I recently listened to a Vietnamese friend talk about the powerful ministry of reconciliation he is facilitating and witnessing in his country. Deeply divided between north and south in that nation’s civil war—and with many in the south persecuted after the north prevailed—Vietnam is slowly healing from its deep internal wounds. Likewise, more and more United States military veterans who served there in the 1960’s and early ‘70s are returning to Vietnam on reconciliation missions and I’m told the results are rather amazing. Soldiers who’ve been haunted by open emotional wounds for 35 years or more are finding peace at last.
Having ridden a bicycle over 600 miles in Vietnam with my friend—some of it along the fabled and rugged Ho Chi Minh Trail, I confirm his words and commend his efforts. I pray many more Vietnamese and US veterans will find reconciliation. It is sacred work. It is what is needed in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and all wars.
I worked directly with chronically homeless neighbors at a time when many veterans of Vietnam were still on the streets. Even as a corner was being turned and we were seeing more and more vets find help and housing, the Persian Gulf War commenced. And, now, the US has been sending troops to war in Afghanistan for 11 years and to Iraq for 9 years. You can count on homeless services and shelters doing brisk business for the next 30 years just dealing with guys and gals haunted by their experiences of these protracted wars.
Of course, we won’t have 30 years to wait. We don’t have a minute to spare. Already, the number of Afghanistan and Iraq War veterans who have committed suicide outnumbers those who have died on battlefields. Immediate and intensive intervention at community and church levels needs to support—even supersede—military interventions.
Reconciliation is needed. Reconciliation will be needed. And reconciliation will be possible. I’m grateful for that. I’m grateful for grace that reconciles. I’m grateful for grace that is conveyed through people who assist in this process. I’m grateful that wrecked lives and wrecked countries can heal. I’m grateful that out of splintered lives and fragmented relationships, reason for hope and faith and love can be found.
But, whenever I hear someone declare how great it is that God brings beauty for ashes and reconciliation after deep division, I want to push back and say that God was able—and is able—to prevent such violence and destruction in the first place.
Many of our wars and much of our violence could have been--and can be--prevented. Historically, if one would carefully trace the early developments of what resulted in wars in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq, one would find multiple points at which these conflicts in which the military choice resulted in multiple thousands of military and civilian casualties and losses beyond measure could have been prevented. And that, too, would have glorified God.
While I am aware that grace restores, I am aware that grace also prevents strife and division and death. While I am aware that God reconciles after unthinkable violent destruction, I am aware that God also works through people to bring reconciliation before troops are sent or bombs are dropped or blood is shed.
I am aware of a grace that is conveyed through those who pursue and persist in seeking peace in ways that prevent violent conflict. And in them and through them God is glorified.
If it is blessed to help conflicts end, is it not just as blessed—or more so—to help prevent conflicts from reaching the point where lives are lost? If it is blessed to reconcile once-warring people to one another, is it not just as blessed—or more so—to do everything within one’s power to help two disagreeing sides to come to some terms to prevent violence?
We have long thought of peacemaking as ending violent conflicts. We have envisioned it as bringing an end to strife. Often, leaders have seemed to wait until all-out war is raging before organizing peace missions, often to little avail. They end up picking up the pieces and arranging for agreeable ends to destroyed lands and lives.
Let us try to reframe our understanding of peacemaking. Let us impose the image of preventive peacemaking over our image of violence-ending peacemaking. Let us invest ourselves and our resources in teaching peace and counseling peace. Let us insert ourselves—welcome or not—into situations where conflict escalation is in its earliest stages. Let us imagine and embrace and live a preemptive peace. Let us anticipate what joy in God’s eyes and possibility in human relationships when violence is prevented in every small and large situation.
As I pedaled my bike through Vietnam, I witnessed a healing nation, but a nation that suffered needlessly, that lost 3,000,000 of its citizens in the war, was reduced to the lowest poverty and is still a generation behind its neighbors. I saw a deeply scarred land and cautiously hopeful people. And even as I celebrate reconciliation, I try imagine Vietnam without that war.
Where is conflict brewing but not open? Let us go there. Where is disagreement escalating to enemy formation? Let us speak peace into it. Where are academies teaching their students the practices of war? Let us insist that peace becomes essential curriculum. Where are skills lacking to solve household and interpersonal problems amicably? Let us be there and show the better way.
Perhaps there is no more holy work in our world than this: to seek peace and pursuit. So, help me, God.
John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA
John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA