Swords into Ploughshares
Ever since Cain murdered Abel in a fit of jealous rage, there has been constant conflict among human beings. War is a confirmation of the brokenness of humanity, our inability to look beyond our own perspective and to make allowance for ‘the other’ has led to the unending brutal depravity of vicious conflict. Whether fought over six days or one hundred years, wars leave a vengeful bitterness and an inevitable backlash. Out of these conflicts come stories of absolute horror and incredible hope. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things with a courage they might never have known that they have. Kind, gentle people performing deeds of deadly violence that scream against their very nature. There are never any winners in war. Most of us will never fully understand what war is truly like. Those who come home speak little of it as they lock away memories that return to haunt them in sweat drenching nightmares. It is important that we remember, but even more important that we never forget. Nor should we just equate ‘Remembrance’ with the two world wars of the last century. It is said there are some forty wars currently happening around the world at this time. Some are covered in the media, most are not’ they happen in far off places to people we do not know so we are comfortable in our forgetting that they even exist.
It is estimated that the war in Yemen is creating millions of casualties, causing untold hardships and destroying a nation that has become the plaything of local ‘superpowers’. Illness and famine are rife but the most shocking thing about this proxy war is the silence: not on the streets or in the cities, there the shattering sounds of warfare are deafening and truly terrifying; no the silence is our inaction, our indifference, our failure to value those we do not yet know.
War dehumanises those who are caught up in it, but it also dehumanises us. Our natural tendency to kindness and charitable love is overwhelmed by the scale of the devastation in Yemen. It’s too much to comprehend so we shut down, after all, what can we possibly do? Prayer is vital, informing ourselves and others is critical, silence is failure; and so is despair. Even as I write these words, unknown acts of incredible courage and sacrifice are being carried out by our fellow humans. It is not just that most of these acts of bravery will in time be forgotten, it is that so many will never be known.
On Remembrance Day we remember all who have died, who have survived, and who have suffered in War. Each year stories are told by those who were there (fewer now) and shared by those whose loved ones are remembered. I find it a challenging time, there is a temptation to turn remembrance into life lessons, to slightly romanticise the horror so we can create heroes. I have been inspired by the words and faith of 93-year-old veteran Harry Billinge as he insists that he not be called a hero. He is, above all, a witness, and God knows we need more like him, who remind us that through the absolute awfulness of war, ordinary people do extraordinary things. Here is where I begin to find hope. For someone like Harry, who has seen and experienced things I pray none of us have to but fear too many of us will, and yet to be able to smile, laugh, cry, live, shows immense fortitude and courage. There are literally thousands of ‘Harrys’ around the world not just witnesses of world wars but also local conflicts . Most of their stories and memories are known only in the Heart of God.
And yet there is still hope, I recently attended an ecumenical group from all over the world known as ‘Focolare’ – an Italian word for ‘hearth’ or ‘family’ fireside; It is now a worldwide movement, but had its origins in the city of Trent, North Italy in 1943. As air-raids and bombings pummelled the city, a young school teacher Chiara Lubich and some of her friends would read her bible by candlelight in the air raid shelter, huddled together for warmth and comfort. As the candle would flicker it seems as if certain words from the Bible would be luminated and stand out. Messages of hope, of assurance, of God’s purposes even in the darkest places. These words created a powerful motivation to reach out to others at a time when self-preservation and simply surviving was the absolute priority. And yet the simple prayer of Jesus – ‘that all would be one’ – brought new insight and courage at a time of such deep division and brutal conflict. Many of us struggle to make reading the Bible a daily discipline. We find bits of it cumbersome, confusing and even disturbing; yet bringing the Bible with us into challenging times and places offers nuggets of pure gold, that can transform the darkest day to moments of hope. We will not think to turn to the Bible in harder times if we have not used it in more peace-filled times. A simple habit can become a life-changing experience: like turning swords into ploughshares.