The news is difficult to hear today, writes Rev Dr Angus Morrison, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Sixteen million children born into war – no wonder this Christmas that many of us feel deeply troubled by the widespread lack of peace in our world.
I’m particularly thinking about two of the biggest issues of our time.
First, there’s the sad reality that we are now in the midst of what Pope Francis has called, ‘a piecemeal Third World War’.
Looking around our world, we see conflict and fear. We see the barbarity of random terrorist attacks killing ordinary people in Beirut and Mali, in Sharm el-Sheik and Paris, among others.
We understand only too well the global instability and tension of which Pope Francis speaks. And we see its results – a refugee crisis on an epic scale with countless individuals and families fleeing destruction, terror and violence, desperate simply to find a place of safety and peace.
Rising levels of hatred, war and dislocation are the tragic facts of our time.
The second troubling issue this Christmas is one I am sure touches us all directly – the growing loneliness we see all around us, as our population gets older and more people are living alone or far away from their families.
One 2012 study of loneliness in older Britons found that more than one in five feel lonely all the time. One in four say their loneliness has worsened became over the last five years.
Another study for The Mental Health Foundation concludes that our ‘individualistic society’ may be why we’ve seen a rise in common mental health disorders over the last 50 years. Loneliness can be twice as unhealthy as obesity, the six-year study found. And the most lonely people were nearly twice as likely to die as the least lonely.
The problem can get worse when isolated people, fearing rejection, keep themselves at a distance. Some health experts believe loneliness is the next epidemic our society must confront.
These two major challenges of our time are, I feel, expressions of the same human condition – being divided, being separated, feeling alienated. We feel our great human community, which was intended to exist in a unified and peaceful harmony, pulling apart and fragmenting.
In different ways, being at war and being lonely both represent a denial of the wholeness and wellbeing we seek on both the physical and spiritual level.
This ideal balance we seek between physical and spiritual harmony is best expressed by the rich Hebrew word ‘shalom.’
In this season, shalom is a word which resonates in a deep way, for it captures the essence of the Christmas message.
The ancient prophets had foretold the coming of a king who would bring peace to the world. Christians believe that God came to dwell with us on earth in the form of the weak and vulnerable babe of Bethlehem.
But what can Christmas bring to a world at war, to a society that has fragmented?
Well, it brings a supreme message of hope – hope anchored in the reality that, just as God is with us, we can be with one another.
Christmas takes us to the central mystery of the Christian faith – the recognition that in this miraculous child, God himself is with us all.
In this broken world where sinful human pride and folly have created separation and isolation at every level, the wonder of the Christmas message is that God has chosen not to abandon us to our foolishness and ignorance. God has himself entered the chaos of human life and his message is one of reconciliation.
The great German pastor-theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer – executed by the Nazis for his part in a plot to get rid of Hitler – said that only the perfect love of God can meet and overcome reality. He believed that the ‘world will be overcome not by destruction but by reconciliation.’
His words came during a tumultuous time in human history, amidst the darkness of the Second World War. They matter still today as the world is again riven by brutal conflict wherever we look. He tells us that hope can triumph. All is not lost.
Christmas turns out to be all about healing our relationships: reconciling with God, with ourselves, with one another, with the environment. The Christmas message calls us to be reconciled to God through faith. That means becoming passionately committed to this world mission of reconciliation.
Sam Wells, in his book A Nazareth Manifesto, says “There is no mission from which the work of reconciliation is a distraction.”
To make peace in an age of war is the challenge for all. To answer aggression with aggression, violence with violence, is not the way of Christ.
It is of course the duty of governments to seek justice and to protect their people. To have failed to resist Hitler, for example, would have represented a gross dereliction of duty.
As I write British forces are again engaged in armed conflict. People inevitably hold different views on whether this is the right course of action. But what we share is the resolve to defeat all those who side with cruelty, death and destruction. We may disagree, but we must respect one another’s integrity and we must continue to pray for our military and their families, who, on our behalf, look danger in the face every day.
Military action may, in certain circumstances, have the positive effect of keeping the peace. Recent history, however, has shown us again and again that the use of force is limited. The greater and vastly more difficult challenge is the task of peace-making.
Jesus said: ‘Blessed are the peace-makers; they shall be called children of God.’
In a world crying out for peace-makers, it has never been more important.
Peace-making is about pursuing a change of hearts and minds. It is about exchanging hatred for love. It makes reconciliation our number one priority, as it is God’s.
Peacemaking recognises that we are meant to ‘be with’, not ‘apart from’, other people. Peacemaking demands our presence, attention, participation, partnership and mutual delight.
Such a path is never anything but painful. It may mean carrying a cross, as it did for Jesus.
Like many others, I was deeply moved recently by the open letter that Antoine Leiris sent to the terrorists who murdered his wife on the streets of Paris.
He wrote: ‘On Friday night you stole away the life of an exceptional being, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you will not have my hatred… If the God for whom you kill so blindly made us in his image, each bullet in my wife’s body was a wound in his heart.’
Antoine’s words reminded me of Gordon Wilson’s offer of forgiveness to the IRA bombers who murdered his daughter Marie in Enniskillen almost 30 years ago. It demonstrates that capacity to forgive, when hatred is the easy way; the ability to seek peace when vengeance is the natural response.
Even after tragedy and hurt, the hard work of making peace can bring different communities closer together. Following the recent Paris attacks, Police Scotland reported a spike in hate crimes. One of them was the wilful setting on fire of an Islamic centre in Bishopbriggs. The story doesn’t stop there, however.
What happened next was a remarkable example of the way of reconciliation. Bishopbriggs Churches Together met to discuss what they could do to help their Muslim friends. They sent a message of support and one church offered the Muslim community a room where they could meet and worship.
They said, ‘As Christians we believe that love is stronger than hate. So we hope that good can come out of this destructive act. By reaching out at this time of sorrow and fear, we hope to build stronger relationships between Christians and Muslims in Bishopbriggs.’
Shafiq Sharif, secretary of the Islamic centre’s education trust, dismissed the firebombing as the work of a misguided person and thanked the Bishopbriggs community. “After the fire we got a lot of phone calls from the Christian community to offer help,” he said. “We never knew that help and support was there before. So can good come from this?
“It has, because it has brought us closer together. Through this we have learned that we are not alone.’
Community leaders say that the incident has led to a much greater understanding between the different faith groups. We don’t have to pretend that different faith groups believe the same things to reach out in care, understanding and friendship.
Through God, love can grow and flourish in the hardest of environments.
Christmas reminds us that reconciliation is the good news. When we make peace, reconcile and care for one another we can hope the loneliness in our community will be healed. Jesus, the Christ child, the Prince of Peace, was also called Emmanuel – which means ‘God with us’. And the deep truth of our being is that we truly exist only in relationship with God, with one another and with creation.
By sending Jesus to be with us, God promises to help us restore our community. Jesus’s tiny body holds God’s promise to reconcile all things. God is with us.
Yet the world around us shows us we need reconciliation and healing more than ever. Sometimes we feel that little has improved in the world since the coming of Jesus. We still await the fulfilment of God’s promise.
How can that be?
Two friends, a minister and a soap manufacturer had long discussions on this question.
The friends talked about Christian faith and about why we need to believe. Again and again the minister was told that Christianity did not work.
Then, as the pair walked down the road, they spotted a very dirty child. The minister turned to his friend and said, ‘Your soap doesn’t work.’
In his defence, the soap manufacturer said, ‘The soap has to be applied – it has to be used.’
Exactly. And the love has to be used too.
The message we celebrate at Christmas must be practised in our lives and in our communities. By practising reconciliation and living by God’s love we will inevitably be transformed. Then we will see in our world the coming of peace.
Shalom. To all of you, I wish a happy and peace-filled Christmas.