What To Do With Our Weapons (a post for Advent)

“Peace on Earth, goodwill to all!” sang the angels, but the secret scandal of Christmas is that we don’t really believe them. Little girls in white dresses and tinsel on their heads recite words of prophetic power and all we can say is “Ahh” as the baby is laid in the manger. Maybe we like the Prince of Peace being wrapped in swaddling bands because that means his hands are tied.

The prophet Isaiah spoke of swords being recycled into farming equipment, and when you look at the vast amounts the nations spend on guns and bombs, well, that’s a lot of tractors. But that’s just a symptom. Before anything else we carry our swords in our hearts, and our weapons are our words.

Often those weapons are aimed at those beyond us; take a look at how social media talks about migrants, talks to women, how the first reaction so often seems to be trolling or griefing or whatever cute euphemism we think might blunt our attack. Yet the things we say, the things we type have power. It starts with words, but now it’s 2018 and swastikas are making a comeback.

Sometimes our weapons are focused on ourselves – words of condemnation, words of anger, words of shame. Sometimes we speak those words because we don’t have any other script, sometimes those words have been programmed into us by others, sometimes they’re amplified by the chemistry in our brains, and peace is stolen away leaving a babble of inadequacy and despair in its place.

Today, in some traditions at least, we approach the advent crown and light the candle of peace. In doing so, we’re inviting the Prince of Peace to illuminate us, to show us what to do with our weapons.

And so, as that candle burns, may it light our way, may it ignite a smith’s furnace in which our swords and guns can be turned into spades and wheelchairs.

May it light tables and desks as we take posts and headlines and emails and origami them into swans and boats and planes, sew our flags into blankets, remix our marching songs into dance tracks.

May it become a light at the end of the tunnel as it leads us to medication or therapy or whatever else will calm the volley of arrows we shoot at ourselves.

May it burn away our anger, our fear, our prejudice, may it unclench our fists and cause us to drop our weapons and let us see the Other in all their humanity.

May it light our vigils, may it burn hope in the dark, may it spark into life a fire of justice.

And may it guide us to the manger, the cross and the throne as we untie the hands of the Prince of Peace in our lives.

Amen.

A Hundred Years, a Single Day

We found out yesterday that my Great-Grandfather fought at Ypres.

A yellowed newspaper interview with my grandmother tells of when her dad, who served with the Canadian Highlanders, returned home, all bunting and It’s a Long Way To Tipperary. Apparently it didn’t seem so bad in the midst of the celebrations. I wonder how much of that was relief. He was one of those who survived, and although he suffered the affects of mustard gas and frostbite for the rest of his life, he was one of those who came home, who made it to November 12th, 1918.

A hundred years ago, the guns fell silent over the War To End All Wars. But just twenty-two years later, my great-uncle was being evacuated from Dunkirk. A hundred years since Armistice and war is still a reality, still a source of pride and identity and power. We walk through fields of poppies while singing marching songs.

The tragedy is that there’s a vampiric part of our collective psyche that’s built on blood; the blood of our enemies and the blood of our people. That multi-million pound arms industry will never be funded by never agains, after all; memories of the past aren’t always enough to bring piece, especially when every problem looks like a battle and every solution looks like a bullet.

Embodying visions of peace that build on remembrance but take seriously the present and set about creating a future… That’s the hard part. It means taking responsibility for the Never Agains, each one of us. If we’re to beat swords into ploughshares, we’re going to need more blacksmiths, more inventors, more people willing to see their weapons and their perspectives transformed.

This morning I took my son to the local Remembrance Day parade. A group of veterans marched in front of rows of children, and we stood in silence before the war memorial. We prayed that we’d remember as the names of the fallen were floated on the wind as we made our way home. A hundred years have passed worldwide but not a single day of peace. May our hearts and hands awaken to the ways of peace, for in the fields of blood the poppies still grow.

Halloween: Monsters and Heroes

Winter is coming, so they say; the clocks have gone back, the nights draw closer, we enter into Allhallowtide, a liminal season where past and present and future and worlds both visible and hidden start to coalesce.

 

It’s at this time of year, the ancient whispers go, that the veil between worlds thins. This isn’t a curtain I tend to poke behind, but the winter seems so dark this year; the spectre of old wars and the clatter of lying keyboards haunt the landscape as powerful men rape and pillage their way through their self-declared empires, everyday encounters turning into metaphorical slasher movies. Never mind Halloween, the veil has been thinning apocalyptically for a while now. I can’t say I like it.

But maybe that’s something to think about this Halloween. Maybe we need to catch a glimpse of another world – not a world of wraiths and abandoned graveyards, a world lit only by flickering pumpkin-light, but a better world, somewhere more peaceful, somewhere more just, somewhere more dynamic and real than the trolls under the bridge, than the strawman scarecrows, than spiders spinning lies. Now is not the time to disguise ourselves as monsters so the monsters cannot break us, now is the time to stare through the tear in the curtain and catch a glimpse of hope instead.

Because as the world slips into the dark, hope’s the only thing that will keep us going, the only trustworthy will o’ the wisp willing to light our way. Stick to that path, lest we put too much trust in ghosts. Stick to that path, and don’t invest your savings with the huckster demon hunters selling burning torches made in sweat shops. People are not demons, no matter what the sales pitch says.

I would say that now is a time for heroes, but maybe that’s not quite right. ‘Hero’ carries a tome-full of implications, images of capes and Campbellian journeys, vampire slayers and giant killers. That’s a lot to live up to, no matter how much a geek like me loves the mythology.

I’m adopting the picture at the top of this post as my Halloween icon for the year. There’s Mary, a teenage Middle Easterner trying to rip the Devil’s head (or mask?) off. I love the image, but its truth is in the imagination and metaphor of the piece. How did Mary fight the darkness? She raised a child and she sang a protest song. Enough of us can do that, can do the human things that ward off monsters. That’s not a Halloween thing – the real spectres live with us and have their own Twitter accounts. Don’t listen to anyone promising an easy exorcism; sometimes good people fall.

But often they rise.

This is the season of all the saints and all our souls, and while we decorate our homes and schools and supermarkets with the dead and the undead, really this is a season that reminds us of a resurrection to come; at least that’s how I’m looking at it. Things may be in retreat at the moment, the hopes and fears of all the years gathering on the streets. That’s what winter’s all about, after all.

Yet spring will emerge one day, just as it always does. And while now we see through a veil, thinly, then we will see in full. That’s what keeps us going; that’s what brings us through the dark.

The Lights By Which We See (A post for the Transfiguration, a post for Hiroshima)


As we stumble through the dark we grope towards the light, a light, any light. We walk gingerly down the tunnel, a beacon at its end, a mass of voices walking with us, some hoping that the light is the light of Transfiguration, others hoping it’s a firestorm consuming their enemies.

August 6th is a day of tensions. It celebrates the Feast of the Transfiguration, the mountain-top moment in which the face of Christ shone like the sun and a greater reality broke through into dust and dirt and atoms. It also commemorates the day on which, in 1945, Hiroshima burned with a light as bright of the sun, a new world created though the sacrifice of 146,000 people, birthing Nagasaki and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Godzilla and MAD.

These lights still shape our world today. The Doomsday Clock ominous ticks towards midnight with every missile test, with every rattled sabre. We can wipe out everyone on Earth several times over with the push of a few buttons, and maybe, to some, that power is intoxicating, invigorating. We think our nations and our borders and our flags deserve that power, the apotheosis of security that leads to idolatry and blasphemy. Some of us walk down this path, feeling the rush of the firestorm, secure that our enemies can be turned to ash without a scream, and yet terrified that a different false God wrapped in a different banner will turn his wrath upon us.

We’re guided by the beauty of our weapons, as Leonard Cohen might say, but that beauty burns.

The Transfiguration also points to a different world; not a new one but a world which has always been with us, alongside us, a different Kingdom based not on ability to anilhilate everything (no matter how find we may be of that idea), but of life, hope, love, grace. On the mountain the light of that Kingdom burns through, more illumination than heat, a light at the end of the tunnel that we can run toward, desperate with hope, weary at the end of the journey. The light shines, not with the splitting of atoms but with grace; the light shines in the darkness, but the darkness doesn’t overcome it.

We can live in one light or the other, and though we might pretend to live in both we can’t; basing our security and our authority and our hopes on weapons that burn and poison is not the same as holding on to transfigured hope; these are two different stories, two different Trinities, water of Life and an acid rain, a false sun and a True Son. August 6th invites us to compare these two stories, to see where our futures lie: God or atoms, the bunker or the mountain.

Stations: Malchus (Luke 22:49-53)

So the mob moves in and panic erupts and Peter draws his sword and suddenly the servant of the High Priest is clutching his ear. First blood spills and Malchus screams and Peter prepares to strike again, because let’s face it, he wasn’t aiming for an ear, he was aiming for Malchus’s head and missed.

It’s not an unusual scenario, lashing out when angry and cornered and scared. Every fist fight, every beating, every glassing in a pub car park, every shot fired in panic, every indriscriminate carpet bombing… Someone lies bleeding on the ground, someone else vows revenge. Violence never ends anything.

Jesus, of course, calls for this to stop, tells Peter to put away his sword; they haven’t needed weapons in the three years so they’re not going to start now. After all, when Jesus rode into town a week earlier, he did so on the back of a donkey, not waving from the back of a tank.

But it doesn’t end there, can’t end there. Jesus cannot leave Malchus bleeding in the grass, moaning with pain. The Cross inaugurates a Kingdom built on peace and grace and defeats the violence of the world. For this to be true, Malchus cannot be mutilated in the name of Jesus; the Cross of Christ can’t give his followers an excuse to crucify everyone else.

And so Jesus reaches out and Malchus is made whole again. And Malchus fades from view at this point, but this is an invitation to reflect on how he felt, how he responded to an act of grace from the revolutionary he was there to arrest. In the light of one last miracle on the road to the Cross, does Malchus see the sword swinging down, only to be replaced by an act of compassion from an enemy and a rewriting of all the rules, even as Jesus is dragged away towards trial?

The other posts in this series can be found here.