Joshua 8:18-25; John 14:27
The most sobering walk I ever take occurs when I visit our national capital. A favorite stroll which includes the Jefferson, Lincoln, and Washington Memorials is purposefully interrupted by a detour to the Vietnam Wall. I slowly and respectfully walk past 58,320 names etched into black granite. 58,320 lives….. 58,320 stories….. 58,320 tears wept each time we remember. For folks of my generation just the word Viet Nam stimulates conversations filled with both confusion and delusion. 45 years after the signing of the Paris Accords, like the monument itself, Vietnam remains an unhealed wound, particularly to many of the families of those 58,320. The wall insures their names will never be forgotten. Tomorrow wreaths of remembrance will be placed throughout our nation. I pray we also remember those whose names will never be etched in granite.
Despite attempts by poets like Tennyson to glorify combat, war is a raging inferno inspired by fear and duty. It makes boys old men. Is war justified? Should war be celebrated? Certainly you have grappled with those questions. Is war holy? That depends on which book of the Bible you choose to read.
The Old Testament was created over a period of a thousand years. Stories which may or may not have been factual were shared around the campfire until eventually priests and scribes transcribed them in scrolls and the stories were declared holy. What we often forget is that some ancient truths were neither universal nor everlasting. Holy Scripture corrects itself. Today it is OK to eat ham sandwiches. Women are allowed to worship with men. Slaves no longer occupy our balcony. Rules for waging holy war during the time of Joshua radically changed by the time Micah served as a prophet of the Lord.
We have all sung about Joshua and the battle of Jericho. It is an ancient story told by a culture which believed it was sinful to be merciful. The Israelites entered the Promised Land. God proclaimed their venture holy and declared there was to be no trace left of the original inhabitants of the land. On the seventh day the army of Israel marched around the city seven times, they blew their trumpets, and the walls “came a’tumbling down”. The slaughter began. Hear the word of the Lord. “They killed every man and women in the city. Then they killed the livestock and burned the city. Rahab and her family were spared because she had hid the Hebrew spies who had earlier entered the city.”
But one of the soldiers, Achan, kept some of the gold for himself. In the next battle against the people of Ai the Israelites were defeated because of Achan’s sin. But Ai’s victory was only temporary. God said to Joshua, “You are to destroy Ai. Nothing is to be left.” A second battle takes place and to quote Joshua, “Eight thousand men, women, and children were slaughtered by the swords of the Israelites.” In ancient Israel that is the way war was conducted because that is the way the cultures that surrounded Israel conducted war. No one expected mercy from the Assyrians or the Babylonians and none was given.
Enter Micah, and then Isaiah, and finally Jeremiah. From Joshua to King Josiah the implementation and destruction of war was never questioned. It was a sacred adventure. The names of the warriors were etched in the Holy Scrolls. When the names were read the people gave thanks to God for the heroes that protected the nation. But then Micah raised a question concerning the holiness of war. Isaiah prayed the next king would favor peace over conquest. Jeremiah cried out that no one remembered the innocent women and children slaughtered when the warriors went to war. The words of the prophets fell on deaf ears. But they were written down and remain a witness to those whose names have been forgotten.
Throughout the years, as civilizations have allegedly progressed, philosophers have struggled with rules of engagement. As any who have served in the armed forces know, the Geneva and Hague conventions are historical rules aimed at limiting the overreaching brutality of mortal combat. The outline for these rules was created by Thomas Aquinas, a 13th century monk. Aquinas declared war must have a just cause, must be the last resort, must be declared by proper authorities, and must be responsible for noncombatants. Unfortunately as history records, war is not a sport brought to a conclusion through the blowing of a whistle. War quickly emerges into a moral fog in which truth and trust are the early casualties.
The victims of this fog are the ones we honor tomorrow. Some have their names etched in stone. Some have been forgotten. Those we remember heard the call of a nation and because of their sense of duty, or patriotic pride, or fear, or cultural pressure, or a combination of all of the above, lost their lives. We honor their sacrifice.
But the forgotten also pay an eternal cost. In the last ten years civil wars in Africa have claimed ten civilians for every combatant. This is not a recent phenomenon. In 1898 Mark Twain the humorist was not funny when reflecting on a possible conflict with Spain. Remembering our Civil War he wrote, “We will lay waste to humble homes with a hurricane of fire wringing the hearts of unoffending widows with unavailing grief leaving their children to wander hungry and unfriended through the waste of their desolated lands.”
I thank God that one day out of 365 has been set aside to remember the sacrifice of every man and woman whose name has been etched in black granite.
I thank God that on this day prophets like Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Twain remind us of the victims of war whose stories are often forgotten or dismissed.
But most of all I give thanks for the words of Jesus who said, “Peace I give you. I do not give you the peace of the world. Do not let your hearts be afraid.”
How often in the annals of history has the prelude of war been the shrill voice of those preaching fear and anxiety? How often could war been avoided if those voices had been calmed by offers of forgiveness or attempts at reconciliation? The peace offered us by the world too often results in the building of granite walls. The peace offered by Christ breaks down walls.
On this Memorial Weekend let us honor the dead. Let us remember the names etched in stone and the names forgotten. Then let us work for peace, not as the world desires it, but a peace that transcends the evil intentions of anxiety and fear.
In the name of Christ, the Prince of Peace, Amen.