling of my enemies’ violent gestures and be reshaped into their mirror image. (Volf, p. 291-292).

Jesus fulfills our hopes by demonstrating that God’s power to establish justice and peace is not, and can not be, coercive. Were it so, God and the Devil would be indistinguishable. Instead, it is the power of self-giving and forgiving love through which God is making all things new. The fulfillment of our hope for peace is costly; the cycle of violence is broken upon the hard wood of the cross. It is a “vulnerable fulfillment” as James Alison aptly describes it. It required God to embrace the other, even the enemy, in sacrificial love. God was in Christ unmasking the lie that peace can be established only through absolute security enforced by violence, revealing instead that only absolute vulnerability can finally reconcile enemies.

It is this vulnerability that is at the heart of the narratives of Jesus birth. Luke situates the nativity in the time of Emperor Augustus, contrasting the imperial power and wealth of Caesar with the obscurity and poverty of Jesus’ birth. What kind of power can Jesus, this offspring of the broken royal lineage of a defeated colonial backwater, possibly wield that would even begin to challenge the rule of violence? And yet, the joy of the angelic chorus can not be restrained as they sing “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”

Here, at the very beginning of his life, the Gospel writer wishes us to see that Jesus, the Messiah, is not coming with the kind of power we expect of kingly rulers. His reign is not established through violence. In Jesus, God has come among us in a most unexpected way, challenging us to reconsider our notions of God and the way in which our hopes for peace will be fulfilled through God’s Messiah.

Although absolute vulnerability can only be predicated of God, we still are called to the imitation of Christ by embracing vulnerability for the sake of peace and reconciliation. This requires a willingness on our part to take risks – to risk speaking the truth, to risk holding power accountable to justice, to risk asserting our dignity in the face of shame and abuse, to risk admitting when we are wrong – and yet to do this without mimicking the endless cycle of vengeance.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.” (Matt. 5:10) The birth of the Christ is not just an event consigned to the distant past, but a present possibility in each of us individually and collectively. We become daughters and sons of God, giving birth to the Christ in us, as we walk the path of peace. But as every woman who has ever been pregnant knows, there is no birth, no new life, without vulnerability. And vulnerability requires far greater courage than does the practice of violence.

This may seem an impossible ideal in a world committed to the belief that only force can secure peace. “But,” as Miroslav Volf pointedly states, “if one decides to put on soldier’s gear instead of carrying one’s cross, one should not seek legitimation in the religion that worships the crucified Messiah. For there, the blessing is given not the violent but to the meek (Matthew 5:5).” (Volf, p. 306)

Violence or vulnerability: which will we choose? The world is waiting for the Christ to be born in us. Will we be the light shining in a darkened land? The people of Baghdad and Bayview, Mosul and the Mission, are waiting for our answer.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing. Amen.

- Edmund Sears, “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear”

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