In this morning’s reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we hear an extended description of what it means to be a follower of Christ. He writes, “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” As we watch the ongoing suffering in Ukraine and in Israel and Gaza, those seem like pretty naïve words for such times in which we live. He instructs them to not return evil for evil but instead “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.” In its best form, Christianity is absolutely meant to be counter cultural. Jesus spent a great deal of time teaching people to choose good over evil, to forgive their enemies, to love their neighbors. It wasn’t easy then and sure isn’t easy now. War takes a huge toll on everyone involved; those who survive too often carry the emotional or physical scars for the rest of their lives. We are the privileged ones for almost none of us has seen war up close or in our own land. And, honestly, those who have suffered in war whether combatants or civilians find it far too difficult often to fully convey what they have experienced. It is far too painful. War is a terrible thing, I think we can all agree and so this day we pray for peace. We pray for an end to the conflicts around the world. We pray for a path forward that brings true justice and righteousness to the people most affected. Let us pray,
Some months ago, I saw an interview with a Veteran named Porter Halyburton about his book, Reflections on Captivity: A Tapestry of Stories by a Vietnam War POW. His memoir includes stories of his seven plus years as a POW in North Vietnam and the difficult times he and others endured. Importantly, it also focuses on the positive things he experienced during that time—the humor, creativity, friendships, courage, and leadership of an amazing group of Americans and how they helped each other survive and even thrive. His stories demonstrate how the human mind, body, and spirit can adapt and find meaning in life even in the most challenging circumstances. As Halyburton writes, “In the aftermath of long captivity, suffering, and difficult times, I thought a lot about how we were able to survive—and not only to survive but to “Survive with Honor” and to “Return with Honor.” He discusses the three stages of his time in captivity, based on what was going on, starting with his capture and months spent with Fred Cherry as his roommate – something he thinks the North Vietnamese did because they thought that putting a Southern White man in with one of the few Black POWs and having Halyburton take care of the badly wounded Cherry would be repugnant to Halyburton. Instead Halyburton describes how Cherry was a source of inspiration and leadership to him and that the two developed what turned out to be a lifelong friendship.
Their story was explored at length in the book Two Souls Indivisible published nearly 20 years ago. Halyburton’s cellmate, Fred Cherry, was a pioneering air force pilot and the first black officer captured by the North Vietnamese. Porter Halyburton was a young navy flier from a privileged southern background. Their captors threw them into the same horrible cell, believing that their antipathy toward each other would break them both. But Cherry and Halyburton overcame initial suspicions to save each other’s lives. When Halyburton first saw him, Cherry was a wreck; one arm hung uselessly at his side, he hadn’t bathed in weeks, and he could not walk, the results of torture and inept medical care. In his own mind, Cherry was steeling himself for death. Halyburton was much healthier but was scarred by brainwashing and physical abuse that his privileged life had not prepared him for.
He knew he needed to learn how to endure, or he would become another of the incoherent wraiths who haunted what they called the Zoo. Halyburton and Cherry became legendary among fellow POWs for the singular friendship that enabled them to overcome incredible suffering.. Though Cherry and Halyburton were each grateful to have a cellmate, each was initially wary of the other. Cherry thought Halyburton was a French spy, while Halyburton doubted that a black man could even be a pilot. But they overcame their misgivings and preconceptions and found common ground. Their friendship inspired many of their fellow prisoners. Many of the POWs had to cross racial, cultural, or social boundaries to coexist in such close confines. But Halyburton and Cherry did more than coexist–they rescued each other. Each man credits the other with saving his life. One needed to be saved physically, the other emotionally. “In doing so, they forged a brotherhood that no enemy could shatter.” ‘Two Souls Indivisible’: A transcendent friendship
Porter Halyburton is a man of deep faith who said prayer helped to sustain him during some of the worst years of his life. At the same time, he says that he was deeply inspired by the resilience of his fellow prisoners who chose to work together to keep their spirits up over the years. In the time since his captivity, he obtained several post graduate degrees, taught, and in later years he and his wife led trips back to Hanoi. But one of the best things he says he did was to leave behind the anger that had helped keep him going during his captivity instead of letting it poison his life from then on. “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
There is a documentary film called Pray the Devil Back to Hell which tells the story of Muslim and Christian women who joined together in a peace movement to end fourteen years of civil war in Liberia. From 1989–2003, you may recall that Liberians endured starvation and indescribable suffering at the hands of the drugged childred forced to be soldiers under the leadership of the despot Charles Taylor. A third of the country was displaced; up to ten percent perished.
Instead of leaving history to chance, some very brave women made a choice: no more war. They made a decision to speak out against the legitimation of violence in the name of god, country, political liberation, or economic reform. Under the remarkable leadership of Leymah Roberta Gbowee, who with two other colleagues won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, the women rose up and organized. They prayed and sang by the thousands in the fish market every day in their trademark white tee shirts, in the sweltering sun and torrential rains. They announced “sex strikes” to all the men until the violence ceased. They picketed the American Embassy. Their incredible courage and persistence forced the government of Charles Taylor to acknowledge them in a public ceremony. As the president fidgeted in his chair on stage, Gbowee spoke for the nation: “We are tired of war! Tired of running! Tired of begging for wheat! Tired of our daughters being assaulted!” They forced Taylor and the rebel factions to the peace table in Ghana. When talks stalled after six weeks, they staged a sit in and blocked the delegates from leaving the hall until they signed an agreement. After the peace accords in 2003, they led the nation in disarmament, then in voter registration and campaigning, all of which led to the election of the Harvard-educated Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as president of Liberia and the first African woman head of state in January 2006. Women have led such efforts in other countries as well, including Northern Ireland and in the Middle East. “We are Tired of War,” they say.
And so we watch from afar, recognizing that the suffering on the ground is beyond our comprehension and the truth is, we are traumatized too. We are tired of war. We do not want to see other people’s children suffer and die. I often have thought that if we spent even a tenth of the budget spent on military weapons around the world to put the best minds to working on peace, we might have a start. I understand each conflict is filled with challenges and a history that is long, but will this be the way of the future? If we are to embrace the message of peace found throughout Scripture, we understand that it is a peace based on justice and righteousness. How long before we all raise our voices in solidarity with those whose voices cannot be heard and say, We are tired of war!
-Charles R. Cross, Special to The Seattle Times. May 30, 2004. Review on Two Lives Indivisible.
-We’re Tired of War! By Dan Clendenin. Posted 05 November 2023.