Do You Hear the Bells on Christmas Day? (A Christmas Day Meditation. Eighth in Sermon Series: Sermons from A HUMANIST BIBLE)

I.

The troops have been coming home from Iraq, and the last one connected to the U. S. Military will be back here with loved ones and friends no later than today!  What a wonderful, overdue gift to the military women and men themselves, to their families, and to our nation.

Back on October 21, “Stars and Stripes,” ran an update about the return as of that point:

 

   President Barack Obama announced that all U.S. troops will be out of Iraq by the end of the year, marking an official end to the controversial eight-year war that killed almost 4,500 U.S. troops and divided the American public.

    “The long war in Iraq will come to an end by the end of this year,” Obama said in a White House address. “Our troops are finally coming home.”

    On the October day when the President delivered that historic speech, about 40,000 U.S. service members remained in Iraq. Obama said all would leave the country in coming weeks.

    At the start of the war in March 2003, military planners and members of President George W. Bush’s administration initially predicted that war could be over in a matter of months. Instead, it stands today as the third longest war in American history, behind only Afghanistan and Vietnam. Even though U.S. forces quickly overwhelmed the Iraqi military forces at the start of the conflict, the country quickly descended into sectarian violence, complicating the mission.

    So far, the Iraq War has cost the United States more than $800 billion in operations costs alone. In addition to the troops killed there, more than 32,000 have been wounded, and outside analysts predict their rehabilitation bills and lifetime benefits will push the war’s total cost for taxpayers to more than $3 trillion.

 

From the New York Times:

 

    Last Sunday the last troop movement out of Iraq, which included about 110 vehicles and 500 soldiers, began in darkness. Around 2:30 a.m.; the convoy snaked out of Contingency Operating Base Adder, near the southern city of Nasiriya, and headed toward the border.  As dawn approached on Sunday, the last trucks began to cross the border into Kuwait at an outpost lighted by floodlights and secured by barbed wire.

    The crossing into Kuwait brought a close to a final troop withdrawal drawn out over weeks of ceremonies in Baghdad and around Iraq, including a formal if muted flag-folding ceremony on Thursday, as well as visits by Vice President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and a trip to Washington by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.

 

All fighting in that general region has not ceased by any means, but at least this chapter of one war seems to be closed.  If there were nothing else to celebrate on this Christmas Day, that would be more than sufficient.

 

 

II.

It is interesting to me that during war time, enemies will often show respect for the key holy day or days in the dominant religion among the people against whom they are fighting.  Even during times of intense fighting, the Palestinians will often leave the Jews alone on and around HIgh Holy Days.  Jews, Americans, and others who are fighting a predominantly Muslim nation will typically leave them be at least at the beginning of Ramadan.  Those who are fighting nations with a predominantly Christian population will often fire no weapons on Christmas Day.  Peace may not prevail at Christmas, but in many places there is respect for the hope of the ideal embraced by many, world peace.  There’s some kind of message there, even if one day of no aggression in the midst of an endless war may not seem like much, may not seem like a big deal.

One of the nicknames originally coined for the ideal Jewish nation, “prince of peace,” was eventually applied by some to Jesus, whom many people hoped would bring Israel to its full potential as a chosen people, a light to the nations, and among the nations a prince of peace.  Jesus was not not, tragically, able to help accomplish peace principles and peace practices among his fellow Jews or among many of the groups who followed by carrying his name.  The exceptions would be most, not all, Quakers, the Mennonites, and maybe a handful of scattered others.  Therefore, seldom in history have many swords been beaten into plowshares and just as seldom have many spears been melted down and reshaped into pruning hooks.  Nations are still lifting up swords against other nations, and war is being taught in more places than ever–including in academic settings where degrees are rewarded to those who specialize in warcraft.

How, then, can Robert Maynard Hughes, with any credibility at all, say, “The goal toward which all history tends is peace…peace pure and simple based on that will to peace that has animated the overwhelming majority of humankind through countless ages”?  Where is any evidence that the majority of people through the ages have longed for peace instead of war?  I’d like to believe what Maynard has said so eloquently, but is possible to do that honestly?

George McGovern, who might very well have been President of the United States had he not advocated the legalization of marijuana at an especially early point in considering that possibility, said, “I’m fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up  wars for young men to die in.”  More pointedly, H. G. Wells said what very few of us really believe, “If we don’t end war, war will end us.”  I have previously shared this quote from General Omar Bradley, but it is well worth repeating:  “Ours in a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living.”

 

 

III.

In the ancient Hebrew world, there were lots of prophets–prophets for kings and prophets for commoners. In both groups there were true prophets and false prophets, and one of the signs of a false prophet was that she or he proclaimed, “Peace, peace,” when there was no peace.  There are plenty of people, an abundance in the world I’d guess, who see peace as, at best, a break between wars.

One of the youth musicals we sang at my home church, the Beaver Dam Baptist Church, during the era of the Vietnam War had us singing a song that went something like this:

 

There is no peace.  There is no peace.  In all God’s world there is no peace.  And behind every door, there’s always another war.  Oh there’s never, no not ever any peace.

 

Plato said:  “It is only the dead who have seen the end of war.”

Maybe you can hear Kate Smith singing, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” and right near the end of what we expect to be a song optimistically proclaiming peace as a possibility, yeah a probability, she stuns us by singing:  “There is no peace on earth, I said. For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to all.”

Well, I keep hearing the Bells of Christmas Day and Kate Smith finishing her song:

 

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead, nor doth God sleep;

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,

With peace on earth, good will to all.”

 

Till, ringing singing, on its way,

The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,

Of peace on earth, good will to all!

 

We, sadly, must stop looking to Christian and other religious groups to make the peace.  Tragically, religious groups, Christianity included, have instigated and promoted more wars in than all other groups combined.  Some may preach a peace ideal, but very few do anything about making or keeping  peace.  The answer must be somewhere else.  Could that answer lie in secular agencies and institutions?

Jesus told his disciples, and we are their heirs, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.”  Not all worldly groups are war lovers or war mongers, however.

In 1970, in the midst of the Vietnam War era, one lone school in the whole United States, Manchester College, a Church of the Brethren school in Indiana, offered a degree in peace studies. Today, the Peace and Justice Studies Association, housed at Prescott College in Arizona, estimates that there are now more than 500 undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs offering peace courses and peace degrees on US campuses. The schools include American University, Manhattan College, Hobart, Guilford, Tufts, Wellesley, Earlham, Goucher, Colgate, Goshen, Berkeley and the University of Colorado. Costa Rica has the University of Peace. The Rotary Foundation funds up to seventy master’s degree fellowships in peace studies annually. Before her death in 2003, McDonald’s heiress Joan Kroc gave generous financial support to the University of San Diego and the University of Notre Dame to create peace studies degree programs, which today are thriving.

Do you hear the bells on this Christmas Day?

 

Their old familiar carols play,

And wild and sweet the words repeat

Of peace on earth, good will to all.

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