For the past few months, nearly every time of prayer on Epiphany has included prayers for peace in the many areas of conflict around the world. Some conflicts seem to have gone on for a very long time. Before they are resolved, new areas are added. So now we have North Korea and Myanmar to add to Syria, Iraq, Yemen, South Sudan, Nigeria, etc etc. Things may seem worse than usual currently but I think everyone is aware that conflict and war are a common part of human experience.
In an article in July 2003, Chris Hedges stated that: “Of the past 3,400 years, humans have been entirely at peace for 268 of them, or just 8 percent of recorded history.” He gave the total number of people killed in war as between 150 million and 1 billion and stated that at the beginning of 2003 there were 30 wars going on in the world including: Afghanistan, Algeria, Burundi, China, Colombia, the Congo, India, Indonesia, Israel, Iraq, Liberia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, the Philippines, Russia, Somalia, Sudan, and Uganda.
The Peace Pledge Union goes further with its figures, stating: “It has been calculated that between 3600 BC and today there have been only 292 years of peace; that there have been over 14,500 major wars in which close to 4 billion people have perished.”
Anyone attempting to put a figure on such a worldwide and millennia-long phenomenon is bound to struggle to achieve more than a very rough estimate. There is no doubt, however, that war is a major factor in human life and death.
Of course, conflict does not just affect countries or regions or tribes. It is also a factor between individuals. We have different life experiences, characters, hopes and dreams, beliefs and fears. There is no wonder that at times we disagree strongly with someone else.
What we have heard from Matthew’s Gospel demonstrates that Jesus was not being unreasonably optimistic when he considered the community of his followers and how peaceful that might be. We know that the disciples themselves argued about who was the greatest. Conflict between church members was anticipated and a means of sorting it out was carefully given.
Perhaps the most challenging part of the instructions on resolving differences is that the one who has been hurt or sinned against must take the initiative. The natural reaction is to be like a child in a playground: “He started it so he needs to say sorry”. With that attitude, someone could wait forever for the one in the wrong to deal with the problem. It may be that the offender doesn’t even realise they have done anything to hurt another person. It may be that they are too ashamed to do anything. So, like our Lord who forgave those who were crucifying him, we his followers must be gracious and willing to forgive.
That sort of response takes a lot of courage. When we see examples of it, we usually admire the one who offers forgiveness after being wronged. Nelson Mandela is a good example. Imprisoned for 25 years he nevertheless chose to forgive and so allowed himself to walk free not only from his prison but also from the imprisonment of resentment. As he said: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
If our first attempt doesn’t work to resolve things, we keep on going, until every opportunity has been given to the other person to restore the relationship. This is not easy advice but it’s the only way forward. The outcome needed is not the resentful “Sor-ree!” of a child made to apologise, but a genuine rebuilding of relationship which respects both parties.
As Paul points out in his letter, the one thing we owe one another is love. Love is not some romantic notion, hearts and flowers stuff. Love is an act of will. We should act lovingly because we know we are loved by God regardless of what we have done or not done. It is only by acting out of love that we can fulfil the law, as Paul points out. All the rules and regulations can be summed up as Paul and Jesus quoted: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” The path of God’s commandments, the way of his statutes which the Psalmist refers to is just this: loving the other and working to restore relationships when they are broken.
In my offline church this morning, John our priest, summarised C. S. Lewis’ description of hell from ‘The Great Divorce’:
“Hell is like a great, vast city, a city inhabited only at its outer edges, with rows and rows of empty houses in the middle. These houses in the middle are empty because everyone who once lived there has quarrelled with their neighbours and moved. Then, they quarrelled with the new neighbours and moved again, leaving the streets and the houses of their old neighbourhoods empty and barren. That is how hell got to be so large. It has an empty centre with people only living on the edges because they can’t stop quarrelling with one another so they choose separation from others, rather than relationship.”
I found that description very sobering. If we can create hell by breaking relationships on a regular basis, perhaps we can create heaven by choosing to repair relationships equally regularly. Certainly Jesus says that if we agree together, we can ask for something in his name and receive it. We can hardly ask for something that is not loving, if we hope to ask in Jesus’ name.
As I said at the beginning, we regularly pray about the many conflicts in the world, asking for peace. We also regularly pray the Lord’s Prayer, as we will do in this time of worship also. In that prayer we ask for God’s kingdom, his rule, to come “on earth as in heaven”. God is love, his kingdom is the rule of love. We may not be able to resolve the huge issues around the world at this time, but we do have the power to live as citizens of that kingdom of love wherever we are, both online and offline. In that way we make earth a little more like heaven on earth.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor