"Once More, and Once More Again"

Sunday sermon for October 5, 2014
Text: Exodus 14:10-31
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa

This morning brings with it a couple of particular programming notes: it is World Communion Sunday, a day in which we particularly observe and recognize Christian unity and our solidarity with Christians around the world. It is also the day on which we collect the Presbyterian Peacemaking Offering, now called the Peace & Global Witness offering. Money given to this offering goes to support social justice advocacy, reconciliation, and relief efforts both locally and around the globe. And of course it’s no coincidence that the two events happen on the same day: as we gather around the table to consider our connections with Christians around the world, we are invited likewise to give of ourselves in light of those connections. It’s a day for global citizenship, practiced even here in these pews.

But I have to admit that the current events of the world make these two programming notes something of strange bedfellows. Two weeks ago, America began bombing strategic locations within Syria in the hopes of destabilizing ISIS, the unrecognized jihadist state operating throughout much of Syria and Northern Iraq. For months, ISIS has been the focus of a great deal of anxiety, a great deal of reemergent panic about militant fundamentalism, and wild speculation about what America’s involvement should be. American Christians attempting to stand in some solidarity with their international brothers and sisters have of course paid particular attention to the fate of Iraq’s Christian minority. In July, refugee Bashar Behnam described to the Wall Street Journal the scene in his hometown: “There is not a single Christian family left in Mosul. The last one was a disabled Christian woman. She stayed because she could not get out. They came to her and said you have to get out and if you don't we will cut off your head with a sword. That was the last family.”

It would seem on this particular Sunday that the twin causes of Christian solidarity and peacemaking don’t sit so comfortably. We are, again, at war, with nothing so dramatic as a formal declaration or some dramatic gesture but war nonetheless, as if it matters to those on the ground whether or not the conflict makes for good theatre. We are, again, at war; once more into the breach. And of course there are and will be endless arguments about both the tactics and the strategy of this conflict. About whether or not the justice we seek is possible by the means we employ. About whether or not America has both the standing and obligation to act as such a singular component of a supposedly global coalition. There are good arguments on all sides, but this morning isn’t the time for that. This morning is the time for trying to reconcile this paradoxical call to solidarity and peacemaking. Let’s assume, for the moment, that our cause is perfectly just. Let’s assume, for the moment, that our fight is perfectly wise. Still, how can we be peacemakers if justice and solidarity require the violent destruction of our enemies?

And if that proposition sounds fundamentally wrong to you, consider at least for a second that it is without question the bedrock of this Exodus story. The Red Sea parts, and Israel moves through it, and then God lets the waters back in and Pharaoh’s armies are completely destroyed. This is a military massacre of the first order. And on one hand you can say that the cause was just. Israel was in slavery, and it’s not like Pharaoh hadn’t gotten his chances to end this without violence. The ten plagues of Egypt that precede this story are nothing if not God’s attempt at a diplomatic solution. (Well, that’s oversimplifying a bit, given the extreme violence that occurs even within those plague narratives, but it doesn’t occur without escalation. Pharaoh had his chances.) And then finally Israel is on the run, and they are through the parted waters, but Pharaoh’s armies are massive and his resources infinite and he will pursue them into the wilderness and he will have food and shelter and they will have nothing – this fight is not over when Israel crosses the water. It’s only over when Pharaoh’s army drowns beneath the waves. It is as if the story one-by-one closes off every alternate possibility and every alternate reality until the water comes crashing in. So I repeat: how can we be peacemakers if justice requires – even once – the violent destruction of our enemies?

Now, it should be noted that Israel expresses no such misgivings. What we’re not reading this morning is the chapter that follows, which is the song that Moses and the Israelites sing immediately following Pharaoh’s destruction.

“I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.
Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power—
your right hand, O Lord, shattered the enemy.”

It goes on. Scholars tell us these words are among the oldest in scripture, building-blocks of Israel’s theological identity. But is that really how we are supposed to feel, we, the self-styled peacemakers, singing glad songs of triumph at the scene of a massacre? Dancing on the grave of a thousand dead Egyptian soldiers who had little more recourse to resist Pharaoh than did the any of the Israelites? Is this really what being a peacemaker looks like? Is this really what being a peacemaker feels like? Like victory? Like retribution? I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously! Is that what it’s supposed to feel like?

Honestly, I’m not sure it feels like anything anymore. Two weeks ago we went back to war; or, we started a military intervention; or, we began a series of combat engagements; or, whatever you want to call it, two weeks ago we went back to war and the news makes no dent in collective psyche of America. It’s like it’s not happening, it’s like nothing happened, which I suspect is really about the fact that it has happened so consistently for a generation that we have lost all sense of perspective. In my lifetime it has been intervention after intervention: Granada, Panama, Kuwait. Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo. Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, at some point you just run out of emotional investment. At some point I lost my capacity to feel in proportion to the real cost of our so-called “engagements.” It is easy enough to observe that our wars today happen only on video screens; those in fact seem to me to be the best days. The worst ones happen 140 characters at a time.

And it feels like our numbness isn’t just a side-effect of over saturation. It feels like matter of national policy. Last week on 60 Minutes President Obama was interviewed about the state of American engagement in Syria, and when Steve Kroft pressed him about the disproportionate amount of the work done by the U.S. in this international coalition, Obama argued in return that America’s exceptionalism — “we are the indispensable nation,” he said — that America’s indispensability has converted this nonstop warfare into a kind of regular government program. “When trouble comes up, they call us,” Obama said. “That’s the deal … That’s what makes this America.” But my question is whether we really want to talk about violence on an almost unimaginable scale as a kind of municipal service. Because there was a time when warfare was a special occasion. But treating military action as just another one of the services that our government provides gradually dulls and numbs our emotional response, at least for those of us whose loved ones are not being deployed across the ocean; it’s no longer special, it’s no longer traumatic, it’s no longer cathartic, it’s no longer wretched; it just is. It’s what we do. That’s what makes this America.

How can we be peacemakers if war has so dulled our senses? Journalist Chris Hedges spent fifteen years as a foreign wartime correspondent — in the Middle East, and prominently in Sarajevo. After he came home, in 2003, as this country was in the first months of its invasion of Iraq, Hedges began to write about wartime as a kind of cultural narcotic. “I learned early on that war forms its own culture,” Hedges writes. “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal injection, for was is a drug. It is peddled by mythmakers… it dominates culture… it can give us a purpose, meaning, a reason for living. Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives become apparent. War is an enticing elixir. It gives us a resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble.” Which is not a blanket indictment of military action. Hedges is not a textbook pacifist, and neither am I. It is simply to note that our capacity for warfare has a power over us; it is seductive and addictive; and I would submit that our general numbness about intervention in Syria is that of the addict for whom such small doses are required even just to feel normal. It just is. That’s what we do. That’s what makes this America.

In some ways, then, I think the part of this Biblical story that speaks to our historical moment is not the euphoria of liberation at the end but rather the addictive quality of captivity that hangs over its opening. Just like our addiction to a certain story about American military obligation, Israel is addicted to a story about its own captivity. Having fled the city, and now stuck between the Red Sea and Pharoah’s advancing armies, Israel turns on Moses: “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness!” Israel has been in slavery for so long that they have forgotten any other story to tell, about who they are, about where they came from, about what they want. And while slavery surely hasn’t been a popular option, the real terror in this text is having no story left at all. If Israel can’t be slaves, then who can they be? Who will they be? What becomes of them in the wilderness? Even here, slavery has a kind of narcotic effect; it gives meaning and purpose and the most dangerous battle waged in this story is not between armies but rather within the hearts and minds of the Israeli nation. The most courageous act in this story isn’t a single moment of military prowess. Rather it is Israel’s collective decision to leave behind the comfortable numbness of the only story they know about who they are, and to risk the wilderness instead.

For me, this moment of the text is the American moment, but it is not the intoxicating effects of slavery that have their hold on us but rather the narcotic-like-effects and power of war. Which means that for me the first step to being peacemakers — peacemakers in a world where Pharoah’s armies have to drown, peacemakers in a world where the cause of justice sometimes leaves no peaceful alternative — the first step to being peacemakers in an unjust world is open up some space in our hearts where we can have healthy, human, emotional responses to our own violent ways. The first step is choosing to leave behind the narcotic story of military intervention as just part of who this country is and instead choosing to bear the moral cost and weight of our actions. Just because there are just causes does not mean that there are just wars. No war is just. And while the Bible doesn’t lack for songs of military victory, it also abounds with the moral cost of violence and death, from the mark of Cain to the marks in Jesus’s hands. We live as people of a book, people of a God who seeks justice and abhors violence and if we would be peacemakers in a warring age, peacemakers in a warfaring nation, peacemakers addicted to a wartime drug, if we would be those peacemakers, the first thing we would do is ask forgiveness. Hedges says that his writing is not a call for inaction but rather a call for repentance. I say that the first step in being peacemakers is making peace with our God. There are days when our cause may be just. There are other days, too. And because we can’t always tell the difference, and because solidarity also means solidarity with the victims of our war-making, and because we desperately owe ourselves the opportunity to have human emotions in a dehumanizing age, and because we can’t always tell the difference, we ask forgiveness.

Frances Spufford tells the story of the deathbed request of Bernard Montgomery, Field Marshall of the British Army during the Second World War. One February night in 1976, as Montgomery was nearing the end, his housekeeper became alarmed one evening and summoned one of his old battalion commanders, and when the friend asked a visibly distressed Montgomery what the matter was, he said “I’ve got to go meet God, and explain all those men I killed at Alamein.” Now, Montgomery was a brute of a man: antagonistic, self-possessed, arrogant. But he had an exceptional tactical respect for his soldier’s lives. At the second battle of El Alamein in late 1942, Montgomery had been dealt an untrained army ill-prepared for the tactical requirements of the landscape. And so, instead of trying to outfox the Germans, Montgomery settled in for what Spufford calls a “battle of attrition.” He sent his ill-prepared soldiers forward towards the enemy, through the minefields, line by line, a slow, steady, bloody victory with casualties numbering over thirteen thousand. It was a brutal affair. But in comparison to the blood-letting happening at that moment in Russia or elsewhere along the Western front, Montgomery’s results were almost gracious. His victory was hard-fought, but valuable, and no life had been disregarded.

Still, “I’ve got to meet God and explain all those men I killed at Alamein.” By all tactical accounts Montgomery was as respectful of human life as anyone in his position could possibly have been. What happened on that February night to prompt his call for repentance? Into what wilderness did he cross over? Spufford's answer is this: that Montgomery “had noticed that no matter how few soldiers his strategy killed, and no matter how many more would have been killed if a less careful strategist had been in charge, and no matter how essential it was that somebody be in charge – nevertheless, the deaths he caused had been absolute in their significance for those who had done the dying… you could do what must be done, and do it as well as possible, and it would still be the case that locally, body by body, the consequences were cruel, and sad, and left the fabric of the world tattered and blood-streaked.”

Friends, we worship a God of peace, and we wait for a day of peace, but in the meantime, the fabric of the world is as tattered and blood-streaked as ever. May God forgive us. May God be gracious upon us. May God make peace to shine upon us, now and henceforth. Amen.