I listened to Carolyn Wonderland’s excellent album, Peace Meal, recently and while I thought the whole album was fantastic – strong songs throughout, powerful, passionate and bluesy vocals, some pretty nifty guitar work and a great band – one song stood out for me. Only God Knows When is a powerful song about peace. The first verse has the great line “violence is no solution when life ain’t like you planned”, which Carolyn tells us applies to individuals and nations alike. Despite the appetite for war we’ve seen over the past ten years in the US and Britain, “There’s a hollow victory in winning, when everybody pays the cost, With retaliations by the hour, lives and generations lost”.
One thinks of the indiscriminate violence against civilians and children in Fallujah in 2004, which resulted in thousands of deaths and untold suffering to many more; or the planet’s deadliest conflict since World War II in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has claimed the lives of an estimated 5.4m people, 50% of which have been children and has seen hundreds of thousands of women and girls raped; or the conflict that has raged in Dafur in the Sudan where two million people have died as a result of war, famine and disease and four million people have been displaced at least once (and often repeatedly) during the war.
Problem is, of course, everybody thinks they’re in the right and, often, that they’ve got God on their side. “Everybody thinks that they’re righteous, or they never even would have fought” – or as Eric Bibb put it in his song Got to do better, “Hatred’s a luxury, the price is too high”. Too often war is not the last resort and the cost is not properly counted – which is usually in the lives of innocent women and children.
Funny, isn’t it how quickly Christians have been, all too often, willing, or even keen, to support military actions. Particularly when you think that Jesus’ birth was announced by the shepherds as heralding “peace on earth”; when he said things like “love your enemies” and “blessed are those who make peace”; and when he offered no resistance to his torturers prior to his execution. Jesus’s good news proclamation was that the kingdom of God was arriving through his own life. This was the same good news that the biblical prophet Isaiah talked about, which was that the result of God coming to reign would be peace. (Isaiah 52.7).
The word “peace” occurs over 100 times in our New Testaments and at our peril we relegate this to some notion of “inner peace”. More often than not it’s about God wanting peace among God’s creatures. In St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, he says (chapter 12) that Christians are never to take vengence, should live in harmony with one another, should bless those who persecute them, should serve and help their enemies, repay no one evil for evil and live peaceably with all. Not much wriggle room there then, is there? Peace was central to Jesus’s mission and that of the first Christians – it ought to be just as crucial for modern Jesus-followers.
As Willard Swartley says in his book “Covenant of Peace”, the “New Testament consistently not only supports nonviolence but also advocates proactive peacemaking, consisting of positive initiatives to overcome evil, employing peaceable means to make peace”.
Duke scholar Richard Hays challenges Christians about their commitment to peace, “one reason that the world finds the New Testament’s message of peacemaking and love of enemies incredible is that the church is so massively faithless…only when the church renounces the way of violence, will people see what the Gospel means…The meaning of the New Testament’s teaching on violence will become evident only in communities of Jesus’ followers who embody the costly way of peace”.
But perhaps the last word to Carolyn Wonderland. The final line of her song reminds us that we are all God’s children, there’s no difference, “that we are all brothers, there never really was no “them””. Well said.
Lyrics of Only God Knows When
What I know of peace, it ain’t hard to understand
Whether it’s shared by nations or individuals that stand
Toe to toe with each other, an olive branch in hand
Because violence is no solution when life ain’t like you planned
Only God knows when, only God knows when
We’re gonna get ourselves together, come up with the perfect plan
Only God knows when
There’s a hollow victory in winning, when everybody pays the cost
With retaliations by the hour, lives and generations lost
Everybody thinks that they’re righteous, or they never even would have fought
Why don’t you ask yourself when you’re starving, my brother,
“Just how easily can I be bought?”
One morning you might wake up, find yourself in your enemy’s bed
I pray that you don’t slay them, have that weight upon your head
How will you explain to your father all your brother’s blood that’s been shed
When we realize that we are all brothers, there never really was no “them”