Peace on Earth:
Season of peace offers hope
By Tom Gillem
A young soldier, his body mangled by a roadside bomb, lies in a military hospital clinging to life. An African teenager relives the night her village was plundered and the invaders raped her. Dozens of Iraqis, including women and children, die in a terrorist's suicide explosion at a market. An inner-city youth bound for Harvard on an academic scholarship is the innocent victim of a shooting rampage in his own neighborhood.
In these seasons of Thanksgiving, Advent and Christmas, is there really Peace on Earth?
United Methodists will join millions of Christians around the world to celebrate the coming of the Messiah with the birth of Jesus Christ. But how can we talk about a season of peace in the midst of wars, civil conflicts, street violence and untold personal suffering?
The answer for some United Methodists who serve on the frontlines of world conflicts is found in the hope contained in the story of the Advent that believers will reach out and remember those who live in turmoil and act to help reduce violence.
Lt. Col. Paula Payne, a United Methodist Air Force chaplain for the past 29 years, has seen the horrors of war up close. She believes that especially during Advent, God expects Christians "to reach out to others who are in need of a season of peace."
Mark Harrison is director of the Peace with Justice Program of the General Board of Church and Society. It is an ongoing effort by The United Methodist Church to make peace visible and active in people's lives and communities around the world. His hope is that United Methodists worldwide, and especially those in the United States, will remember their fellow church members who actually live in war-torn nations, particularly in Africa.
The Rev. David Tatgenhorst and the Rev. James McIntire, pastors at United Methodist congregations in suburban Philadelphia, were among 12 faith-based activists jailed for protesting at a gun shop. They hope their actions, which spurred federal charges against the shop and resulted in its closing, will encourage more efforts to curb the illegal sale of weapons that result in violence.
'I can always fall back on prayer'
|Chaplain Paula Payne|
Payne will be deployed during this Advent season at the U.S. Army's Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Landstuhl, Germany, where the injured from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are sent. She says sometimes her heart is conflicted concerning peace because she sees the worst of war the casualties.
"It's a good thing that I can own it and say that I'm conflicted," Payne says. "It's good that I recognize that I'm conflicted because I'm in a situation where I run into it or read about it every day and my peace is disrupted. But I can always fall back on prayer that brings that peace back on track."
When Payne ministers to soldiers who were "banged up, burned up or shot up," she says, "sometimes you cannot answer the question of peace because they are in the midst of war."
While serving last year as the senior chaplain at the military hospital at Balad Airbase in Iraq, Payne dealt with war's death on a regular basis.
"As an eyewitness, no words can describe the number of last rites that were offered to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice coming straight from the battlefield," she says. "It was a sacred, stressful time for all hospital staff.
"At the same time, God's magnificent grace allowed me to bring a season of peace to the staff and unit of the deceased. I often sang the following verse of Amazing Grace': Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come. 'Twas grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.' It brought a peace beyond understanding' to the room," she says.
Payne says she is reminded of what happened after Jesus' Resurrection, when He stood among the fearful disciples and said, "Peace be with you."
"We, too, can stand in the midst of a seemingly conflicted world and bring a season of peace if only a moment," she says.
'Peace is not just the absence of war'
The Washington, D.C.-based Peace with Justice Program directed by Harrison has been assigned by the General Conference to act as a public policy advocate in communities and nations throughout the world.
"We always say that peace is not just the absence of war, but the active presence of justice," Harrison says. "I think we need to continue to do our work toward ending war and getting rid of nuclear weapons and hopefully conventional weapons as well."
Another major obstacle to peace on Earth is global poverty, which he says is also a top priority of the Peace with Justice Program.
"Global poverty is one of the major emphases of the church during this next quadrennium," Harrison says. "At Christmastime, it's a good time to think about where you shop and what you buy. One of the church's concerns is not buying items made in sweat shops or by child labor" because that contributes to global poverty.
'I went and I sat down'
|A Good Friday protest at Colosimos was organized by the faith-based campaign, Heeding Gods Call. Courtesy photo|
Tatgenhorst, McIntire and 10 others, including an Episcopal rector, a rabbi and a Church of the Brethren minister, were arrested on a variety of misdemeanor charges in January 2009 because they would not leave a Philadelphia gun shop. The owner refused to sign a code of conduct to reduce "straw purchases" of handguns. Straw buyers purchase handguns in bulk legally at gun shops, and then sell them on the street. In May, the 12 protestors were acquitted of all charges by a Municipal Court judge.
Tatgenhorst and McIntire are members of "Heeding God's Call," a grassroots campaign that is working to end gun violence in Philadelphia, where about 2,000 people are wounded and about 300 killed by gunfire each year.
That bitterly cold day in January when he was considering whether to be arrested in the gun shop protest, Tatgenhorst says a myriad of thoughts flooded his mind.
"I thought about the guys that had already gotten arrested, and I thought about the words of some of my friends who had lost children due to gun violence," he remembers. "I thought about my congregation. Then I thought about my son, and I thought about the world I want him to grow up in, and I went and I sat down."
The first Sunday of Advent is "always about waiting and about hope ... ," says Tatgenhorst, who has been pastor of St. Luke United Methodist Church in Bryn Mawr, Pa., for 14 years. "Even more so than peace, I think, the readings about Advent are about hope and an expectation an expectant waiting for the Messiah and for the coming of peace."
When the protestors sat and were arrested at the gun shop, it was "like the first Sunday in Advent. It was dark, it was cold, and it was a time when you don't know what's going to happen. You don't know what's possible, but you act on faith and you live in hope," Tatgenhorst says.
The leaders of "Heeding God's Call" hope others in Pennsylvania and elsewhere will join the campaign against illegal gun sales, McIntire says. It is a way for churches and other faith communities to make a difference.
"Peace doesn't exist on Earth, and part of our work as followers of Jesus is to help bring about peace in a place where conflict is very often the norm," says McIntire, pastor of Hope United Methodist Church in Havertown, Pa. "The way we as human beings think that we can get things done is through conflict, so it explodes into wars and violence in the cities and whatever it turns into when we confront each other. Our goal is to be peacemakers in the midst of all of that.
"If we take seriously what Jesus is talking about and what He is preaching and what He is living as we read through the Gospels, it's to learn how to love one another. And we certainly don't love one another by attempting to kill one another," McIntire says.
During Advent, Christians must proclaim the message that "there is hope in a world that often feels like it is filled with violence," McIntire says.
--Tom Gillem, freelance writer and editor, Franklin, Tenn.