Scripture: Matthew 5:9
It wasn’t quite what anyone expected….
The year was 1962 and the location was the British town of Coventry. Composer Benjamin Britten had been invited the year before to write a piece of music for this special occasion and he jumped at the chance. In May of 1962, the premier of Britten’s War Requiem, Op. 66 was performed. Perhaps you know that a requiem is a funeral mass, a way of remembering and grieving the lost. And Britten’s 85-minute requiem was a huge undertaking, performed by a full orchestra and choir, complete with soloists. In his piece, Britten weaves together the traditional requiem language of grief and loss, along with the poems of Wilfred Owen. Owen was a poet who lived and fought in World War I, almost fifty years prior, and his poems reflected the war he saw around him.
Owen’s poetry harkens back to the story of Abraham and Isaac, and the father’s binding of his son, who he was asked to sacrifice. We explored this passage more fully last fall, and [liturgist Hannes Combest] read a portion of it a few minutes ago [Genesis 22:9–14]. It tells the story of how Abraham took his son to the site of the sacrifice before God stopped him and gave him a ram to sacrifice instead.
But in Owen’s poetic retelling of the Abraham and Isaac story, through the eyes of one experiencing the horrors of war, Abraham refuses to accept the ram as an alternative, and instead chooses to kill his son Isaac on the altar. Hear Owen’s words:
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so,
but slew his son, –
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
You see, despite the name, Britten’s piece was not a celebration of war, but in fact the opposite. Britton was a pacifist and a conscientious objector. And Owen’s poetry named the violence and destruction that he saw around him in World War I, before he was killed in that conflict. The point that Britten wanted to make was about the destructive nature of war to the people caught up in the middle of it. His goal with the piece was to help Britons—and the world—understand their past failures and spur them to a different future. After World War I and II, and the deaths of 80 million Isaacs at the hands of their fathers, Britten had a message to share. I remember when I heard the KC Symphony perform Britten’s piece, I was moved to the point of tears when I heard the choir and symphony perform Owen’s words. How different the story of Abraham would have been if this was the ending! I saw through fresh eyes one horrified by the existence of war.
Many of you know the power of music to touch emotions that words alone cannot express. Britten knew this as well. In the writing of the music for the piece, he repeated the use of a tritone, which musicians will recognize as an intentionally dissonant chord.
[Organ plays tritone chord]
Doesn’t sound right, does it? This particular tritone is nicknamed “diabolus en musica,” or “The Devil’s Interval,” and it is the chord that Britten repeats throughout the piece. In fact, the piece ends with this chord, as a musical accompaniment to the words of unresolved grief of a nation, an entire continent, and really the world.
Britten and Owen and so many others throughout history have chosen not to celebrate war with pomp and circumstance, but instead to leave us thinking about the destruction that it causes, and the dissonance that it brings. They might have us ask how do we participate in similar destruction, and how might we instead enter into the grief caused whenever war is waged. And they ask us what it would take to seek instead the ways of peace.
As the final strains of the War Requiem were complete, the audience filed out in silence, with the “Devil’s Interval” ringing in their ears. It wasn’t quite what anyone expected.
Much like, of course, the words of Jesus. When he climbed that mountain to teach his followers, and began with the Beatitudes, his hearers had heard plenty about peace. Pax Romana. The Peace of Rome. Sounds cozy, doesn’t it? But the “peace” of Empire is a coerced peace. There will be peace through control. There will be peace through violence. And perhaps most ironically, there will be peace through war. This was Pax Romana, and all of Jesus’s hearers would have understood exactly what that “peace” meant.
Into that context and into that world come the words of Jesus:
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
The Two-Way [sermon discussion group] last week easily filled the whole session talking about this verse, and could have continued for longer. We wrestled with the concept of what it means to be a maker of peace, then and today. They understood, as Jesus seems to teach, that a coerced peace is not necessarily peace.
When Jesus climbed that mountain, he used a word that is only used once in the New Testament. Eirenopoioi. Peacemaker. Only here in Matthew do we see this word as a noun like this. Jesus is calling out and lifting up his disciples to be counter-cultural. In our world today, we tend not to celebrate those who make peace. We celebrate the warriors, the military victors, the overpowering generals. They are the ones that the world blesses. But here Jesus proclaims that those who wage peace are the truly blessed. They will be called children of God. They have found the truth of Jesus’ words and know that their work will not be in vain.
What it seems that Jesus is saying is that in order to dismantle the ways of our culture, we must learn to wage peace. And not the coerced peace of Pax Romana, but something different. Something that looks like the turning of the other cheek. Something that looks like the carrying of another’s pack longer than required. Something that looks like the love of enemy. Something that looks a lot like the cross. Not Pax Romana. Pax Cristus. The Peace of Christ.
The work of Pax Cristus is a complicated work. The folks in the Two Way last week understood that much of what stands in the way of peace is not “out there” but “in here.” What are the ways that we lapse into a peaceless “us vs. them” mentality? What are the ways that we glorify the overpowering violence of our culture? What are the tools of violence that we use without even thinking: name-calling, targeted anger, sarcastic cutting down of others? What are the ways that we gird up our defenses, thinking the world is always attacking us? These are not the ways of waging Pax Cristus.
Osheta Moore teaches us thusly in her book Dear White Peacemakers. A Black pastor who is often brought in to speak to white people about how to dismantle racism, she is amazed how often white Christians use the language of battle when it comes to race. Even those who are attempting to dismantle racism in the world often use the language of war. She writes…
…you’re taught, from a very young age, various defensive techniques that masquerade as self-righteousness, politeness, or godliness, or even (a false) humility. Then when you begin unpacking Whiteness and realize some very core things are in danger, those defensive mechanisms come to protect you.
She makes an important point. We have learned to operate out of the defensiveness of Pax Romana. Coercing and defending the status quo in order to protect our culture’s assumptions about what is “out there” and who is out to get us. Defensiveness about race is only one example of how we have internalized that Pax Romana, but it is a big one. My guess is that some of you, even as I read her language, you could feel that defensiveness swell up. “I’m not like that! You can’t make me feel guilty. It’s not that bad.” These are the strategies of Pax Romana. But look how she invites us to respond to that defensiveness:
Jesus, however, teaches that those who try to save their lives will lose them and that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. Anti-racism peacemaking is an invitation to interrogate your defenses, know your fear responses, and respond with nonviolence. White Peacemaker, my prayer is you’ll do this nonviolent work within yourself, first by calling yourself a Beloved and then by acknowledging your fragility. Fragility needs to be an idea that neutralized. We all have our fragilities (mine include working out and incontinence at haunted hayrides.)
What a brilliant theological move! “…first call yourself a Beloved.” When we acknowledge that theological truth—that we are each Beloved children of God—it takes away some of that defensiveness. Try it. Repeat that phrase, until you feel your defenses lower: “I am a Beloved. I am a Beloved. I am a Beloved.” And she follows that by demilitarizing this idea of fragility? She moves us out of “blame” mode, out of “attack and defend” mode, and deconstructs the guilt and shame out of the idea of fragility. “We all have fragilities,” she writes. “Mine include working out and haunted hayrides…” (Anyone relate?) But look again at the theological point she makes here. It is all about internalizing the love of Christ. If we are to be peacemakers “out there,” we must begin by embracing that peace “in here.” That is the way of Pax Cristus.
Britten understood this. Good composers and good musicians understand that music is largely an emotional experience. So, in order to invite his hearers to be peacemakers, he knew that music could play a large part. The premier of his War Requiem was to be performed at the dedication of Coventry Cathedral, in England. This beautiful cathedral, along with most of the community of Coventry, was destroyed in World War Two. Now, almost 20 years later, worshippers were finally able to return. As they did, Britten wanted them to remember two messages.
The first was the dissonance of the experience of war.
Britton wanted them to imagine a world where Abraham killed Isaac.
To remember a world where the bombs fell.
To acknowledge that destruction and defensiveness “out there” and “in here” are not the ways of Christ.
But there is one moment, perhaps the most important moment in the entire piece. Britten uses the requiem language of Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God, to tell the story of Christ, a symbol of defenselessness and sacrifice and love and hope, to proclaim that only Christ can bring true restoration and peace. As they sat in the restored Cathedral of worship, Britten wanted them to feel peace, to know that we don’t have to live in the defensiveness and violence of war…
That we don’t have to cower to our fragility.
That we don’t have to embrace Pax Romana.
That Christ gives us a better way….
Finally, the chord resolves as the tenor sings:
Dona Nobis Pacem.
Grant us peace.
In the world and in our hearts, Beloved, may it be so.
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