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Antietam and the Quest for Peace

Antietam_bodies_in_front_of_Dunker_Church

Confederate dead in front of the Dunker Church on the Antietam Battlefield.

Today, September 17, 2012, marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam (also known as the Battle of Sharpsburg), which is widely considered to be the single bloodiest day in American history. The estimates are that 22,700 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing by the end of that battle, which was fought to what most historians agree was a tactical draw. It was a critical battle in the American Civil War and the first major battle that could even marginally be considered a Union success (which says something about General McClellan and the Union leadership, that a draw might be considered success). Five days after the battle, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation which declared that on New Year's Day, 1863, slaves in areas then "in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free." For areas not deemed to be in rebellion, slavery would be unchanged. It was a watershed moment in American history. 

I have been to the Antietam battlefield many times and, in many ways, it is the most compelling battlefield park in my mind. Antietam is not surrounded by the commercialism of Gettysburg or the intrusion of modern development as many other such places. The fields still bring forth crops as they did in 1862, but the monuments tell the silent story of a very violent and desperate day when those same fields were cut down by musket and artillery fire as if swept away by a scythe. Standing in places like the Cornfield or The Sunken Road or Burnside's Bridge, the silence is both eery and deafening. 

One of the places that I have gravitated toward on the battlefield is the Dunker Church, located in the vitual apex of the battle. This little white church was home to a small congregation of German anabaptists called "Dunkers" because of their method of baptism. Their official name was the German Baptist Brethren, the forerunners of the Church of the Brethren. 

The Antietam NPS web site describes their lifestyle and practices: "Dunkers practiced modesty in their dress and general lifestyle. Other Christian principles which the Dunker's stress are: pacifism, members both North and South refused military service; the brotherhood of man, including opposition to slavery; and temperance, total abstinence from alcohol. A typical Dunker church service supported their beliefs in simplicity. Hymns were sung with no musical accompaniment from organ, piano or other instruments. The congregation was divided with men seated on one side and women on the other. The churches were simple with no stained glass windows, steeple or crosses."

It's ironic, then, that one of Alexander Gardner's most famous pictures from the American Civil War is of dead soldiers in the yard of a church that wanted nothing to do with war. The sharp contrast between the desire for peace and the specter of war is striking. 

Some might say that the Dunkers were being unrealistic in their pacifism. Some may have even thought them cowards for not rallying to the flag as so many did in those heady days of the war when both sides believed they were close to victory. Surely they were out of touch with the way the world actually works–a world that believes that young men have to die in order for a cause to be advanced. 

I look at this picture today, however, and I wonder if the Dunkers were actually the brave ones on the field that day. They chose not to take up the sword, participate in the carnage, and they did so because they actually believed the words of Jesus, who taught his followers to love their enemies, to turn the other cheek, to endure suffering with patient endurance. They believed in a crucified savior who did not retaliate against the ones who nailed him to a cross but, in a stunning reversal, forgave them instead. Most people believe that Jesus was brave in going to the cross, but they'd rather fight than join him there. The Dunkers believed that they were people of the cross and chose to take that road rather than the road to war. 

I think about the Dunkers whenever I hear the war rhetoric in our culture. We are so eager to pull the sword or the gun. Much of that rhetoric eminates from people who claim the name of Christ. Both the Union and the Confederacy claimed God's divine blessing on the righteousness of their cause and then went forward to butcher one another. War is a human reality, to be sure, but the Gospel teaches us that it need not be an inevitable necessity. Jesus advocated for his followers to chose another way. This haunting picture from that bloodiest of days stands as a visual reminder of the choices we must make. 

So while we stand today on this anniversary in sober celebration and in honor of those on both sides who marched bravely into the firestorm of minie ball, shell, and sword, I will also stand in honor of those who bravely chose the other way–the way of peace. As you read the commemorative articles and specials today, I want to encourage you honor the dead by praying for the day when war will be no more and young men–indeed, all people–will come home for good. 

 

Why Nations Fall

 

Statue_planet2 KINGS 17:7-15

At the end of the movie Planet of the Apes (the original with Charlton Heston), Heston’s character and his female companion are riding a horse down a beach—ostensibly toward freedom, when they come across something sticking up out of the sand. The closer they get, the more Heston begins to realize that it’s a familiar icon—The Statue of Liberty. He had thought he was on a different planet, but now he realizes that he’s on earth, but thousands of years in the future. And his country, and all its symbols, are forgotten—dispatched to the realm of archaeology.

Hard to imagine that ever happening, isn’t it? It’s virtually impossible for Americans to think that symbols like the Statue of Liberty or the Washington Monument or Mount Rushmore or the White House would ever be forgotten or lost, only to show up thousands of years later in an archaeological dig, with future people trying to figure out what it all meant.

But here’s the thing: people of every civilization in the history of the world have thought that their way of life, their symbols, their icons could not possibly ever be forgotten or ruined. And yet, history teaches us that every civilization, every dynasty, every empire eventually winds up as an archaeological curiosity sticking up out of the sand. Travel in the sites of the old world and you see it over and over again—the ruins of Egypt, Greece, Rome: great civilizations, great empires, but now just broken columns and crumbling architecture.

The stories we read in 1 and 2 Kings in the Bible are illustrative of this principle. There’s a lot of detail here about the different kings and wars of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah—Kingdoms that, no doubt, the rulers and people thought would last forever. But these texts tell us that within the course of a few hundred years these kingdoms would be at best reduced and, at worst, wiped out. But, then again, so would the kingdoms and empires of their conquerors.

This period in biblical history corresponds to the rise and fall of two great empires in the ancient world: The Assyrians and the Babylonians. The Babylonians you’ve probably heard of, but the Assyrians are less well-known for reasons I’ll get to in a minute.

The Assyrians were a factor on the world stage for some 1700 years and, in many ways,  were the Nazis of the ancient world. They conquered most of the Ancient Near East including the northern Kingdom of Israel, and they did so with a cruelty that would seem to be unmatched in history. Listen to how one Assyrian king named Ashurnasirpal describes his treatment of a defeated people:

“I flayed all the chief men who had revolted, and I covered the pillar with their skins; some I walled up within the pillar, some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes, and others I bound to the stakes round the pillar. . . . Many captives . . . I burned with fire; and many I took living. From some I cut off their hands and fingers and from others I cut off their noses, their ears, and their fingers; of many I put out their eyes. I made one pillar of the living, another of heads, and I bound many heads to posts around the city. Their young men and maidens I burned in the fire; the city I destroyed, I devastated.”

These are the kinds of writings you find in Assyrian ruins– endless boasting of military conquest. This was the original terrorist state and they ruled for almost two millennia.

But then, suddenly, the Assyrian empire was no more. Having stretched their empire too thin, the Assyrians were vulnerable to attack. The neighboring Babylonians and Medes, who had been subject to this Assyrian cruelty, took the opportunity to finally revolt and laid siege to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh and, in fairly short order, destroyed it completely. A world power was so devastated that just two hundred years after the fall of the city, the Greek historian Xenophon visited the site and encountered the ruins of the enormous fortifications of Nineveh and none of the locals could tell him who these fortifications belonged to. It was the equivalent of the Statue of Liberty sticking out of the sand—the Assyrians were simply gone, wiped out. And no one cried. The prophet Nahum would write, “Nineveh is in ruins. Who will mourn for her? Where can I find anyone to comfort you?” (Nahum 3:7).

The answer, of course, is no one—the Assyrian empire, the most powerful empire of its time, fell virtually overnight.

The Babylonians were the next power to rise, but their time in the driver’s seat of the ancient world was relatively brief—less than a hundred years—but long enough to conquer the southern Kingdom of Judah and take away many of its citizens into exile and slavery. But the Babylonians themselves would soon be conquered by the Persians, who were then conquered by the Greeks under Alexander the Great, whose empire eventually became the outline for the Roman empire.

You get the picture. These empires come and go, and the Bible portrays this continuous shift of power as a kind of human folly. Yes, God uses other nations to judge Israel and Judah, but then these nations are in turn judged themselves and taken over by others.

What’s it all mean? Well, I think one of the main points of these texts is to teach us that our reliance on our own national power and longevity is grossly misplaced. Reliance on Kings, military power, nationhood, boundaries, monuments, conquests, and the like ultimately leads to forgotten monuments sticking up out of the sand. Nations and empires fall and the Bible wants to teach us that our deepest loyalties, hopes, dreams, and aspirations need to be given to a higher purpose.

Historically speaking, empires fall for a number of reasons. Edward Gibbon, who wrote the seminal work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in the late 18th century, said that there were eight different reasons for the fall of that empire and, by association, the fall of any empire. You see those reasons listed here:  a decline in morals and values, poor public health, political corruption, unemployment, inflation, urban decay, inferior technology and military spending. Look at any empire that’s fallen in history and you can trace it to a combination of these causes. I don’t know about you, but when I look at this list and look at my newspaper, I see it happening to us already! Cullen Murphy’s recent book Are We Rome? is an interesting study on how our own country is ticking off everything on Gibbons’ list.

But while these may be socio-economic reasons why nations and empires fall and wind up on the scrap heap of history, the Bible offers another reason that would seem to trump all the others. Look again at the text we read early from 2 Kings 17. The writer lays out the real reason for the decline and fall of Israel and Judah:

“All this took place because the Israelites had sinned against the Lord their God…They worshipped other gods and followed the practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before them…They followed worthless idols and themselves became worthless.”

See, for God the problem of nations and empires isn’t that they’re not managing themselves well, it’s that they don’t realize that they are subject to a greater authority. When people begin to worship their symbols, their prosperity, their military power, their economy, and their pride, they make those things into gods that, ultimately, will lead people collectively and individually to ruin. 

God, however, calls people of all nations and races to a higher way of thinking—an allegiance to a greater Kingdom and a most powerful ruler. Fidelity and faithfulness to God is the key to eternal longevity. It’s fine to be a citizen of a country like ours, but God calls us first to be citizens of his Kingdom—a Kingdom that encompasses the whole world for all time.

Jesus would talk about this often in the New Testament. In fact, most of his teaching will be about the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God (also known as the Kingdom of Heaven) isn’t about a place faraway in the clouds, but is focused on a present and future reality on earth—that God is King now and his reign will be made manifest in the future. What the Israelites consistently forgot, and what we forget, is that we have all been called to be citizens of God’s Kingdom and subjects of God’s reign and rule first and foremost because, after all, only God’s Kingdom is eternal.

Paul wrote to the Philippians that “our citizenship is in heaven.” Now, some clarification about that (and here’s where context helps). In the first century AD, Philippi was a Roman colony—a place populated by Roman colonists. They were citizens of Rome, but no one was expecting to eventually go back to Rome to live. In the same way, Paul says, we have our citizenship in heaven, which is a way of saying that our allegiance and loyalty is given to God, but we live in on earth and in earthly kingdoms. We are not to expect that someday we’ll go “back” to heaven, but rather that we are to populate and colonize earth with the life of God. I’ve said it many times, but it bears repeating: the point of the Bible and Christian faith is not about getting people into heaven, but about getting the life of heaven into people so that they can live the life of God’s Kingdom on earth.

That life has certain markers and characteristics. 
•    Faith and allegiance to God as creator, redeemer, and sustainer of humanity and all of Creation
•    Moral, ethical, and spiritual practice (i.e. Mosaic Law, Sermon on the Mount)
•    Transcends boundaries of nationality and race
•    Emphasis on community of all nations “under God”
•    Living in the present with an eye toward the future

Life lived in God’s Kingdom has an eternal dimension. Regardless of whether our countries and kingdoms come and go, when we put our faith and allegiance in God we begin to see our lives as having a larger purpose that reaches beyond borders—a purpose that can never be buried in the sand. We are participating in God’s mission of redeeming the whole world.

A few years back I was standing at the door after church like I normally do, and a woman cornered after a worship service. She was deeply offended by the absence of the American flag in the front of the sanctuary and missed the “Christian” flag, too (An aside: Who came up with that flag, by the way? Was there a first-century Betsy Ross somewhere in Asia Minor? But I digress.) The woman began the conversation with a finger pointed at my chest saying, “My son is a Marine, and you should be honoring this country by having the flag up in the front.”

Well, I’m a veteran, too (Army), and I certainly understand her passion. I have saluted the flag, displayed it in my own home, worn it on my sleeve, proudly served my country and, while I was fortunate to never have experienced the horror of live combat during my 10 years in the infantry, I knew I could have been called on at any time to sacrifice my own life for what that flag represents, as many have done and continue to do. The Stars and Stripes have been a significant symbol in my own life.

But there are places where that symbol is less important than others. I may sound heretical to some of you, but I’ve come to believe that one of those places is in the church.

The U.S. Flag Code, Title 36, Chapter 10, Section 175.k states, “When displayed from a staff in a church or public auditorium, the flag of the United States of America should hold the position of superior prominence, in advance of the audience, and in the position of honor at the clergyman’s or speaker’s right as he faces the audience ….” When I exegete that passage of the code, it seems to me to be saying that in a public meeting place, the flag should have the greatest position of honor to the right of the speaker. And, in most cases, that’s exactly where it should be as the prominent symbol.

The way our church is set up, however, there is another symbol of “superior prominence” immediately to the right of the pulpit that is hard to miss and seems to cry out for the place of honor. It’s the cross, of course — the center of focus for just about every worship space in all of Christendom.

While the flag reminds us of the sacrifice of men and women who gave their lives in defense of the United States of America and its freedoms, the cross reminds us of a Savior who gave his life for the whole world. It reminds us, too, that if we are truly following Christ, then our primary allegiance must be to his Lordship, no matter where we live. Patriotism has its place, but it is always less prominent than the place of discipleship. When we come into a place of worship, we’re called to recognize that we are citizens of the kingdom of God, first and foremost, and Americans second.

So I gently reminded the proud Marine mom that morning that I celebrate her son’s service and respect the flag so much that I didn’t want to violate the Flag Code (or at least my interpretation of it). In this place, I said, we always pledge allegiance to a greater symbol first. In here, it’s always “Dependence Day” because when we worship, we recognize our full dependence on God to save us. That’s why the cross is our symbol of superior prominence.

Indeed, we say a pledge of allegiance every week—the Lord’s Prayer. Think about how that goes:

Our Father in heaven: We acknowledge God is the original founding father of the whole world. It’s his name that we hallow and him that we worship

Your kingdom come: It’s God’s kingdom, not the kingdoms of this world, that brings ultimate peace and wholeness to the earth. It is a kingdom that seeks to make life on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread: We acknowledged that everything we have comes from God.

Forgive us our trespasses: Where the world seeks revenge and power, God offers forgiveness.

Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil. Only God can ultimately deliver us from evil—no army, no nation. Only God, in the end,  can truly conquer evil, sin, and death.

For yours is the kingdom: not ours. Forever. Amen (so be it).

Someday, all of our monuments and achievements will be fodder for future archaeologists. What will last? Only God’s kingdom will matter.

So, which Kingdom do you want to serve?

 

 

The Death of bin Laden – A Pastor’s Response

Much has been written over the last several days about the daring raid that took down the world's most wanted terrorist. I've read a lot of commentary from ordinary citizens, officials, military analysts, and even a few of my clergy colleagues. Having had a few days to digest it, I figured it was a good time to add my own brief remarks from a pastoral perspective. 

Of course, before I can give the pastoral perspective, I am tempted to wash something like this through my life prior to answering the call to ministry. As a former infantry officer and military historian, I am fascinated by the operational aspects of this raid, which has to be one of the most audacious and risky in military history. I will want to read the book about it when, if ever, it comes out. 

But the sober reality of any military operation is that people get killed. Sometimes they're the bad guys, sometimes the good guys, usually some of both. While the public may rejoice at the death of a terrorist madman, and understandably so, the truth is that this is a grim business for those involved. A "just war" is still war nonetheless, with all the accompanying horror that goes with it. 

As I watched the "celebrations" around the White House and read some of the posts on Facebook, it made me a little uneasy–certainly not because I sympathize with bin Laden, but because my Christian faith doesn't allow me to celebrate the death of anyone, even if that death will save thousands of lives. I feel more a sigh of relief that the business is finally done, tempered even more by the fact that it really doesn't change much of anything in the short term. I was reminded of that yesterday when, in the middle of Little League practice on the Air Force Academy, an officer came to tell us that we needed to leave the base because the threat level had increased. We may have killed the symbol, but the threat of terrorism is still very real. I suspect that it always will be until the kingdom comes. 

In 1879, William Tecumseh Sherman, the Civil War general, famously said to a graduating group of cadets from the Michigan Military Academy (the record varies on the actual verbage):

"I’ve been where you are now and I know just how you feel. It’s entirely natural that there should beat in the breast of every one of you a hope and desire that some day you can use the skill you have acquired here. Suppress it! You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is Hell!"

I think it best that we always remember that. God certainly does. "As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live" (Ezekiel 33:11). If God takes no pleasure in the death of even the most wicked man on earth, then neither should I. 

Yes, I do believe that, as the President said, justice was done–at least justice as we humanly understand it. I do not agree with the President on every issue, but I do believe that he led decisively here and that his speech struck the right tone. I also believe that God is a righteous judge, and that bin Laden will be judged for what he has done. Justice always comes at a price, however. I know this because God's own justice for the world is always understood through the pain and agony of a cross. For me, the proper response to news like this thus  isn't whooping it up, but a soberness in the presence of a God who, in Christ, was himself a victim of a particular human perversion of justice.

I'm proud to have served my country in the armed forces. I took an oath to defend it, giving my life or taking another if necessary. I'm also thankful that, for me, neither was necessary. For many of my friends and brothers in arms, it was. The combat veterans I know will not be the ones out there cheering "USA" as though war and killing one's enemy should evoke the equivalent of a drunken frat party after a football game. They know that war is indeed hell and they hope to never see it again. Perhaps we should honor them, and our faith, by spending our energy praying for war to be over, for everyone to come home, and to live in peace. 

In the meantime, we should pray for those who will take bin Laden's place. Yes, it will be necessary to continue going to war with them in order to protect innocent lives. But, I wish it wasn't. 

After all, war is hell no matter how you slice it. 

 

 

Good Earth Friday

EarthCross In one of the more interesting juxtapositions of dates, today is celebrated as "Earth Day" throughout the world, while much of the world also celebrates "Good Friday." What's most interesting to me about this is the fact that many of my Christian brethren are using today to be indignant about the culture's fascination with the earth when today is supposed to be a day of solemn reflection on the death of Jesus. The "creation vs. Creator" argument is lighting up the social networks today. 

I have a different take on this, however. Theologically speaking, I think it's absolutely appropriate that these two "holidays" should fall on the same day because they're really biblically symbiotic. Today, in effect, the biblical story comes to its climax in a way that should cause everyone to celebrate. Here's what I mean…

The Bible begins with the story of Creation in Genesis 1, which at every stage God calls "good." From the very beginning, we learn that the material world–the environment, plants, animals, and everything else–is blessed by God as God's own good creation. Humans, the last finishing touch on God's creation, are called "very good." They are created in God's own image, created with bodies and created to live in and have dominion over God's good creation. Creation and humanity depend on each other, and both depend on God. 

Sometimes I think that Christians forget that Genesis 1 and 2 came before chapter 3–the point at which God's good creation gets abused by human sinfulness. The humans who are created in the image of God sloughed off that image in favor of becoming something less than human, and they began to see creation not as something to be stewarded, but exploited. Sin not only broke humanity's relationship with God, it also broke God's good creation. When we became less than the image of God we were intended to be, the creation suffered right along with us. Because we and the earth are so intimately tied together as God's creation, what affects the one affects the other. Paul expresses this in Romans 8:19-24–

"For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subject to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies." 

To put it another way, our redemption as humanity is tied to the redemption of the whole creation. The creation is waiting for us to get our act together, and take on the vocation we were created to have from the beginning as people created in God's own image. 

Of course, that's not something we've ever been able to do on our own. The brokenness of sin and the powerful consequence of death prevent us from being all we were created to be. In order for the whole creation to be redeemed, we need to be redeemed first. We are, after all, the ones who broke it and continue to do so. 

That's where Good Friday comes in. The New Testament writers make their point pretty clearly–that in Jesus Christ God came into the world in person–in a body, into the midst of his creation–to redeem the whole project. John says, famously, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have everlasting life. Indeed, God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him" (John 3:16-17). 

This is the project that Jesus sets out to accomplish–a project that comes to its climax on a hill outside Jerusalem. Jesus is nailed to a cross, suffering evil at the hands of broken humanity. He dies in the most shameful of ways as a testament to the violence and grief of death that comes as the result of human frailty and brokenness. He dies at the hands of the very people he is trying to save, and forgives them while they kill him. He dies because he loves them, and you, and me, and the good world he created. This, he understands, is the only way to begin making it all good again. 

That's why we call today Good Friday, and that's why Earth Day is perfect for today as well. God so loved the world…we should, too. 

A Day of Tragedy

This morning's news of a devastating earthquake in Japan leaves us all reeling from the suddenness and tragedy of a high magnitude disaster. Hundreds have lost their lives and hundreds more are missing. The resulting tsunami has affected many others on the Pacific Rim as well, bringing waves of tragedy to many places. 

 When things like this happen, we all wonder what we can do to be helpful to the many victims of the tragedy. I want to offer two suggestions for things you can do today to show your concern. 

 First, I invite you to pray. Spend some time in prayer for all those affected, and for those who will be helping them in the days to come. Wherever you find yourself today, take the opportunity to pray for God's guidance, peace, and comfort upon those who have lost loved ones, property, and their livelihood. 

 Second, one of the best ways that we can begin to help the recovery effort is to give to organizations that can make a difference in a short amount of time. Our United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is geared toward providing help where it is needed most. UMCOR's overhead costs are paid for by our One Great Hour of Sharing offering each fall, thus 100% of whatever money is donated for relief during a particular disaster goes to directly to aid those affected. 

 UMCOR has a dedicated fund for Asia-Pacific emergencies, which you can access here: 

http://secure.gbgm-umc.org/donations/umcor/donate.cfm?code=3021317. You can donate by credit card on this site, or you can write a check and drop it in the offering plate this Sunday, when we'll have a special second-mile offering for UMCOR. Just write Advance number 3021317 on your check and we will make sure it gets there as soon as possible. 

 Our spring break mission team will also be heading to the UMCOR Depot in Salt Lake City in just a little over a week. They will be packing supplies that may be used to support the relief effort, including health kits, layette kits, and other kits that will be of immediate use. If you'd like to make a kit, you can find the specifications and contents at http://new.gbgm-umc.org/umcor/getconnected/supplies/. Bring your completed kits to the church between now and Friday, March 18 and the team will take it with them to the Depot. 

 May we all remember that wherever the world is in pain, God is already there. May we join Him as the healing begins.