Lest We Forget

August 03, 2014
Genesis 32:22-31; Romans 9:1-5

This past week saw the start of a war full of unseen consequences, or so was the case 100 years ago. 28 July 1914 saw the first declaration of war, thus beginning the First World War.

If you know me, you know I enjoy studying this era of history, and have been on a reading binge for the past nine months. Since late last October, I have read these books concerning WWI. (Pulls out books) Beforehand I had also read these books. (Pulls out more books) Currently I am reading this book. (Pulls out another book) And I still have these books to go (pulls out the last of the books), with a 99% likelihood there will be more.

Yes, such a reading list may seem a bit absurd, but the reality behind WWI is anything but. WWI changed the world forever. The war brought down four imperial powers during its course; millions of soldiers and civilians died; there was widespread use of new weaponry such as chemical weapons, tanks, trench warfare, submarines, machine guns, and barbed wire; it helped spread the Spanish flu, which killed millions everywhere as the war ended; most modern Middle Eastern nations were created in the aftermath; it fostered the spread of the nationalism throughout the world; and set the stage for an even more devastating war 20 years later.

Unlike Europe, the U.S. doesn’t discuss WWI much, most likely because the U.S. entered the war almost three years into it. Even after the declaration of war, the U.S. didn’t participate much before the ceasefire on 11 November 1918 because the military was quite tiny at the time, the Selective Service Act wasn’t signed into law until 18 May 1917, and calling up and training eligible men took months.

But what does this history lesson have to do with today’s lectionary Scripture readings?

In Genesis 32, we find Jacob on his way to reunite with his twin Esau after many years. Along the way, Jacob spends the night alone and has another divine encounter. Instead of a dream, we find a “stranger” who wrestled with him all night. While some cite the stranger as “evil” or “Jacob’s inner demons”, most theologians agree this is either an angel or God thyself in human form taking on Jacob. Ultimately, Jacob is not defeated and is blessed because of his stubbornness and determination. As Corrine Carvalho, professor at the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota, said in her reflections on this passage, God is not looking for “wimpy followers” and rewards those who seek a heavenly blessing.

In many ways we can see this as a metaphor of Jacob wrestling with his own conscience. He wants to be blessed for remaining steadfast, and is rewarded in kind, although he doesn’t escape without injury, as we see in verse 31: “The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip” (and it’s not clear if it ever fully heals or not).

As I said, there was the Selective Service Act of 1917 in the U.S. In almost all of continental Europe there was conscription into the military before WWI, with the U.K. and New Zealand introducing conscription in 1916. Conscientious objection to war and violence was not popular a century ago.

Like Jacob, in WWI thousands of men throughout the world had to wrestle with a greater power. Most did not escape without injury, but they were not “wimpy followers”. (Pick up book) Men like Archibald Baxter were shipped over halfway around the world in punishment for their beliefs. (Pick up book) Men like Stephen Hobhouse were court-martialed and imprisoned for their beliefs. (Pick up book) Men like Joseph and Michael Hofer eventually died because of their beliefs. Their witness did not go unnoticed and remains a testament to the peace of Christ.

These men, thousands more, and innumerable women, sacrificed safety, money, reputations, health, and more in remaining true to their consciences before, during, and after the war. They believed in something greater than themselves, and like Paul in Romans 9, were willing to give up themselves to save their friends, family, strangers, and enemies. Paul says in verse 3, “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own brothers and sisters.” I have no doubt Emily Hobhouse, Jacob Wipf, Charlotte Despard, Bishop E.L. Frey, Jean Jaures, Baroness Bertha von Suttner, and many others had agony similar to that of Paul as he prepared to return to Jerusalem and worried about the faith and convictions of believers there. As Matt Skinner, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, says, “Paul will have no part in a theology that implies God will not keep promises.” These people knew the promise of peace, even if the path to it was dark and foreboding.

After the wrestling match, Jacob continues to face an uncertain reunion with Esau, a one he fears will not be in his favor. Paul doesn’t know what his return to Jerusalem holds and fears the worst, that being the rejection of Christ by his fellow Jews; but he keeps faith the midst of all the uncertainty. Jacob and Paul seemingly retain little positive hope for the future.

Historical hindsight shows we also didn’t get much positive hope for the future after WWI. The League of Nations failed, and in the end WWII happened as a result of the decisions made during the peace conferences of 1919. We go farther and see the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (whose anniversaries are this coming week), the Cold War, the cultural, tribal, and religious warfare in the Middle East and Africa, extremist nationalism, and more all have origins in WWI. The cyclical nature of such violence continues even today.

But in later passages, and in our modern history, we are proven wrong at the same time, and shown there is much hope for a better future. Jacob’s reunion with Esau is a celebratory one, and Paul finds not all of Israel has rejected the calling of Christ.

We too, have been given such candles in the darkness. Because of the brutal treatment of conscientious objectors in WWI, the historic peace churches and many others in the U.S. were ready in 1940 to help COs in their time of need, establishing an organization still in existence called the Center on Conscience & War, which today helps COs in the military to be successfully discharged based on their beliefs against war and violence. COs in the U.S. today come from all religious and nonreligious traditions and beliefs, transcending boundaries like never before.

The devastation of WWI left millions in need, and in response Mennonite Central Committee was created to provide relief; the impact since then remains countless. Peoples in all corners of the world, from Russia to the Netherlands to Egypt to Congo to South Africa to Iraq to Bangladesh to Philippines to Japan to Paraguay to Guatemala to the United States have all benefited from the work of MCC.

We see people in every nation saying no to war and violence. Conscientious objectors make their stance known from the U.K. to Israel to South Korea to Colombia and beyond. Their hope remains alive. The message Jesus gave us in John 14:27 burns bright: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

So say we all.