Here’s the first sermon in our new series, “War & Peace”
Light Versus Dark
Perhaps the best new TV series to come out last year was True Detective; a brooding, dark drama starring Matthew McConnaughey and Woody Harrelson as Rust and Marty, two detectives working a particularly sinister and perplexing murder case. And in the very last scene of the very last episode, Rust and Marty gaze up at the night sky. They’ve solved the case, but they’ve seen some terrible things. They’ve had to do some terrible things.
And as they stare up at the sky, at a vast sea of dark speckled by small islands of light, Rust makes a simple but profound observation: when it really comes down to it, all of life is just one story…the oldest story of all—light versus dark.
Now to be sure, life can be unpredictable—constantly changing, constantly moving, never at rest. And yet it seems that every change and movement is really just a fresh reenactment of the oldest story of all—light versus dark. Or to borrow the title of Leo Tolstoy’s famous book: if there is one story that the world is always telling, it’s the story of war and peace.
War and Peace
Just look at the world news from any time and place (be it on an IPad, a newspaper, a smoke signal, a cuneiform tablet, or a scribbling on a caveman’s wall) and what will you find? Stories of the battle between war and peace. Turn on the local news in any town, and what will you find? Stories of the battle between war and peace. Eavesdrop on the conversations and observe the interactions of any family or workplace and what will you find? Stories of the battle between war and peace.
I could go on but you get the point. From the surface down to the soul of things, and on scales big, average, and small—human life, at bottom, is one unending, ancient story of the battle between war and peace.
And so for the next 4 weeks, this is the question we’re gonna be asking ourselves, the question that I’m gonna invite all of you to wrestle and live with for the next month: when it comes to war and peace—to conflict and violence and justice—what sort of story does Christianity tell? Over and against everything the world has to say, what does the Bible have to say about war and peace?
In 1849, a man was on an archaeological dig in Iraq when he unearthed 7 clay tablets. And scribbled across these 7 clay tablets was a most remarkable story that came to be known as the Enuma Elish. The Enuma Elish is an ancient Babylonian creation story, thousands and thousands and thousands of years old—a story about where the world came from and why things are the way they are. It’s a story similar, in some ways, to what we find in Genesis 1, and yet very different in some ways. Here’s the cliff notes version.
In the beginning, there are these two primeval gods: Apsu and Tiamat. But then, there comes this second generation of gods, and they’re really noisy and boisterous and this bothers Apsu and Tiamat…so, they decide to kill them because that’s what you do when somebody bothers you. And go figure, the second generation of gods doesn’t really want to be killed, so a battle of the gods ensues and it finally results with Marduk, this powerful, young god, defeating Tiamat in battle and then ripping her dead carcass into two halves, one of which he uses to make the heavens, the other of which he uses to make the earth. The heavens and the earth, the entire cosmos, are the two halves of a murdered god’s dismembered carcass.
Which leads us to the next question: so where did humans come from? Well, after Marduk murders Tiamat, rips her in half, and uses to carcass to create the cosmos, he gets in another fight with another god. And you guessed it, he kills that god too and then uses that murdered god’s blood to create human beings. Human beings are created from the blood of a murdered god.
So in summary, according to one of humanity’s oldest creation stories, the universe we live in is built from the carcass of a murdered god and we owe our existence to the spilt blood of a murdered god. The universe is a battleground, the product of a primeval conflict, a primordial war. And so when humans fight and hate and take and spill each other’s blood, we’re just doing what the gods have always done and will always do. The universe revolves around war.
The Myth of Chaos
And while most of us have probably never read the Enuma Elish, this is actually a story we’re all quite familiar with. Think about it. All of life as a battle of good against evil. Conflict and violence as the necessary repercussions of this essential battle. All of humanity divided into allies and enemies. Peace as a naïve illusion, a temporary armistice, a brief break in the action while everybody reloads. As George Orwell is said to have said it, “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”
You know this story. Indeed, this is the way most of us think about the world—it’s a place of war and peace (yes), but mostly war, and any peace there is is just the result of some prior war and can only be sustained by future wars. Life is a combat zone with enemies around every corner and you gotta fight, fight, fight if you want to survive.
Otzi the Iceman
And if you don’t believe it, just ask Otzi the Iceman. Found by two hikers in the Italian Alps, he is the oldest intact human corpse ever found—5300 years old. And guess how Otzi died? He was murdered, shot in the back with an arrow—the arrowhead still inside his 5300 year old body. And isn’t it appropriate that the oldest human corpse was found facedown on a lonely mountain with an arrow in his back?
Because that’s life, isn’t it? It sure seems that way to me. My life is filled with conflict, fighting, and competition. I sometimes wonder what I’d do if I didn’t have somebody to fight with about something. I don’t know about you, but seems to me that you’d have to be some kind of fool to deny that the universe revolves around war.
But that brings us to another really old creation story about where the world came from and why things are the way they are. Let’s read Genesis 1.
In the Beginning
So this is the ancient Judeo-Christian story of creation, of where the world came from and why things are the way they are. And it quickly becomes apparent that there are a number of distinct ways that this creation story is very different from the Babylonian creation story. For our purposes this morning, I’d like to draw our attention to two important differences.
First off, whereas in the Babylonian creation story there are a number of gods involved with the creation of the universe, in the Christian creation story there’s just one God involved. As Genesis 1:1 says it, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” There’s no pantheon of gods, no first, second, third generation of gods—there’s just God, the creator of the heavens and the earth.
And second (and perhaps more importantly), whereas the Babylonian creation story is, at every turn, saturated with violence, conflict, and hostility, the Christian creation story is, at every turn, saturated with peace, harmony, and delight. The juxtaposition could not be more striking.
According to the Babylonians, the universe is a battleground, a playground for violence, an endless cycle of conflict…a product of warring gods, drenched in blood. But according to the Bible, to Christian faith, the universe is most certainly not a battleground, not a playground for violence, not an endless cycle of conflict, not a product of warring gods, not drenched in blood…no, no, no, no, no.
Listen to the story. In the beginning, there’s God—from all eternity, one God in three persons, sharing a vibrant, dynamic life of delight, community, feasting, joy, and love. As I said a few weeks back—God is, has always been, and will always be the happiest being in all the universe. And so when this God decides to create, everything he makes is good. It’s a world brimming with beauty, not violence; a product of peace, not war; drenched in love, not blood.
Think about it—when you believe in one God of infinite power and peace, who creates in absolute freedom and delight, you are not allowed to believe the universe is the product of some primeval conflict and bloodshed. Where would the conflict come from? Did the Father and Son get in a fight over the affections of the Holy Spirit? Did the Son shoot the Father in the back with an arrow, spraying blood that became the foundation of the universe?
To put the matter as simply as I know how: there is nothing less Christian and more pagan, nothing less biblical and more anthropomorphic, than the belief that the universe is a product of war, revolving around war, ending in war. That’s not what the Bible teaches and it’s not what Christian faith believes. And if you still need some convincing, that’s ok, because I have a few words from the future.
An Apocalyptic Obsession
If you’ve watched any movies or television in the past ten years, then chances are you’ve noticed an unbelievable spike in movies and shows whose plot centers upon apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic, end of the world scenarios: Doomsday Preppers, The Walking Dead, Falling Skies, The Last Ship, The Hunger Games, The Road, The Purge, The Book of Eli, The Day After Tomorrow, Edge of Tomorrow, I Am Legend, Reign of Fire, Oblivion, Pacific Rim, World War Z.
I could, literally, go on forever (and by forever I mean, until the zombie apocalypse is set in motion and I have to join a clan of marauding bandits). It’s a fascinating cultural phenomenon. We’re obsessed with visions of the future and all these visions are the same: barren wastelands of violence, blood, and anarchy. We find them strangely fascinating.
So we’re drawn to passages like Joel 3:9-10: “Proclaim this among the nations: Prepare a war, rouse the mighty men! Let all the soldiers draw near, let them come up! Beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears. Let the weak say, ‘I am a mighty man!’” We’re drawn to Revelation 19 Jesus, fire in his eyes, riding a white horse, waging war on the nations.
A Different Word From the Future
And while those texts are there and must be dealt with, here are a few words from a different future, a deeper future; a vision of a different sort of apocalypse. Let’s read Micah 4:1-3, Isaiah 65:17-25, Ps. 46:8-10, Revelation 21:1-4.
It’s an unbelievably complex world we live in. And the Bible is a brutally realistic and complex collection of books. It’s filled with violence and conflict. And yet without fail, when the Bible describes God’s ultimate plan for the world, when it gives us glimpses of heaven, of new creation…it tells us stories, not of warring gods ripped in half, but of spears broken in two; it tells us stories of enemies reconciled, tears wiped away, and of war receiving the death penalty.
Those who have ears, let them hear.
First Word, Last Word
This isn’t about liberals or conservatives or anything else that might make you miss the point. It’s about this: the very first word of creation is not war, but peace. And the very last word of creation will not be war, but peace.
And so when we fight and hate and take and spill each other’s blood (in ways big and small) we are NOT just doing what the gods have always done and will always do. Other people may have the luxury of justifying their violence with their god’s violence, but we do not. War is our invention—not God’s. God does not have a taste for blood—we do.
And I don’t know about you, but all of this is very hard for me to hear. Peace is a hard word for me to hear.
Wyatt Thomas Fischer
My wife and I just had our first child about a month ago—Wyatt Thomas Fischer. And of course anyone who’s had a newborn baby knows that they don’t really make things that peaceful. If anything, they turn your house into a war zone.
That said, there are these moments—when the baby is done pooping, and peeing, and eating, and crying—when he smiles and stares at you, eyes filled with wonder, and you’re overwhelmed by the purity and peace of it all and there is no where on earth you’d rather be.
The other day, Wyatt and I were having one of those moments and the TV was on in the background, and this show came on. And it was about this guy who plots and schemes and lies and finally kills his brother and then covers it up so he can get the family inheritance. And I get completely sucked in to the show. I found it so interesting.
And after watching it for 45 straight minutes without blinking, I finally look down again and there’s Wyatt—looking up at me. And I thought to myself—how pathetic am I? How sad am I? How boring am I? A miracle of purity and peace, sitting here in my arms, looking up at me…and I’d rather listen to the same old story of people fighting and hating and taking and spilling each other’s blood.
Friends, I think we have a problem. We find peace boring and predictable and naïve. But want to know what’s really boring? People hurting people. Want to know what’s really predictable? Telling lies about each other. Want to know what’s really naïve? Thinking we can save ourselves by spilling just a little more blood. We’re addicted to conflict and don’t really even know how to live without it.
But there’s good news: God does. And God tells us a story that began long before light versus dark or good versus evil or love versus hate or war versus peace or whatever versus whatever, and which will go on long after all of those stories have been put down into the grave. It’s a story of God, infinite in power and in peace, creating a very good world of peace, which will be restored to a peace more vibrant and wild and unpredictable than all the war and conflict we find so terribly interesting.
And so to return to our original question: what does the Bible have to say about war and peace? Lots of stuff, and there’s much more to say, but not until we have first framed the discussion on both ends with the infinite peace of the triune God.
 Kudos to Brian Zahnd for this story, found in A Farwell to Mars.