In case you haven’t driven on Interstate 64 between Richmond and Newport News lately, if you don’t absolutely have to, don’t. It’s nuts. For two reasons. First, there’s almost always a lot of traffic. Sometimes it’s too much traffic. Especially when you get near the Fort Eustis exit at shift change time. The second reason is that – better late than never – there’s construction going on. They are in the process of adding a lane on both sides of the interstate, so that’s making driving through there more interesting.
So to get to Helen Beth’s mom’s house in Newport News, she and I have been taking 460 to Ivor and then heading up through the country to Smithfield. This means that we come into Newport News via the James River Bridge. As a result, as you come across the bridge you get a panoramic view of the Newport News shipyard.
Newport News Shipbuilding employs over 20,000 people. The shipyard itself occupies over a mile of river front. And it is the exclusive builder of aircraft carriers for the U.S. Navy. So over the past several years of traveling to Newport News, I’ve been able to get a glimpse of the Gerald R. Ford and the John F. Kennedy, the first two carriers in the new Ford class. “Glimpse” is the right word, although ships that are over a thousand feet long are pretty easy to spot, even in a place as big as Newport News Shipbuilding. I keep waiting for somebody to offer to give me a tour of one of the carriers. I would love to get the up close view.
Aircraft carriers represent power. Ever since World War II, when the American carriers were not at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked, it has been recognized that carriers, not battleships, are the most potent force on the oceans of the world. But not many nations can afford to build aircraft carriers. In fact, there are only thirty-six in service in the world today, and the United States has nineteen of those. Together they are a clear expression of our military power as a nation.
The Ford is ending up costing – are you sitting down – thirteen billion dollars. It took about forty-nine million man-hours to design and build it. The hope is that the Kennedy and the rest of the carriers in this class will be cheaper; somewhere in the eleven billion dollar range. Of course the thirteen billion and eleven billion are over a period of years, so maybe a billion or two a year.
For your very brief civics lesson for the day, the federal government’s budget this year is $4.4 trillion. The largest part of that is what’s called mandatory spending, which means Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. This accounts for $2.7 trillion. The interest payments on the national debt, which is $21 trillion, is $363 billion. That leaves $1.3 trillion – I know – these numbers are pretty mind blowing, aren’t they? – $1.3 trillion for what is called discretionary spending. That means everything else. Of that $1.3 trillion, the Department of Defense budget is $716 billion. The rest of that $1.3 trillion funds the departments of Health and Human Services, Education, Housing and Urban Development, and so on, including our friend Austin Jones’ salary as a National Park Service law enforcement ranger.
Our military does a lot of good in a lot of ways. But what if, one day, we could take that $716 billion and spend it in other ways? I know the federal government doesn’t contribute to Habitat for Humanity, but that amount of money would build something like twelve million Habitat houses. A tiny fraction of that would cover Piedmont Community Impact Organization’s operating costs. And Austin might get a raise.
For some reason I doubt that Congress is going to do away with the Department of Defense any time soon, and sadly, they probably shouldn’t. But perhaps the question for us as Christians is, have we given up on the notion of a world which lives in peace? Do we just take it for granted that war has always been part of the way we humans live, and we simply have to resign ourselves to that fact?
Today’s scripture readings come from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah lived in the eighth century BCE. It is a time of war. The land of Israel is invaded and conquered. Apparently Isaiah has the ear of the kings of Israel who lived during his lifetime, because he becomes involved in their decision making.
But Isaiah has a vision. In chapter two he talks about all nations coming to the mountain of the Lord. God will be the judge of the nations, he says, and “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” That’s a vision. That’s a vision of the world God wants and intends. That’s a vision of what can be, of the way in which we human beings can live with one another. I hope we haven’t given up on that vision.
I mentioned World War I a couple of weeks ago, and how horrible it was. To some extent the tactics of fighting a war had not caught up with the new technologies that were employed during those years. Soldiers would come out of their trenches en masse and charge at the opposing line. The other side would lob poison gas in their direction and direct machine gun fire on them.
So the story we heard about Allied and German soldiers observing a Christmas truce is remarkable. And maybe the truce itself wasn’t so amazing. We can understand the two sides agreeing to stop trying to kill each other for a day or two. But the fact that they got out of their trenches and met one another, exchanged items, sang and perhaps even played together… How do you do that and then go back to war?
Maybe it was a sign. Or maybe it was part of a vision, a vision that war doesn’t have to be the last word in human affairs. Maybe it was a small indication that there is an alternative, another way to resolve differences. Maybe.
However, I don’t believe that peace in our world can be accomplished by signing the right treaties. Peace in our world is no doubt connected to peace in our individual lives. In Isaiah chapter nine the prophet says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in deep darkness–on them light has shined.” Where is this light coming from? He goes on, “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us…and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
The early Christians knew the book of Isaiah. And they said, this child Isaiah is talking about, it sounds an awful lot like Jesus. Including “Prince of Peace.” The early Christians knew that Jesus rejected violence as a way to achieve his ends. When he is tempted in the desert he rejects the offer to rule the kingdoms of the world. When he is arrested he tells his followers to put away their swords.
His message is clear; a firm and deep relationship with God brings with it peace, a peace which, as Paul says, surpasses all understanding. The longer version of that saying, in Philippians chapter four, is, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Paul is simply repeating or paraphrasing what Jesus teaches, that when we give attention to our relationship with God, we experience peace. There are various ways in which we can attend to our relationship with God. We can demonstrate our love for others. There’s prayer. But perhaps one of the most important is being calm, being still and quiet. We can be pretty good at speaking to God, but maybe not as good at listening to God, acknowledging that God is with us – always – and simply allowing God’s presence to be a part of us.
Peace in this sense is not merely the absence of war and violence. The peace which God brings into our lives is a peace which, as Paul says, teaches us that ultimately all things are in God’s hands. Therefore we waste our time and energy with worry and fear.
And how do we achieve this peace? By being calm. By taking time – making time – to be calm and still. Every day. At some point we realize that God’s peace, to us and to the world, comes to us as a gift. So let’s not give up on peace. Amen.