December 6, 2006 was the worst day of my life. I’m going to tell you why, but not right away. Instead, I’ll tell you what I have learned from my memory this year.
Today, we lit the Peace Candle on the Advent Wreath. Last week’s candle was Hope, and last week I was able to talk to our youth group about hope without reservation, without qualification. But, today, peace is a tough thing for me to talk about. December 6, 2006 really marks the day that I lost my peace. And, while I have fleeting moments of it now and again, I can’t say that the past 9 years have been a particularly peaceful time for me.
One of the names that the angel gave Mary when it was announcing that she would give birth to the Savior was “Prince of Peace.” Peace was something that was in very short supply in Jesus’ time. In fact, peace was something that had been conspicuously absent from Jewish history – an absence that can still be felt today, in Israel and Palestine. In fact, two millennia after the birth of Christ, our world is still in a constant state of turmoil. In the past month alone, I have mourned mass shootings and terrorist attacks. Before that, I watched – and participated in – a war in Iraq that lasted for 10 years. Thousands of my brothers and sisters in arms are still fighting in Afghanistan, just as soldiers have been for the past 13 years. Syria is aflame. Iraq is chaos. We are watching as an entire region of the world circles in a death spiral. We are living in a country where it seems that every day we hear of more violence, more death. The lack of peace lies like a shroud over our country, and it is difficult to imagine that the Prince of Peace has made any difference in this world.
People of faith from all over the world pray for peace, they hope for peace, and yet peace seems ever more unattainable. Every time we see on the TV or the Internet that more people are dead, more violence has occurred, we hear politicians tell us “our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.
Thoughts and prayers for peace are good. But, something that I have learned through the years is that peace cannot and will not be prayed, thought, or wished into being. Peace is something that has to be created, it has to be worked for. This is why, on the Sermon on the Mount, I believe that Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” We are called upon to engage in the act of peacemaking in a restless and violent world.
And, peacemaking is a dangerous business.
Peace – both external and internal – cannot be created or maintained in a place of safety. Peace always exists in the midst of conflict, and it has to be made in the midst of conflict. Jesus also famously said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” He then goes on to describe the sword as a sword of division, one that will divide people against each other. This division is, in fact, a byproduct of peacemaking, of spreading the Gospel of Peace.
People’s hearts are in a constant state of division, between the violent natures of our ancestors and the intended nature of peace. And, for many, that violent nature has won the battle. People can be cruel, oppressive, violent, unstable, and because their hearts desire to be at peace with themselves and others, there is a constant war within them. That war spreads from their hearts to the world around them, and they become hardened to the suffering of others – and sometimes even participate in bringing that suffering. It is from these hardened and twisted hearts that comes the division. Because, the act of making peace is offensive and repulsive to a heart dedicated to violence and injustice. This is why Jesus was chased out of most towns that He went to, constantly pursued by the authorities who sought to kill Him. Their power and fortunes were dependent upon violently and unjustly controlling the weak, the poor, and the hopeless. So, when Jesus brought peace to those people, He inevitably came into conflict with those authorities.
Peacemaking is a dangerous business, but it’s the most important business that we can be about.
On December 6, 2006, I was in Ramadi, Iraq. One of my duties, when I wasn’t out on patrol, was listening to the radio from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., waiting for any casualties to be brought in for treatment. This was something I had done many times before, and I didn’t expect anything to be different about that day.
But, at about 9 a.m., I began to hear reports from one of the guard towers that there was some suspicious activity on the corner of 5th and Sunset, an intersection that was very close to the gate of our Combat Outpost. Ramadi was a very violent city, a city constantly in conflict, and so we knew that “suspicious activity” probably meant that they were hiding a bomb to blow up a convoy. But, because we didn’t expect any activity that day, we didn’t take any immediate action. The bomb squad would get to it, eventually. Until then, we’d just tell people to avoid the road.
But, not everyone decided to avoid the road that day. A convoy was coming through to our COP, a convoy carrying a Public Relations team and a crew of reporters. In the midst of our daily operations, we prepared to receive important visitors. Floors were swept, supplies were organized.
As the convoy approached our COP, we heard a very loud, incredibly close explosion. The convoy had found the bomb at the corner of 5th and Sunset, and the results were catastrophic. There were four people in the truck that was hit by the explosion. Three of those people were either forcibly ejected from the truck, or only managed to crawl out after they were already on fire. The fourth man ran to our gate, his uniform still on fire, and made it to the Forward Aid Station, where I sat listening to the radio.
There is a lot more that I could tell you. This event was ongoing, and so much about it broke my heart, permanently scarred my mind and spirit. There are horrors from that day that I can still recall with perfect clarity, both things that I saw and things that I felt. I’ve been told by therapists through the years that telling this story, especially the hard parts, will somehow make it less painful. That hasn’t been the case. So, I will spare you the parts of the story that still keep me up at night. Instead, I’ll tell you two important things that happened that day. First, that was the day that I lost the ability to pray. Second, it was the day that I lost my peace.
But, there’s a comfort that has eluded me until this year, nine years later. It’s a small comfort, but it helps a little. There was something different about the 3 people that died on this day in 2006. While most of us in Ramadi were dedicated to pushing back the enemy by force of arms – by kicking in doors and laying down gunfire – these 3 were dedicated to bringing peace to Ramadi. They did this by traveling around the city, putting themselves in danger each time they went out, and talking to people that would bring peace to the region through politics and social change. From a few years after my unit left until the rise of ISIS, Ramadi was a city that was mostly at peace, and a beacon of peace for the other cities in the region. And, while it was in part because of our actions in pushing back the enemy, I believe that the larger part of that peace was achieved by people like Major Megan McClung, Captain Travis Patriquin, and Specialist Vincent Pomante. Those 3 brave soldiers died because they were peacemakers. And, peacemaking is a dangerous business.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “True peace isn’t just the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice.” And, I say that the act of peacemaking, of being a peacemaker, will never bring the absence of conflict to the person making peace. Peacemaking is a dangerous business, and it will always bring you into conflict with those who profit from violence, injustice, and oppression. Peacemaking will always call on you to find creative solutions to problems where violence, either physical or emotional, is the easiest answer.
Peacemaking won’t bring you glory. It won’t bring you fame. It won’t always make you feel good. Major McClung, Captain Patriquin, and Specialist Pomante were eventually given a hero’s funeral, but they spent most of the day that they died in unmarked rubber bags, laid out on a concrete slab. Jesus would eventually rise from the dead, and be worshiped as a Savior. But first He died as a criminal, and was buried in a hole in the ground. And, while you might never be called upon to die for the act of peacemaking, you will be mocked, insulted, and threatened. You will be divided from some of the people that you love the most. You will find yourself at odds with the conventional wisdom, with the easy answers. While you try to make peace, you will feel conflict in your own minds and spirits.
And, you will likely never see your work completed. Peacemaking is a dangerous business, and it’s also a lifelong pursuit. I wake up every morning, and I just want to quit. I want to join the violent masses, go buy myself a gun, and arm myself against the violent and oppressive forces throughout the world. I wake up every morning, and I’m tired of the constant struggle. I’m buried under the weight of the memories of days like December 6, 2006. I’m haunted by the ghosts of all of those who have gone before, who have given their lives in the cause of peace, and who have still seen so much of their work undone by the violent, unjust, and oppressive forces of our world. After every mass shooting, I wonder if I can do it. After every terrorist attack, I despair that I can’t live my life running against the wind. After every day of more war, more poverty, more violence, more pain, more death, I think, “I don’t want to be a peacemaker! I don’t want to care so deeply. I want to live in ignorance, in apathy, calloused against everything around me. If I can’t live in peace, then why should I seek to bring peace to those around me?”
But, today, on the 9th anniversary of the worst day of my life, I am able to put a face to a few of those peacemakers who came before me. Today, on a day when I don’t want to talk about peace, I don’t want to think about peace, I can’t even imagine what peace feels like, I can almost hear their spirits whispering to me:
“Peacemaking is a dangerous business. But, it’s the only business worth doing.”
I don’t think that any of those 3 wanted to die that day. I don’t think that it was part of God’s Grand Design that their truck was blown up on the corner of 5th and Sunset. But, if they had to die, then I am glad that they died for something that they believed in. I am glad that the last days and weeks of their lives were spent bringing peace to a troubled, violent, and conflicted region. And, I can only hope that if I have to die of anything other than old age, that I can die in the act of peacemaking. Being a combat veteran, I was given plenty of opportunities to die for my country. I wouldn’t have asked for it, and I’m thankful that I survived. But, my prayer today would go something like this:
“God, if I must die for something, let it not be for a nation. Let it be for an idea, for a hope, that there really can be peace on Earth, that goodwill can exist between people. God, if I must die for something, let me die in the struggle against the violence, injustice, and oppression that grips people’s hearts so tightly that they have to bring it to others. God, if I must die for something, let me die for the dangerous, awful, necessary business of peacemaking.”
The Prince of Peace might have brought division, but He left us with a responsibility. He called us to bring the Gospel of Peace, even if we ourselves feel no peace, to a world in desperate need. He called us blessed for this dangerous act. And, He gave us a promise. Another name for the Prince of Peace is Emmanuel. It means “God will be with us.” So, as we all go about the work of peacemaking, as we carry out the responsibility that the Prince of Peace left us, let us always remember that God will be with us. That, if there is any peace to be found, we will find it in Jesus.
May we never be satisfied wishing, thinking, or praying for peace. Let us always go out and seek it, create it, make it, no matter how dangerous it might prove to be.