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Violence and Lament, Justice, Peace, and Hope

A Sermon for Parents’ Weekend, 2023 at St. James School

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
—Micah 6:8

And the king answered and said unto them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
—Matthew 25:40

When we returned as a school from Long Weekend, we heard news of the vicious and terrifying attack of Hamas and allied fighters on Israeli civilians on the border with Gaza, with the accompanying fears of the Israeli response and a wider Middle East conflict, possibly involving the United States and Iran.

We therefore made a point of gathering that Thursday afternoon in chapel, so that we could process this news together in the right place and in the appropriate context and I could address the school. The hymn we sang as we gathered is the hymn that we just sang (605), and it is based on the prophet Micah’s words to the kingdom of Judah when it was threatened by the fall of Israel in the north to the powerful Assyrian Empire, the words we just heard read, which speak to us so powerfully and pointedly today.

The news from the Holy Land remains of course a real concern as Hamas’s attack has now led to Israel’s responding attack with its devastating destruction of the city of Gaza and the increasing loss of innocent civilian life.

As Christians, we grieve the loss of human life on both sides in any war or conflict. It is a fair distinction to point out that Hamas targeted, killed, and kidnapped innocent civilians on purpose in its planned attack, whereas Israel is now bombing civilians because Hamas has made no provision for their protection in Gaza and is using them as human shields. But the casualties are nonetheless horrendous, and the Israel Defense Forces cannot pretend that they are not displacing, wounding, and killing many innocent people.

There are, in my opinion, two dangerous myths that drive this conflict: the Hamas and Hezbollah assertion that the Jewish state should not exist in Palestine and that all Jews should be expelled or killed, and the complacent Israeli belief that the unresolved status and continuing plight of the Palestinians in and around Israel can remain unaddressed and ignored. One approach leads to conflict directly and the other indirectly, and neither approach is humane, just, or even true.

A point I made when I spoke about this conflict in chapel is that we see in this sad and tragic narrative the importance of moral and courageous leadership to make and preserve peace. In America, we were greatly blessed to have as our first president General Washington, who made a generous peace and established free trade with the British, and later President Lincoln, who won the Civil War, freed the slaves, and made peace with the South. This was his greatest concern and primary objective when he was shot and killed, so he was himself a victim of Southern resentment and unresolved hatred, and so a martyr for peace. In both cases, neither leader dehumanized his enemies, and both were careful not to humiliate or punish them in victory, building for us a strong and enduring peace.

Consider also General MacArthur, who kept Hirohito on his throne and rebuilt Japan after World War II, and General Marshall, who rebuilt Western Europe, including Germany and Italy. Both men, inspired in large measure by their Christian faith and morality, had the courage and vision to use the power and wealth that America had gained during the war to restore the enemies they had personally fought and defeated to promising futures of prosperity and peace, making them grateful allies of the United States.

Similarly, Mahatma Gandhi shamed the British with their own Christianity by opposing their rule in India vigorously but peacefully, appealing consistently to the shared values of human dignity and justice, but then supporting them by pausing his campaign when India was invaded by Japan. Following his example and inspired by the prophetic witness of the Black church that formed him, Dr. King opposed segregation and continuing racial discrimination against Black people in America peacefully, even when confronted with imprisonment and violence, without ever preaching any kind of hate or in any way dehumanizing white people as a group, but rather welcoming white people into his movement, including many rabbis and Christian clergy, who were also inspired by the same scriptural, prophetic call for equality and justice.

Finally, Nelson Mandela while in prison rejected the violent strategies of the African National Congress that he had led and embraced instead a peaceful, nonviolent strategy to appeal to the Western powers, which forced the Afrikaner Nationalists to abandon apartheid and embrace racial equality and democracy. He even learned Afrikaans so that he could speak to his prison guards and made a particular effort to honor and embrace the Afrikaners when he became the first president of a new South Africa.

Sadly, the Palestinians have never had this kind of leader, so Israeli leaders have never been able to trust their Palestinian counterparts, nor indeed have they ever been effectively challenged to treat the Palestinian people justly and fairly. So, one set of leaders still appeals to hate, and the other to fear, and the result is a simmering state of division and war, which causes tremendous and recurring human trauma and suffering and now threatens the world’s peace.

Just consider where we would be now if the Palestinians had had a Gandhi, King, or Mandela, or the Israelis a Washington, Lincoln, MacArthur, or Marshall. Think of Russia with such a leader. There would be no war in Ukraine, with all the carnage that Putin personally has caused. Think of Syria, where Assad massacred his own people and destroyed his nation just to cling to power, as he still does. Think of North Korea. Think of Iran. Think of all the people who suffer throughout the world because of who their leaders are and how they operate, with their lack of integrity, empathy, courage, and vision, and think of all the damage and harm that they inflict on their own people and on their neighbors as well.

This is why it is the mission of this school to produce “leaders for good in the world,” and this is why our mission of educating talented and ambitious young people is the work of the church. We need these leaders. I don’t care what type of government or history or religion or culture a country has; its present and future depends on the quality and decency of its leaders. And this is true of any human association or community; it is true of the church and of this school, and of every human family. Leadership counts. As I always tell our students, “You need to be both strong and good.” A leader who is strong but not good is a bully, and a leader who is good but not strong is a victim.

Now, I apologize for the history lesson from the pulpit, but I am a history teacher at heart, as all the students and my colleagues will tell you, and I apologize if some have found my remarks too “political” or not sufficiently supportive of the Israeli side or the Palestinian side in this conflict, as many who support their one side as the only real victim will brook no dissent and admit no fault, which is in itself an obstacle to reason and peace.

But we as Christians are called to seek peace, which we can only do when we respond to the challenge of the prophets, a challenge we share with all Jews and Muslims, as expressed so powerfully today by the prophet Micah: “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

And further, we believe as Christians that there will be a Second Coming of Jesus Christ, a time of judgment for all the nations and leaders of the world and even for all of us who just seek to serve God as Christ has shown us how to do. And the question that God will ask us is not did we destroy our enemies, but did we protect our neighbors, and in so doing, did we serve his cause of peace? Did we love our neighbor — our Jewish neighbor, our Palestinian neighbor, our Black or white or Asian neighbor, our Democrat or Republican neighbor, whatever we happen to be ourselves — did we love our neighbor as God commands us to do?

And so, yes, we are forced at times to fight to defend our neighbor, but not to destroy that other neighbor, even when we are afraid or angry or in any way aggrieved. We do not hate, and we do not seek revenge. We do not dehumanize and demonize the other, as “the other” is always, like us, a child of God. And we find, as Christ teaches us, a way to forgive, to listen and understand, and to speak, as St. Paul reminds us, “the truth in love.”

So, we put our swords down, and we do our best never again to raise them; we obey and serve the King of Peace.

To him then be the glory, the power, and the victory, now and forever. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. D. Stuart Dunnan is headmaster of Saint James School. He has an AB and AM in History from Harvard University and an MA and D.Phil. in Theology from Oxford University.  He has served as headmaster since July of 1992. He has published two collections of sermons and essays: From the Pulpit of Saint James School, vols. 1 and 2 (Watson Publishing International, 2002 and 2009).

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