The Rev. William Barber II Delivers a Moral Call for Peace

The Rev. William Barber II Delivers a Moral Call for Peace

The Rev. William Barber II Delivers a Moral Call for Peace

We desperately need a cease-fire and negotiations to end the brutal Russian war in Ukraine today.

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Isaiah 9:

For unto us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government
shall be upon his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.

Matthew 2 says that Herod, when he realized that the magi had tricked him, flew into a rage. He commanded the murder of every little boy two years old and under who lived in Bethlehem and its surrounding hills. (He determined that age from information he’d gotten from the magi.) That’s when Jeremiah’s revelation was fulfilled:

A sound was heard in Ramah,
weeping and much lament.
Rachel weeping for her children,
Rachel refusing all solace,
Her children gone,
dead and buried.

Gracious, eternal, and all wise God: hold us, help us, and heal us from our warring and wounded spirits. Amen.

One of our readings from the prophet Isaiah is a classic Christmas text that sounds familiar this time of year. It echoes in our ears with the tune of Handel’s “Messiah” and images of the Christ child in the spotlight, fulfilling the prophecies of old.

But we would be wrong to forget the original context of this prophetic proclamation. For it is Isaiah who preaches hope in a time of terror and justice in a time of oppression.

Isaiah was actually prophesying during a time of war, when a power-hungry Assyrian King, Tiglath-Pilesar, was living out his expansionist dreams through the madness of an imperial invasion that brought terror to Isaiah’s people. If you read chapter 8, just before our text for this evening, Isaiah ends in darkness, because there’s no other way to describe war and invasion. He ends in despair as he describes the reality that will come with the foretold Assyrian invasion. But this sets the stage for a dramatic shift in imagery—a shift in mood that comes in chapter 9. For prophetic hope does not go around despair, but right through the heart of it.

Out of the depths of oppression, depression, war, and separation from God, all symbolized by the presence of darkness, suddenly a bright light of hope appears. And Isaiah say,

For unto us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government
shall be upon his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.

In the second reading, a power-hungry political leader threatened by anyone and anything that could weakened his ability to control the world and exploit the people, unleashes war on the people. When the second meaning of Isaiah’s prophecy comes true and the child is born, this power-hungry political leaders is killing even children—to the point this text from the Christmas narrative notes that was is heard on the first Christmas isn’t “Jingle Bells” but the sound of Ramah:

A sound was heard in Ramah,
weeping and much lament.
Rachel weeping for her children,
Rachel refusing all solace,
Her children gone,
dead and buried.

Just like it was for Isaiah and at the time of the birth of Jesus, there comes a time when people of faith must speak, mourn publicly, cry, and offer another way. That’s why I accepted the invitation from the board of Repairers of the Breach as they voted and asked that we would make a clear statement and a call for a cease-fire in a time of war. Not to speak in a time of war, violence, and oppression is quite frankly theological malpractice. It is a refusal to be truth-tellers, peacemakers, and instruments of peace in the very moment where truth is needed, because truth-telling and peace-envisioning in the time of war is revolutionary in and of itself. And if the church goes through a Christmas season in the midst of war and just sings happy songs and does not challenge it, then we are not truly celebrating the Jesus Christ who was born in Bethlehem or the original prophecy that Isaiah spoke of.

Such is the time we are in. We may not know all of the backroom information and war strategies, but what we do know is that war kills. War destroys. War can escalate, and if ever it escalates to nuclear war, war could mean annihilation of the entire human race.

So on this holy night, we gather to remember the birth of the One the prophet Isaiah called the Prince of Peace. One of the most forgotten texts of this season is the imagery Matthew’s gospel recalls of Rachel crying and refusing to be comforted because an evil king, threatened by the birth of Jesus the liberator, unleashes war on Bethlehem. Might we never forget that at Bethlehem there was a battle between war and peace, love and hate, violence and nonviolence.

In the time when Jesus was born, the people who believed in the right were waiting and hoping, longing for liberation. Today, in our time, Advent has been about waiting and longing for the liberation we all need. We open ourselves to the suffering of our neighbors, to the longings of those who are oppressed, to the “hopes and fears of all the years” that meet us in a manger tonight.

Like Isaiah’s prophetic disruption of the madness of war, Christmas is an interruption of the status quo. We commemorate, we remember, we claim its truths. We do this regardless of what’s going on around us. We stand in this season’s prophetic hope even in the midst of troubles.

We commemorate and remember and praise God for Christmas in the midst of the most horrific pandemic realities.

We commemorate and remember and praise God for Christmas even as climate change threatens the very survival of our planet.

We commemorate and remember and praise God for Christmas knowing that more than 140 million people in this country, and more than 1.2 billion around the world, struggle to survive poverty.

We commemorate and remember and praise God for Christmas even as some use the language and rituals of our faith to endorse and promote the most vile forms of racism, misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and white nationalism.

And this year, like so many years before, we commemorate and remember and praise God for Christmas even as brutal wars rage across the globe. From Ukraine to Yemen, Afghanistan to Myanmar to Ethiopia and beyond, wars continue to leave so many dead—children, elders, women and men—in their wake.

We commemorate and remember and praise God for Christmas—the hope of the Prince of Peace—even as so much of the world stands ready for even more war. Civil wars and internal conflicts. Drug wars and insurgencies. The still deadly wars left over from the failed Global War on Terror. All continue to thunder, leaving death and destruction behind.

We commemorate and remember and praise God for Christmas even as threats of escalation, nuclear and otherwise, continue to loom over us all.

In the midst of all this violence, we pause to declare there is another way: “unto us a child is born…the Prince of Peace.”

What is this declaration to a child in Yemen? What does it mean to communities ravaged by a “war on drugs”? As we think of Mary swaddling the Christ child and laying him in a manger tonight, how is this good news to people in Mariupol who are trying to keep their children warm, wondering when the next shell might fall or power outage might come in a war that has upended the city named for the Mother of God?

When we look back in history, we know that the good news of Jesus has not ended war. We are not naive. But it has sometimes caused it to pause. Whenever we welcome the Prince of Peace, this world’s violence is interrupted.

In the early church, teachers like Origen and Tertullian said that a servant of Christ could not take up arms. War might not have ended for everyone, but it had ended for people who chose to follow the way of Jesus.

Even in the Middle Ages, just war thinking limited war, leading to what some theologians call the “Truce of God.” Women could not fight, nor could any vowed religious. No one could fight on holy days—and there were a lot of holy days back then. For a few days—sometimes even longer—fighting stopped. The Truce of God. And even when it didn’t end violence, it interrupted it.

That is what happened 108 years ago tonight, on Christmas Eve of 1914. World War I was in its first months. Across the western front, a relentless battle raged from trenches, sometimes only tens of yards separating the troops on the two sides. Young soldiers were crouched in three- or four-foot-high trenches, covered with mud, damp in the best of times and often soaking wet. They came up out of that muck and mire only to fire at the young soldiers on the other side. Once in a while, they ventured out into what was called “no-man’s land” to try to retrieve the bodies of their comrades, already dead.

By Christmas Eve of 1914, the troops had been stuck in the trenches for six months. And just weeks before, a devastating battle had left 100,000 dead on both the German and the British-French side. The dead soldiers were replaced by reservists and new, mostly young recruits.

In one 20-mile stretch of the front in western Belgium, British soldiers faced their German counterparts. And this is where, on Christmas Eve 108 years ago, the historian Simon Jones tells us that the German soldiers placed Christmas trees that had been sent to them as gifts on their trench parapets, in full view of their enemies, with lit candles on those trees.

Both sides started singing carols in the trenches—in the mud, in the wet. The 133rd Saxon Regiment began to sing “Silent Night” in German. On the other side, a Seaforth Highlander later described how he and his fellow soldiers paused to hear the sound of harmonies floating across the no-man’s land. He tilted his ear and heard a familiar sound, even in another language.

Then, small groups of soldiers from each side carefully emerged from their trenches. They met up in the no-man’s land and used the bits they knew of each others’ languages to greet one another. They exchanged small gifts—tobacco and buttons from their uniform jackets. Without any plan for it, Christmas somehow interrupted the warring madness, if but for a moment.

Eventually, the men slipped back to their own sides. Christmas morning dawned foggy, but soon cleared to a cold bright day. A British private, Bruce Bairnsfather, later wrote in his memoir that it was “just the sort of day for peace to be declared.”

It was a Christmas Truce. Now, the British accounts of this story tend to give the Germans credit for initiating contact. But many German accounts say that the British came out first. Soldiers variously describe the experience as “wonderful,” the “most extraordinary celebration of Christmas that any of us will ever experience,” and “one of the most extraordinary sights that anyone has ever seen.” Soldiers just stopped fighting. Soldiers said “no” to the commands of men and said “yes” to the command of the Spirit.

Now, the history is also clear that the officers on both sides mostly tried to prevent all of this. But they failed. The troops came together again in the no-man’s land to gather their dead and bury them. The British troops provided extra wooden crosses to mark the graves of some of the German soldiers who had fallen so close to their own. The Prince of Peace and the cry of Rachel had moved their hearts.

A soccer ball appeared, and a friendly game ensued, as did the continuation of exchanging wine, tobacco, and other gifts.

The news of this Christmas Truce quickly spread up and down the trench lines, and versions of the cease-fire emerged for days across miles of the front. The soldiers just stopped and decided to listen to the General of the Universe—the Prince of Peace. In some areas the cease-fire continued, more or less, until New Year’s of 1915. In other areas, it lasted only a day or two after Christmas.

Since that Christmas, more than a century ago, historians have differed on the details. Which side’s soldiers came out of their trenches first? Was there really a soccer game? Did all the officers oppose the unofficial truce or only some of them?

But history is clear that eventually the cease-fire didn’t hold, and the war continued for four more brutal years. Millions more would die. But the legacy of that singular moment, that “most extraordinary celebration” of Christmas, remains with us still. And it reminds us it doesn’t have to be this way. Even if it was only for a few moments or days, the Christmas Truce of 1914 reminds us that cease-fires are possible. And God knows they are needed.

We desperately need a cease-fire and negotiations to end the brutal Russian war in Ukraine today. Like Rachel in the Bible and Pope Francis, who just the other day wept in public over this war, we must mourn publicly over war. And something is terribly wrong in our churches if we try to have Christmas without doing that.

Listen to the pope’s prayer: “Immaculate Virgin, today I would have wanted to bring you the thanks of the Ukrainian people [for peace],” he said before being overwhelmed by emotion. And then he said, “Instead, once again I have to bring you the pleas of children, of the elderly, of fathers and mothers, of the young people of that martyred land, which is suffering so much.”

The report President Zelensky brought to Congress this week sounded like a modern-day description of the context in which Isaiah prophesied: “Russia,” he said, “has turned the Ukrainian sky into a source of death for thousands of people. Russian troops have fired 1000 missiles at Ukraine. They use drones to kill us with precision.”

We need a cease-fire to interrupt this warring madness.

A cease-fire doesn’t mean both sides are equally culpable for starting the war. But it can have the impact of stopping the massive killing on both sides. Accurate numbers are difficult to find, but it is clear that at least thousands of Ukrainian civilians and many tens of thousands of Ukrainian and Russian military forces have been killed already. A cease-fire could stop the killing.

A cease-fire is not the same as an end to a war, but it can set the stage for the more long-term diplomatic action that can lead to a long-term peace. A cease-fire—for as long as it holds—means that no one is being killed by war. And that means maybe—just maybe—the difficult work of beginning serious negotiations can go forward.

When do we need a cease-fire in Ukraine? We have needed a cease-fire since February 24, exactly eleven months ago today, when Russia invaded Ukraine. Yes, some say that the US government provoked Moscow by expanding NATO to the east and stationing nuclear weapons in Europe. But even if that is true, it’s also true that none of these provocations justify Russia’s invasion. Russia’s war remains illegal, immoral, deadly, and dangerous.

The day Russia began seizing Ukrainian territory and killing Ukrainian civilians, we needed a cease-fire. When Ukrainian troops began turning the tables and started reclaiming some of the lost territory, we needed a cease-fire to prevent more death and destruction. We needed a cease-fire then, and we need a cease-fire today.

Why do we need a cease-fire in Ukraine?

First because the human cost, especially for Ukrainian civilians, is too high. This is not a contest of wills on a battlefield. It is a struggle for control that takes place every day in the places where people live, work, worship, and go to school. The war is in the streets and in the homes. Too many elders, too many children, too many babies and women and men are dying as a consequence of this war.

But Ukrainians are not the only people being hurt by this war. The economic impact is dire, especially on the poorest people in the Global South, who are facing more hunger and more cold as a result of this war. Truth is, our whole planet is at risk as the war leads to an increase in fossil fuels being mined and shipped around the globe. And whenever countries spend more on war, there’s always less money available for the things that actually keep us safer.

We need a cease-fire in every war being fought around the world. The fragile cease-fire in Yemen is barely holding. We need cease-fires in Sudan and South Sudan, in Somalia and Mali, in Myanmar and Iraq and beyond. Many wars are being waged in the name of fighting against terrorism, or against drug cartels, or against domestic opponents. And in many of these wars, we see the impact in complicated ways where US arms are being used by both sides. And despite our own government’s humanitarian work, we cannot ignore the historians, political scientists, media reports, and even some military officials who have shown how some of our actions in history and the present have imposed economic and security policies around the world that have resulted in desperate poverty, environmental catastrophe, refugee crises, authoritarian rulers and more. We have a moral obligation to stop supporting wars, and to call for a workable cease-fire.

Way back in our own Civil War in these lands, a general, William Sherman, said to those anxious to engage in war:

“I’ve been where you are now and I know just how you feel. It’s entirely natural that there should beat in the breast of every one of you a hope and desire that someday you can use the skill you have acquired here. Suppress it! You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thoudsands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is Hell!”

And it was America’s general-president Dwight Eisenhower who said when he was leaving office:

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience… Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications.… In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

And just the other night, even in the midst of his request for more weapons, President Zelensky did slip in a prophetic word—or, may I say, the Spirit slipped in a prophetic word—if we were paying attention. He said, “Being the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace. This must be deeply wrestled with in this complicated and contrary world.”

We need cease-fires everywhere.

According to Brown University’s Watson Institute, nearly a million people have died in the post 9/11 wars.

Thirty-eight million people have been displaced by war, forced to flee their homes and communities to try to make a life somewhere else.

The Poor People’s Campaign found that the US alone has spent $21 trillion on war, militarized borders, and incarceration over the past two decades—money we haven’t invested in affordable housing, green infrastructure, health care, education, labor rights, and living wages.

The cost of war is too high. We need cease-fires everywhere.

Militarism is central to all of the interconnected injustices that we fight against. Military spending diverts funds away from desperately needed social programs from health care to child care, from jobs to sustainable energy, from elder care to education and more.

Even now, we are passing a spending package that does not include living wages for more than 55 million poor and low-wage workers. It does not include health care for more than 87 million people without health care or underinsured. And we now know that over 300,000 people have died so far during Covid because of lack of health care and thousands more because of how the poor did not and have not received just the basics of protection.

We are passing a budget that includes more money for the war economy than ever in history without passing protections for voting rights, without restoring the Voting Rights Act, which Lyndon Bains Johnson said was as great as any victory won on any battlefield in our history.

We need a cease-fire.

This year’s US military budget will top $858 billion—a sum greater than the entire national budgets of 174 countries around the world, including such wealthy nations as Turkey, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, and Switzerland. Just a small percentage of that money could ensure living wages for all Americans—could ensure health care. And in a country so rich that we waste hundreds of billions of dollars, we still have tens of millions of children living in poverty, going to sleep hungry. It is a moral crime. The prophetic truth of Christmas demands that we interrupt this madness, call for cease-fires, and say, “This does not have to be.”

So we need a cease-fire for the people of Ukraine. We need a cease-fire for poor and hurting people around the world, wherever there is war and violence—whether that war and violence is because of greed, or lust for power, or racism, or anti-Semitism, or Islamophobia, or homophobia, we need a cease-fire.

And, finally, we need a cease-fire in Ukraine right now because we are facing the most serious threat of nuclear escalation in 60 years.

Russia and the United States together hold 90 percent of all the nuclear weapons in the world. Each side has enough nuclear firepower to destroy the whole world several times over. And that’s incredibly dangerous for flawed human beings, prone to leave the God we say we love, to have that kind of power. Not only because of Russia’s reckless nuclear threats. And not only because of Washington’s trillion-dollar investment in strengthening and “modernizing” its nuclear arsenal.

I don’t believe either Washington or Moscow is planning a deliberate nuclear attack. But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Unlike other war zones, where US and Russian forces have faced each other, there is no US-Russian military-to-military “hot line” to avoid accidental escalation. They’ve had that in Syria, but they don’t have it in Ukraine. An accidental move on either side could escalate to a nuclear exchange. It’s not likely, but when we’re talking about potential nuclear war, any threat that isn’t zero is simply too large.

More than half a century ago, even before his speech in 1967, Dr. King said that the trajectory of modern war persuaded him that war could no longer be imagined as a negative good—a necessary evil to prevent some greater harm. “The potential destructiveness of modern weapons totally rules out the possibility of war ever again achieving a negative good,” he said. “If we assume that mankind has a right to survive then we must find an alternative to war and destruction…. When we stand in life at midnight, we are always on the threshold of a new dawn.” But our own sinfulness and actions could keep us from getting there.

We need a cease-fire in order to make an honest assessment of where we are. As Gandhi once said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Maybe we can see it if we pause to count the cost and assess the destruction. If we could just stop closing our eyes and turning away, and look at the bodies, the blood and the brokenness, then maybe—for our own sake and our children’s sake—a cease-fire can help us realize that the world needs an anti-war coalition for our own sake.

Why do some people oppose a cease-fire? I do not know. Maybe they have not learned what Sherman knew: War is hell.

Maybe some people oppose it because they want to wait for better military positions for Ukraine. Maybe they don’t want a cease-fire because they’re hoping for a complete and total military victory instead. But I believe we desperately need a cease-fire as the first step toward real negotiations. Just this week, more than a thousand other people of faith and clergy said the same: We need a Christmas Truce to make space for diplomacy instead of war.

And this isn’t just a preacher’s wish. In recent weeks, more and more political and military figures have come out in support of considering a cease-fire and negotiations in Ukraine. Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently said, “We think there are some possibilities here for some diplomatic solutions.”

Well, let us find them. We need movements right now—here in the United States and around the world—to demand a cease-fire in the wars raging like wildfires across our planet. We have so much work to do. But what better time to begin that work, to strengthen that work, to build on that work—than tonight. Right here. Right now. On Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day. During the 12 days of Christmas, when we remember the Prince of Peace and the prophetic hope that, even right in the midst of war, something new can rise up.

In churches all across the world tonight, people are gathering to sing:

Silent night! Holy night!
Sleeps the world in peace tonight.
God sends his Son to earth below
A Child from whom all blessings flow
Jesus embraces mankind.
Jesus embraces mankind.

And I’m just Pentecostal enough to believe that the Spirit can unites us across race, religion, and region and has the power to compel people on both sides of a conflict to put their weapons down. If it could happen 108 years ago, it could still happen today. I believe soldiers on both sides—Russian and Ukrainian—should stage a cease-fire on the battlefield now. I hope they hear his sermon. Just stop! You can do it. Just stop! And hear the call of God. Just stop firing. Don’t obey the orders. Just stop for a night!

The 1914 Christmas Truce shows us the way.

How could a cease-fire happen so unexpectedly in 1914? How could it happen again? Perhaps it could only happen on Christmas Eve. Maybe this “silent night” is interruption enough to make us pause again.

But even if it doesn’t happen tonight—even if it doesn’t happen on Christmas Day—whenever warring stops and both sides sit down to negotiate peace—that is a kind of Christmas. That is a

Silent Night! Holy Night!
Mindful of mankind’s plight
The Lord in heaven on high decreed
From earthly woes we would be freed.
Jesus, God’s promise for peace.

Whenever we stop our warring ways, it is a present. It is a gift. Oh, if millions of people are getting together to say it and sing it, by God, we ought to call them to be true to their words. Even if only for a night.

Because if we can put our weapons down for just one night, maybe we can put them down for one tomorrow. And if we can put them down for one tomorrow, maybe we can put them down for a week. And if we can put them down for a week, maybe we can put them down for a month. And if we can put them down for a month, maybe we could put them down for a year and study war no more! Maybe “studying war no more” doesn’t just have to be in the afterlife. We have power to stop the madness. We can stop it today. We can stop it tomorrow.

If we want to welcome the Prince of Peace, we can’t give up hope. We’ve got to dare to commemorate, remember, and praise God, even in the midst of the warring madness. Now is the time for a Christmas Truce. Now is the time to try. Let the word go out. It happened 108 years ago. They are no more human or stronger than we are. All it requires is listening to the Spirit and just stop. Cease firing. Let the night go silent. And hear the voice of God until the night becomes holy without the sound of war. And we study war no more.

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