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Give Peace a Chance

Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 17th of Twelfth Month, 2023

Speaker: Nelson Bingham

Scripture: Isaiah 11:6-9

The wolf shall live with the lamb;

    the leopard shall lie down with the kid;

the calf and the lion will feed together,

    and a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall graze;

    their young shall lie down together;

    and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,

    and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

They will not hurt or destroy

    on all my holy mountain,

for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord

    as the waters cover the sea.

The theme for this third Sunday of Advent is “peace.” The Scripture today describes a state of affairs known as “The Peaceable Kingdom.” In our contemporary world, we all live in what Pendle Hill Executive Director, Francisco Burgos, has called the “Shadow of Violence.” We grieve the ongoing tragedy in Gaza and Israel. In our country, we encounter an unending string of mass killings. And yet, we dare to celebrate peace in this season that honors the coming of Jesus into the world. Jesus is the Son of God, but he is also the manifestation of the Divine in human flesh, making him one of us. In that capacity, he challenged us to live our faith.

His is a radical challenge. We are to “Love our neighbor as ourself.” This assumes that we do love ourself, but that is not a simple thing, which leads many to seek therapeutic or spiritual support. And, even more difficult, we are to “Love our enemy.” But how are we to do that? As in other aspects of our faith, Jesus provides us with an answer. Hanging on the cross, one of the last things Jesus said was “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” In the midst of the agony of crucifixion, we can infer that Jesus gave forgiveness to his tormentors and, by implication, urged us, his followers, to forgive those who transgress against us and against others. Our human emotions cry out with anger and even hatred when we learn about instances of violence or, worse, experience it ourselves. We want vengeance or we think vengeance is needed. When the violence occurs on the scale of the Holocaust, we are admonished to “never forgive, never forget.”

Why should we forgive? Isn’t it just for us to impose the principle of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth?” Well, from a pragmatic standpoint, we may end up blind and toothless ourselves. Hatred and vengeance take a toll on those who feel them. So, withholding forgiveness corrupts our own heart, crippling the capacity for love and empathy that is at the core of the Christian message. Beyond that, our belief that there is “That of God” in every person must lead us to forgiveness because to give in to our dark feelings and impulses is to experience brokenness from God. My point here is that our quest for peace must begin within our own hearts and minds. This is the meaning we should take from the life of Jesus and from the example of his forgiveness for those who crucified him.

Recently, a U.S. Congressperson, Rep. Balint, stated in an interview that we are not “able to hold the complexity” of the violent realities and our Christian ideals. I can relate to this (and we can all use our own personal, painful experiences as a way of grappling with this dilemma). Let me share with you a story from my life. I grew up as the oldest of four children, with two younger brothers and a sister who was the youngest. In 1971, when I was in graduate school, my two brothers and the two young women they were dating were driving out of New York City in a small Volkswagen Beetle when, on an elevated bridge, a large sedan, speeding toward them on the wrong side of the road, hit them head-on. Their car exploded and all four were killed. The other driver, drunk, ran away without trying to help them. He was later caught and turned out to be in the country illegally.

Many people said, “You must hate that man!” and urged me to attend his eventual trial to see vengeance wrought. However, I resisted that advice, reasoning that it would be more in accord with my spiritual beliefs, as well as being healthier for my own heart and mind, to forgive him. I did not know his story, but I feel sure that he has one. I was able to forgive him and to ask God to forgive him for his actions. Although I will never forget my brothers and their girlfriends, I found a kind of peace in the act of forgiveness. More than that, my personal experience with such peace has proven to be a basis for my efforts to forgive countless persons engaging in violence (in its myriad forms, physical, psychological, political) occurring far beyond my personal life realm. I should say clearly that forgiveness does not mean exoneration or excusing the violent actions. But, by refusing to allow my actions and thoughts to be driven by anger and hatred, I have found peace in my own heart and that has been a foundation for living a life that follows (insofar as I, an imperfect human, can) the example of Jesus.

Is this idealistic? Of course! There is so much darkness in the world. I have been helped by the vision, shared by George Fox, of am Ocean of Darkness contending with an Ocean of Light. Fox had faith that, ultimately, the Ocean of Light will prevail. Each of our individual actions, on whatever scale, can strengthen the Light. But more fundamentally, it was Jesus Christ who brought Light into the Darkness of the world on that night of his birth so long ago. Some of us will remember Charles Thomas, a West Richmond member many years ago. Charles brought a message that has remained with me. The core of that message was that Christ was victorious over the Darkness and that the rest of our history has been a matter of “working out the details.”

Some individuals have stood out as exemplars of that process. One of those was known as Peace Pilgram. Some of you will remember her. She wandered the country, giving testimony to the ideal of peace. When she began her pilgrimage she had taken a vow to "remain a wanderer until mankind has learned the way of peace, walking until given shelter and fasting until given food." At one point, she visited us here at West Richmond, explaining her purpose and inspiring us. It is not necessary, however, for us to make such a holistic commitment. What we can do is to ask ourselves, when the opportunity for a forgiving attitude arises in our lives, how we can cultivate such forgiveness, seeking peace in our hearts.

So, yes, let us celebrate the birth of Jesus in this Advent season. Though we live in the shadow of violence, each of us can, through the gift of Christ’s shared humanity, follow his example. In this way, we can imagine the world as a Peaceable Kingdom precisely because we carry within us the seed of that peace.

New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition. Copyright © 2021 National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

This document is protected by U.S. and International copyright laws. Reproduction and distribution without permission from the author is prohibited. © 2023 Nelson Bingham. All rights reserved.

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