Happy Are the Peacemakers

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Happy are the peacemakers.  That’s what I’ve discovered in my own life, and it’s the subject of the following sermon which I preached at a church that has shared its chapel with the Interfaith Veterans’ Workgroup.  Thanks, Presbyterian Church of the Covenant in Wilmington, Delaware, for caring for returning veterans, and for your vision in interfaith peacemaking.

Happy are the Peacemakers

Text: Matthew 5:9 “Happy are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”

Good morning, brothers and sisters in Christ. Your pastor and my neighbor, Edwin, said that you would be covering the Beatitudes at the end of April, and that suits me just fine, because the text he suggested for this morning is the seventh Beatitude, “Happy are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”

As you read in my bio, I’m an interfaith peacemaker, commissioned as such in 2011 by our presbytery. When I asked the Committee on Ministry to commission me they said, “What’s an interfaith peacemaker?” I told them I was feeling a call of the Holy Spirit to act as an ambassador to other nearby faith communities, to Muslims, and Jews, and Bahais, and Sikhs, and Buddhists, and so on. After hosting interfaith suppers when I was pastor of Hanover Church I felt called to make more interfaith friends, and work with them on projects to promote the common good. After 9-11 my sense of a call to interfaith peacemaking grew stronger, for I foresaw that some citizens would be afraid of Muslims. Love casts out fear, so I have made a special effort to make friends among Muslims. My wife and I have become prayer partners with a young Muslim Turkish couple who are studying at the University of Delaware. We pray for each other daily, and meet for meals and sight seeing.

Interfaith peacemaking is bearing good fruit in Delaware. In March, when the Jewish Community Center in Wilmington received bomb threats a crowd of more than 500 people rallied to show support, including Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus. And yesterday, when Muslims gathered at the State House in Dover to show their love for and allegiance to the United States, again there were many persons present from other traditions.

Jesus said, “Happy are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” Peacemaking isn’t just about stopping wars once they start. In a much broader sense peacemaking is about removing the social conditions that increase tensions that may eventually lead to violent conflict. So, many kinds of justice work are forms of peacemaking, for instance, protecting our soil and water and air, and making good health care and affordable housing available to all, and preventing hunger. Because our society is so diverse in terms of religion–indeed, America is the most religiously diverse nation on earth– peacemaking is done best through interfaith cooperation.

When people hear about IVW, the Interfaith Veterans’ Workgroup which I convened in October of 2015, they often ask, “Why interfaith?” What’s that got to do with helping veterans? Friends, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and in many other hot spots have become holy wars, fueled by perverse religious ideology. If we are to care ably for the veterans returning from those wars, we must work together, across faith lines. If we are to prevent plotters from using perverse religious ideology to recruit home-grown suicide bombers, we must work together, across faith lines. And if we are to heal veterans from the soul-wounds that warring inflicts, we must do this together, across faith lines, because our veterans come from diverse faith traditions.

You may be curious why a pastor should be so interested in helping veterans. Well, because I am one. I became a pastor because I met Jesus when I was patrolling for Viet Cong in the Mekong Delta. I had my belly full of warring, setting ambushes especially. Those felt like murder. I prayed to Jesus for help, and his spirit filled me with joy and peace, and my fear of dying or being captured disappeared. “Whether we live or whether we die,” the Apostle Paul wrote, “we are in Christ.” That wasn’t just something I read in the Bible. I experienced Christ with me, Christ in me. So I wrote home that if I lived I wanted to study religion when I returned. That new course saved me from a lot of suffering which many veterans endured coming home from Vietnam.

Now Americans find themselves in the longest series of military conflicts in our nation’s history. Servicemen and women are serving multiple tours, some fighting house to house. Our armed forces until very recently have not properly understood the need for re-training warriors for civilian life when they de-enlist.  Warriors manage to survive in hostile environments by quick and automatic responses that have been drilled into their bodies and brains. A warrior doesn’t become a peaceful civilian again by just signing some papers. The adjustment requires a reverse training, a calming of the mind and body. And, the transition calls for some kind of ritual, I believe, a rite of passage marking the warrior’s homecoming. Marching bands won’t do. Such hoorah fails to recognize some warriors’ lingering anguish. The communities to which they return must receive them back conscientiously, showing that they own what the warriors have done in their names.

When Sioux warriors returned from the war path they were not allowed to return immediately to their villages. They had to stay apart for a while, because their spirits needed time to heal.   In the meantime the villagers felt it was not safe for them to return.  After the time of waiting was over the warriors put rocks in backpacks and carried those into their village. The villagers then took the rocks out of their packs and carried them into their own teepees. By this ritual they showed that they owned the burdens the warriors were bringing home. We need something like that for our returning veterans. A spiritual rite of passage would help to relieve the burdens on their consciences, which are sometimes so heavy that veterans take their own lives. About twenty veterans each day do that, driven in part by the unbearable symptoms of a nervous system ramped up for aggression, and a soul burdened by deeds which they think are so horrible that they can’t be shared with loved ones. People of faith, this must change! It isn’t just our warriors who need re-training. We do too.

When I decided, with some Vietnam vet friends and some Quaker friends, to see what we could do to prevent veteran suicide I wasn’t content just with raising public awareness about the twenty a day figure. Citizens are doing all kinds of things to wake people up to the problem, and that’s good, of course. Walk twenty miles to raise money for this or that agency. Bicycle twenty miles. Do twenty push-ups. It seems to me that the public is well aware of the problem now, but the suicide rate is holding, and it’s getting even worse for women. I doubt we’ll make progress until we understand better what causes veterans to be so depressed that they can’t abide living anymore.

There’s quite a buzz on the Internet about PTSD symptoms: hypervigilance, flashbacks, nightmares, anger, and more. And there are many mind-body treatments being tried to reduce these symptoms, such as mindfulness meditation, yoga, Reike, and healing touch. The term, “moral injury,” though, is not as well known as PTSD; and this is unfortunate because moral injury, a wound to the conscience which I mentioned earlier, is very likely a chief factor in the high suicide rate among veterans.

There is a Christian psychiatrist in Georgia, Dr. Nagy Youssef, who is researching how religious faith may help veterans get unburdened from the sack of rocks they carry home from war. This makes sense, right? Think about our own faith, rich with conscience-healing practices of confession, prayer, and penance. We are still at the pioneering stage in PTSD research. Nevertheless I think it’s fair to say that communities of faith have a very important role in helping veterans come home to share their warrior wisdom. I am partly convinced by my own experience that by doing so veterans can take on with utter sincerity a new role: that of peacemaker.

Jesus said, “Happy are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”” What did Jesus pack into that phrase, children of God? Jesus called God Abba, “Daddy.” What does it feel like to be a Daddy’s child? I brought a yardstick. I’m on the short side, five foot six, but many Americans are nearly twice as tall as this yardstick. Can you remember when you were half your height, and you were holding the hand of a loving parent or caregiver. You felt safe in that care, didn’t you? You felt loved, right? Well, I think Jesus was appealing to this common experience. He was indicating that when we become peacemakers we fall in step with God’s walk, grasping the hand of someone much greater than we. And when we have hold of that hand, no matter what happens to us along the way, that caring hand won’t let us go. And that makes us very happy indeed!

— Rev. Tom Davis, President of IVW

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