Peace Begins in Our Hearts
Nov 9, 2018
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
When I was growing up, every year on November 11 at 11 a.m. the great factory whistle of the Eastman Kodak Company, which you could hear all over the north side of the city, would blare for one minute, in a tribute to those who died in World War I. Back then, November 11 was called Armistice Day, the day the fighting and killing finally ended. The custom then was for men and women to wear bright red poppies made of cardboard, purchased from the local VFW.
On the Allied side, my mother’s cousin Harald was a veteran of that great war. I enjoyed his stories, which somehow made war seem like a great adventure more than the terrible thing it is. Harald had been wounded in a gas attack, but not too badly. I had many other relatives on the German side in that war, but I never met those who survived.
The fighting on the battlefields all ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918…November 11, 1918…exactly 100 years ago. The graves are still there in the fields of Flanders in Belgium where there are some 210 military cemeteries, containing some 200,000 graves.
The fighting moved to the “peace” conference at Versailles, which sowed the seeds of all the wars of the 20th century that followed. Somehow war seemed like a good idea in 1914.
In April 2016, the participants of a first-of-its-kind Vatican conference bluntly rejected the church’s long-held teachings of just war theory, saying they have too often been used to endorse rather than prevent or limit war. They continued by saying that to suggest that a ‘just war’ is possible also undermines the moral imperative to develop tools and capacities for the nonviolent resolving of conflict. It makes a mockery of the presumption in favor of peace.
Perhaps. But Aristotle taught us that moral virtue is a mean between two extremes; in this case, the golden mean is between violence used as a legitimate political tool and absolute pacifism. It is hard to see how it would not be right to intervene with force in order to stop genocide.
We face hard moral choices in our individual lives and in our political lives. The widow of a serviceman just killed in Afghanistan spoke this week about the necessary cost that must be paid for our freedom. Seventeen years after 9/11, it is hard to see how sacrificing American lives in Afghanistan is protecting our freedom. But one can only praise the courage and heroism of those willing to make that sacrifice.
Perhaps the same can be said of those political leaders who send armies of men off to fight, kill, and die in battle. Perhaps, but it is too easy to do the sending. General William Tecumseh Sherman said “I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell.”
Consider this. In 1979, Russia invaded Afghanistan. For 10 years, we trained and financed Muslims there and from all over the world to go there and fight the Russians. One of those we trained was Usama bin Ladin. The Russians were beaten off, and then those we trained turned on us. So, we invaded Afghanistan and are still there 17 years later. Now this week, the Taliban and the Afghan government and other nations in the region are attending a conference in Moscow about finding a peaceful solution to the Afghan problem and ending the American occupation.
St. James begins chapter 4 of his letter: “Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your passions that make war within your members? You covet but do not possess. You kill and envy but you cannot obtain; you fight and wage war. You do not possess because you do not ask. You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”
The “war to end all wars” did not succeed in that one bit.
After we celebrate Jesus Christ as the Ruler of the Universe at the end of this month, we will be in Advent and be preparing for our celebration of the birth of the Prince of Peace. How best to celebrate that birthday if not through making peace in our own selves and in all our relationships? Peace begins in our hearts. And Pope St. Paul VI told us and the United Nations, “If you want peace, work for justice.” There’s lots for us to work on.