“And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks- for nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isaiah 2:4)
Today in the United States we celebrate Memorial Day. We honor and remember those who dedicated their lives in service to our nation, our values and freedoms. But as a man of God and peace, I am challenged by those who would ask the whereabouts of our love and peace in these times of war, terrorism and aggression.
In the early days of the Christian Church, Saint Augustine of Hippo (b.354-d.430) rationalized that there were indeed “just wars”. That God had given the sword to governments to protect the peace and punish the wicked. Upon this foundation, Saint Thomas Aquinas (b.1225-d.1274); a Dominican priest, influential philosopher and theologian- theorized three pillars in which a “just war” could be fought: for a good and just cause not simply for gain, that it be done by a legitimate and lawful authority and that ultimately peace must be sought.
In paradox, God is seen in the Old Testament as a great warrior. He leads and inspires his people into battle to gain freedom and correct injustice. In the New Testament, Christ is the great peacemaker- calling upon us to love our enemies, turn the other cheek and commanding Peter to put away his sword.
Likewise song inspires us. The Battle Hymn of The Republic, tells us “His truth is marching on” and challenges us where Christ “died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” Another commands us- “Onward, Christian soldiers marching as to war, the the Cross of Jesus going on before.” There are many different types of wars. Wars against sin, injustice and oppression. Wars against tyranny, fanaticism and scourge.
When we contemplate whether the cost and weight of war is ever balanced, we need only to think back to the atrocities of World War Two. The Holocaust and war crimes perpetrated by the Nazis against an unknowing world. In one of the pivotal battles of the war, made famous in the movie Patton– American forces are besieged in the Belgian town of Bastogne in December 1944. Surrounded and running short on supplies, a bitter winter storm prevents their relief. Nazis demand their surrender or threaten their total destruction.
Charged with their reinforcement, General George Patton’s Third Army is frustrated to move forward and make an impact. Himself a paradox- a military man who prays on his knees, he summons an army chaplain to write him a prayer for improved weather in which to attack. The chaplain questions the motivations for a prayer in which to kill and conduct war.
The Chaplain was Army Colonel James H. O’Neill, an ordained Catholic priest who would later rise to become Brigadier General and Deputy Chief of the US Army Chaplain Corps and be elevated to Monsignor. The prayer he wrote and presented to General Patton was ultimately disseminated to all soldiers within the Third Army, that winter:
“Almighty and most merciful Father, we humbly beseech Thee of Thy great goodness, to restrain the immoderate weather for which we have had to contend. Grant us fair weather for battle. Graciously hearken to us as soldiers who call upon Thee that, armed with Thy power, we may advance from victory to victory, and crush the oppression and wickedness of our enemies and establish Thy justice among men and nations. Amen.”
I began this reflection with a quote from the prophet Isaiah. That quote, is engraved on a bronze statute of war humbling his sword into a plowshare. It was sculpted by famous Russian artist Yevgeny Vuchetich and presented on behalf of the people of Russia to the United Nations in 1957. It is displayed in the peace garden at their headquarters in New York City.
God alone knows if mankind will ever truly know peace. He sent to us his Son, who is the Prince of Peace and showed us how to live for peace and in love for each other. God gave to us His example, we only need to have the courage and sense to follow.
Most almighty and merciful God, grant your eternal rest upon all those who sought to establish your justice and peace. Let us not belittle their sacrifice, by not beseeching your grace upon us. Help us to know that we only have ourselves to provide for and help each other. Let us come to know that those of different languages and different colors, are ineed our brother as we are all your children. Protect those even now who stand guard at home and aboard, and seek to rid your world of injustice and oppression. Grant their families comfort while they serve away from them. And most importantly, give to us thankful and respectful hearts for their service and the blessing of your peace- so that we might not learn war any more. Amen.