Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
There’s a wonderful rabbinic story that says when God had created all the blessings for humanity he looked around for a pot or vessel in which to put them. When he couldn’t find one, he created shalom, peace.
The most peaceful time I can remember as a child was sitting by the River Windrush, listening to the water rolling over the rocks, and to birds singing and soaring in the clear blue sky. It was lovely, a vision of Eden.
The most peaceful time I can remember recently however was waking up early in Al Amara in Iraq after half a night sleep, uninterrupted for once by any mortar or rocket attack, walking out onto the compound and watching the amazing stars in the Arabian sky. They really did look like a myriad of diamonds spilled onto a black velvet cloth. And looking at the moon, even though we were far apart, I knew that my wife would have looked at that same moon that night, and somehow we were together.
For me that peace is the more poignant of the two memories, not just because of the contrast between the previous days activities in a violent riot, but also because I knew how transient and rare it was. It was, and remains a precious memory.
Most of my strange parish were either blissfully asleep, and mostly snoring or quietly and vigilantly on duty. And because of those few on guard, I was, for that brief instant, safe in that strange land. Their watchfulness allowed me my quiet contemplation, and gave me that truly wonderful moment of peace.
For me those soldiers on duty were children of God, in their vigilance and their activity they were creating peace, if only for those few minutes. But what next.
Well, the recent history of Iraq is heartbreaking, for all that Saddam Hussein was a ruthless and cruel man, and that Iraqis, and indeed that part of the world, would be much better off with a more righteous leader, the West has acted in arrogance. During his tyrannical reign we sold him armaments and technology, with no thought of the consequences. Then when he stepped out of line on the orders of our elected politicians, his regime was destroyed, and subsequently we have failed to bring lasting order, or to win the peace.
It’s such a shame, the early days following Operation Telic were full of hope, the Iraqi people treated our media, politicians and soldiers as liberators and peacemakers, and they were!; the Ba’ath party’s regime was evil, but it’s all gone terribly wrong. Disparate groupings, and would-be leaders have created war and tyranny on their neighbours, and our soldiers, and those of all the other countries involved, continue to try, seemingly ineffectively, to restore hope.
In many areas of that troubled land fear has replaced joy, anarchy rules the streets, and senseless violence, torture and horror have returned. Despite the news on the ground it’s actually not all bleak, but it is very very far from perfect.
What are we to do? Well according to Micah the LORD requires us. ‘To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God’. This seems to preclude the possibility of walking away and bringing all our soldiers and NGO’s safely home, even though it would save British lives and a fortune. No instead our soldiers, perhaps some 1500 fewer in Iraq, are commanded to continue to stay to act with justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with God.
You might be aware that the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates lies north of Basrah, and just off the road north east to Al Amara, and that it was there that Garden of Eden was reputedly to have been formed. When I visited however the Cherubim with a flaming sword seemed to be away on a lunchbreak, and all that I could see was a broken concrete car park and a dead tree. It’s a desolate place; and far from the image Eden.
But the two etyiological creation accounts in Genesis still offer the reader visions of the perfection that God desires for us, whilst the subsequent narrative of the fall at the very least offers a theological explanation to the question ‘why isn’t the world perfect?’
The reality that our world is still far from perfect is why today we so earnestly need peacemakers. People who work to provide a vision of a better world, a world evolving into a planet of justice and equity rather than one falling back into feudal inter fighting and injustice.
Just to make this clear, British soldiers, on the whole prefer to be called just that, soldiers, they like being popular with indigenous peoples, but they’d much rather be in the pub, with their mum, or playing with their gamestations, their average age is only 23. And to be honest calling them a peacekeeper seems to invoke a negative reaction, and appears to have overtones of failure.
Which is a same because unlike some people in the world, soldiers know that they aren’t all good, and they certainly know that they aren’t perfect.
Soldiers know that when the great and good have finished and have failed, it will be their job to offer their lives, and to stand in the way of someone else’s danger, until some form of justice and peace can be negotiated.
But they also know that they aren’t lost to God. In moments of tedium I have often found soldiers either reading a copy of the New Testament, or wanting to discuss God with me. They don’t really do ‘Jesus’, and on the whole they really don’t do Church, but they like God, and they love the idea of redemption and peace.
But when they read the passage we just heard as our second reading, they know that God incarnate reached out in peace to an outcast, to the tax collector, and offered Levi such a powerful vision that he followed Jesus and then expended a fortune in entertaining him and his followers.
Despite the prevailing religious environment, Levi, the collector of tax for the hated Romans, was loved by God.
And if God can love a Tax collector, a leper, “even that bloke Judas, Padre, can God love me?”
As a completely unarmed Army Padre, I seem to represent a glimpse of normality, safety, and decency to soldiers, who day and night do their duty on operations in Afghanistan or Iraq. What they sometimes experience and have to do could not be in any way described as peaceful, yet they are only there because of decisions made by legally elected democratic Governments, and in many ways soldiers are far more pragmatic than politicians about the chances of easy success. It would be wonderful if our politicians were more successful in their negotiations, then soldiers could spend more time in their ‘pot’, in barracks, or better still down the pub.
Unlike many people in the Western world, British soldiers really know the price of freedom and peace, they know that the world isn’t pretty, and they also know that when push comes to shove, whether they want to or not, it will be their duty to try to restore order in some unpleasant environment. And they do it, and have done it time and time again. There is no one else.
And over the last four or five years they’ve done it almost continually, many for a measly remuneration of just 12.5 thousand pounds a year. And governed by strict laws of armed combat they have, on the whole (with very few exceptions) acted justly, humbly and despite incredible provocation, so often incredibly kindly, and have quietly gone about their duty time and time again.
And that’s why, for me, the Rabbinic story works so well; the imagery of God first looking for a pot to store up his blessings for humanity. Then God realizing that pots are used to store things for when they are needed, and that our blessings cannot be saved up for a rainy day but are in constant demand. God’s blessing to the peacemakers, shalom, cannot be passive but essentially is active.
Since Eden, the world and societies within it have evolved, and it seems to me that the Pauline concept, of our redemption also being in the process, of us being redeemed now and not yet, compliments this idea of an active peace, and the continuing need for peacemakers.
Today, in many ways, the world is a lot more peaceful than it has been, but it’s still far from perfect. And because of this, continuing painful evolution, when our politicians demand some poor mother’s child will have to deploy, and stand in the way of evil, or danger, and be ready to be counted.
The harsh truth remains that, despite the joy of Easter Morn, the bitter reality is that this is still a fallen world, a world in process, and until it, and we, are all finally redeemed we will continue to need peacemakers. Because of the glorious resurrection, there is always hope; but when peacemakers initially fail, to sleep safely in all our beds, to study, or even to look at the stars; I know that we’ll still need God’s blessing, and, for the time being, unfortunately we’ll still need those soldiers. May God bless them.
Rev’d Dowell Conning, Army Chaplain
25th February 2007