You could hardly miss the question. The question came again and again on the TV screen, from the mouths of many people–especially young children, of every race, from every part of the world. Usually with a smile–but a serious challenge nonetheless: “Are you ready? Are you ready?”
They meant: ready for the e-world, the Internet, and all its personal and global implications. It was a painful question for those of us with low degrees of computer literacy–us “e-challenged people.”
Today the same question, “Are you ready?” but with reference to another global challenge–albeit one surely connected with the e-world.
In November 1998, the United Nations General Assembly by unanimous vote approved a proposal from twenty-three winners of the Nobel Peace Prize (including such stars of peacemaking as Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, the Peace women from Northern Ireland). The proposal was that the United Nations should proclaim a “Decade for a Culture of peace and Nonviolence for the Children of the World.” As adopted, the proclamation calls on every nation and all its institutions (including religious institutions) to nurture the principles of peacemaking and nonviolence at every level of society.
Sister and Brothers, Mothers and Fathers: We still have just ninety-eight days before that decade to create a culture of peace is schedule to begin on January 1, 2001.
Are you ready? Are you ready–whatever your family status, or occupation, or religion, or political inclination? Are you ready to help create such a culture of peace–for the sake of the world’s children?
Once upon a time, according to Mark’s Gospel, apparently in Jesus’ headquarters in Capernaum, the house he shared with Peter, the Fisherman, our Lord called his twelve disciples together–for they were not being very peaceful among themselves. They had been arguing, each one shouting: “I am the greatest!” “No, you’re not! I’m greater than you are!” Stuff like that. Sort of like a presidential campaign in some countries (not mentioning any by name!).
Jesus’ words in that house, that day, went to the heart of the Gospel message about power and status and leadership. If you expect to rank first in God’s order of things, you must live by the humility to put yourself last. No, not to drop out, but to lead, by being the servant of everybody else. To serve the whole world. But especially: to welcome and serve the children of the world.
Are you ready for this? To make this a welcome and peaceful world for all its children: are you ready? What will you do about it?
In that order New Testament reading for today, the Letter of James, we have further evidence of the conflicts and disputes (even murder!) among those early Christians. It is into that conflicted community that this apostle teaches them what true wisdom is all about. Wisdom: understanding what it takes to live life at its best. And what is that wisdom? It is to be peaceable: “Peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy … without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And (that’s how) a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”
So peace is not just a desirable goal. It’s the wisest way to live–now. So: “Peace” is not peace that is imposed by the powerful upon the weak. “Peace” is not peace that always insists on it’s own way. And “Peace” is not peace that fails to do justice.
The creation of a culture of peace must, of course, begin within our most culture-forming institution: the family. It demands more than parents’ preaching such values to children. It calls for peaceable behavior in matters of power and conflict and decision-making. It calls for family budgets generous toward the needs of other families and children, near and far. It calls for public involvement by parents on issues of justice and peace so that children may grasp what it means to be disciples-in-action. And it surely calls for redeeming our own culture’s forms of so-called “entertainment”–not by censorship but by coalitions of action that repudiate the romance of violence.
Two weeks ago, the Federal Trade Commission reported that movie studios, video game producers, and record companies have been marketing exceedingly violent material to children, even though those same companies themselves label such products as unsuitable for children. Another report, two months ago, came from four professional health associations: the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Citing more than thirty years of research, that report concluded that prolonged exposure to violent TV, movies, video games, and music tends to make kids both more aggressive and violent themselves–and less likely to take action on behalf of the victims of violence.
Friends: Beyond our caring deeply enough about these consequences for our own children here in America, we must reckon with the massive exports of such forms of “entertainment” to every other country in the world. What can this mean for this nation’s responsibility to share in creating for the world a new culture of peace and nonviolence? And what does it mean for our own self-respect as a nation?
To “create a culture of peace and nonviolence” would be infinitely more difficult if we were totally lacking in models of peacemaking and nonviolence leadership. But behold! How many powerful exemplars this past century has given us:
- Mahatma Gandhi’s victory for Indian Independence;
- Denmark’s protection of Jews from the brutality of Nazi Occupation;
- Martin Luther King’s struggle for civil rights and “The Beloved Community”;
- The Ingenious mystical diplomacy of Dag Hammarskjold;
- The solidarity movement against communist tyranny in Poland–a catalyst to the collapse of Soviet power all over Eastern Europe;
- Desmond Tutu’s victorious nonviolent campaign against apartheid in South Africa followed by the remarkable achievements of his Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Just eight days ago, in that little triangle of a park in front of the Embassy of India, down on Massachusetts Avenues, a new statue of Mohandas K. Gandhi (The Mahatma) was dedicated.
The issue here is not pacifism vs. nonpacifism, or conscientious objection vs. military service–but whether all of us can make common cause for the sake of a more peaceful and nonviolent world. It was the great contribution of two monumental pastoral letters from the Roman Catholic Bishops and the United Methodist Bishops in the 1980s that both documents–coming from churches not traditionally counted among the so-called “historic peace churches”–strongly urged the study of, training for, and commitment to every possibility of nonviolent action and peaceful conflict resolution.
A culture of peace is not simply about shared values in our heads and hearts: it’s about institutions and the ways we develop and support them.
So: Friends and Fellow-Citizens: while ninety-eight days are left before the new “Decade for a Culture of peace,” only forty-four days remain before this nation votes for a new president and a new congress. There are issues of peacemaking that should be put more forcefully to the presidential and congressional candidates in these next days:
- Should the United States enhance it’s commitments to international cooperation–not only by paying its own UN dues in full, but supporting more effective peacekeeping forces, ratifying the Convention on the Rights of the Child (which every other government in the world has done, except Somalia, and they really haven’t had a government lately), the Convention to End Discrimination Against women, and the statute of the International Criminal Court?
- Should the United States, at last, ratify the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty? Some of you may not know that on June 21, here at this Cathedral, eighteen national military leaders, including the general who led the air against Iraq in 1991 and the admiral who used to direct the CIA, joined the leaders of almost every national religious body (including the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal church) in declaring: “National security imperatives and ethical demands have converged to bring us to the necessity of outlawing and prohibiting nuclear weapons worldwide.”
- Does a nationwide missile defense system contribute to peace and security–or does it risk an escalating nuclear arms race with both Russia and China?
- What further steps, if any, should the United States undertake with regard to the debts of the world’s poorest nations?
- And, not least, should our government, which way back in 1984 petulantly dropped out of UNESCO, (the UN’s Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) now rejoin that organization–now that it has become the world’s resource center for creating a “culture of peace”?
Obviously, we do not all agree on how these questions should be answered. But, are you ready? Are you ready to raise such questions in these next forty-four days?
In September 1971, the Kennedy Center for the performing arts was dedicated. For that occasion, a great Jewish composer, Leonard Bernstein, conducted the premiere of his Christian choral work, simply called “Mass.” The next day, the music critic of the Washington Post, Paul Hume, offered a review of “Mass” that especially dramatized the responsibility of religious people to create a culture of peace for the world’s children. Here are some lines from that review: “The central action of ‘Mass’ surrounds its celebrant from the moment he strikes the first chord on his guitar and gathers around him a swarm of eager, happy choir boys, to the awful, shuddering climax of the ‘Agnus Dei’ when he is attacked and tormented by those he thought were his people, so that he hurls the consecrated sacraments of bread and wine to the floor and … goes ‘berserk.’ It is a terrifying moment that produces a physical shudder in many who have seen it.”
“Only after this wrenching collapse can the ultimate, healing reconciliation gradually evolve….”
“At the opening, the celebrant is happy with his choir boys and young parishioners. But each time he takes another step toward carrying out his supreme priestly function of preparing and celebrating the mass, the sense of separation (and opposition) from his congregation increases.”
“Their final, crushing thrust is clear in Bernstein’s score when, in the ‘Agnus Dei,’ his directions to the singers and dancers bristle with words like: menacing, wild, attack, savage, barbaric, nasty, relentless, stamp. The celebrant is forced to retreat from his altar until, just as he completes the consecration, the threats carry him over the edge of reason.”
“The sting in their attack is that it comes as they advance toward him singing, ‘Dona nobis pacem.’ It is the cry of the world to its teachers of religion, ‘Give peace’ and the world runs out of patience and won’t wait any longer when offered sacraments but no peace.”
Thus ended Paul Hume’s review. Dear friends: Are you ready? Amen.