Text: Isaiah 40:1-11
The article was from DEH DADI, Afghanistan, and was dated August 30, 2011. The headline read: Female Soldiers Work With Women of Afghanistan. An accompanying article with a similar headline, How Women Will End the War in Afghanistan, also caught my attention. The first article began: “The U.S. Army has teams that specialize in different tasks, such as training soldiers during simulated war or teaching soldiers how to parachute from an airplane. When it comes to helping the women of Afghanistan, the Army has teams for that too.” The article goes on to explains how female soldiers are being sent into areas where cultural boundaries do not allow the Afghan women to talk to male soldiers. It is the job of these female soldiers to engage the Afghan women and find out how they feel about the community, how they feel they can improve their lives, and what American forces can do to help them get to where they want to be.
The idea of female-engagement teams was first introduced in 2009, when General Stanley McChrystal, then commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, green-lit an idea from his southern Afghanistan command to focus on Afghan women as a way to win the war. Some forty female soldiers were stationed in small groups throughout the Helmand province in Afghanistan with the explicit mission of communicating with Afghan women. By custom, Afghan men won’t let their wives and daughters talk to men they aren’t related to, so for the nine years that the U.S. had been on the ground, Afghan women had been largely excluded from the peace process. While most of the female-engagement teams acknowledge that reaching out to Afghan women makes sense, in practice, they admit, it is still tough. But one thing is for sure: the female-engagement teams are redefining war by focusing on peace and engaging in peaceful relationships.
In lectionary group Wednesday I asked the question, Is Peace Still Possible? The question is not entirely original to me. It actually came from a book I have been re-reading titled, God In The Balance. In this rather short but dense book, Carter Heyward— a well-known feminist theologian and an advocate for non-violent resistance—reflects on the events of September 11 and asks a similar question, “Is it too late for us to wage peace?” She then asks a follow-up question. “Is there anything we can learn from our own faith tradition…that might empower us to become a more active, radically prayerful, creative, and liberating movement for justice and compassion, [for] peace and social transformation?” I thought it to be a worthy question for this Sunday in Advent when we light the candle of peace.
Talking about peace always brings up the chicken and egg question and the lectionary group quickly fell prey to it this week: debating personal peace versus world peace, and which comes first. On the one hand you have the idea that in order to achieve a global peace, a peace that would necessitate humanity rising above so many historical hurts and deep wounds, we must all first find personal peace. This ideology assumes that we cannot begin to transcend corporate or communal wrongs until we have addressed our own demons. On the other hand, you have the opposite concept: that individual, personal peace is not possible in the midst of aggregate, pervasive, corporate discord. This approach acknowledges that we are ultimately limited in how far we can claim “peace” when others are in pain, and the world is in disarray.
As I have done before, I am going to artfully dodge that question, not because it is without merit, but because it distracts us from the main message that the author of Isaiah brings to us this morning. I want to suggest this morning that that message—that the lesson we can learn from our own faith tradition, from Isaiah—is the idea that we must vision or imagine a new place in order to figure our path to it. The great Albert Einstein said it this way, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. We must learn to see the world anew.”
Seeing the world anew is exactly what the writer of Second Isaiah did. Speaking to a people still in exile, he offered them a new way of thinking, a vision of what could be, and a hope for their future. He reminds them that reality consists of more than what plain sight and common sense can perceive. Such a claim stands at the heart of the words of Isaiah 40. Listen again to the vision: “Comfort, O comfort my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her…every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain…God will feed her flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in her bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” The exiles, and we who would hear this word with them today, are being invited by the prophet to re-imagine the world on the basis of God’s care and comfort and love for us. I will admit that living from a place of imagination is a risky way to live. Its takes courage and faith. It requires us to look beyond the obvious, to think outside the box, to become more active, to pray more faithfully, to risk looking foolish. Our children do it well. But adulthood seems to take away the gift of creative imagination. I wonder what our world would be like if our leaders combined the wisdom of adulthood with the imagination of the young.
And so I come back to my question on this second Sunday in Advent. Is peace still possible? I have two responses to the question. No, peace is not possible if we simply keep addressing our conflicts with the same kind of thinking that created them. War is not a way to make peace. Guns and bombs cannot ultimately destroy the powers and principalities of evil. Invading by force will not promote peaceful relations. Responding to violence with violence has no chance of making our world a more peaceful place. And yes, peace is still possible if we have the courage to imagine a new path to peace. Can we imagine beating our swords into plowshares? Can we imagine loving our enemies? Can we imagine loving our neighbor as ourselves?
There are people in our world who still believe that peace is possible, if only we can re-imagine it. We all know the actual responses of the U.S. government to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001: the erosion of civil liberties and privacy domestically, two misguided wars abroad in Iraq and Afghanistan going on ten years, and a severly downgraded federal legitimacy across the board, all in the name of “national security” and peace. As these ripple-effect tragedies were happening, however, another response to 9/11 was proposed and practiced by those most closely affected by the attack: the family members of those who died in it. They call themselves the September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows (or Peaceful Tomorrows, for short), but their outstanding work for peace domestically and globally makes clear that their primary concern is how peace can be made today and extended into the future. Most recently, they championed the construction of the mosque at Ground Zero, which they helped guide through to acceptance despite harsh criticism, the latest in a series of achievements that have earned them two Nobel Peace Prize nominations. Families for Peaceful Tomorrows is a modern day example Isaiah 40—of visioning a new path to peace, of lifting up the valleys and making every mountain low, of leveling the uneven ground and making plain the rough places.
If you start today from a place of wanting to see world peace, there are ways to re-imagine what we must do to obtain that. The female-engagement teams and the Peaceful Tomorrows are examples of what it means to imagine peace differently from how our country has traditionally gone about peace making. They are great examples of solving a problem by using a different way of thinking. But maybe world peace is not your starting point this morning. Maybe what you long for is peace within your own heart and soul. If that is your starting point, that too is possible, but it may also require some new thinking, some re-imagining of what that peace looks like. Maybe it’s as simple as learning how to be gentle with yourself when you feel inadequate. Maybe it is as hard as letting go of some hurt that is holding you in a place of despair or hopelessness. Maybe the peace you long for is as close as speaking words of forgiveness to a friend or family member. Can you imagine taking a different path toward finding the inner peace you so long for?
Isaiah 40 reminds us that even when we face our darkest moments—our times of exile—hope and peace are still possible if we can summon the courage to imagine something new and different: rough places being made smooth, impassable mountains being made low, God gathering us in her arms, and carrying us in her bosom. Comfort, O comfort my people says your God. Indeed, Isaiah gives us hope and makes peace still seem possible.