Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.Isaiah 43:18
If you take the new cablecar to the top of Mt Trebević, into the mists of a Balkan spring afternoon, you will find well hidden in the undergrowth, the remains of a bobsleigh track, a relic from the XIV Olympic Winter Games of 1984. Some may remember that these games were notable for Torvill and Dean achieving a perfect score in the Ice-Dance (sill unbeaten), Lamine Gueye from Senegal becoming the first Black African skier to compete in the Winter Olympics, and less impressive, the Olympic flag being hoisted upside down at the opening ceremony! These were also the first Winter Olympics to be hosted in a socialist state. Twelve years later, this was also the site chosen for the Republika Srpska artillery to pound Sarajevo in the longest siege of a capital city in modern warfare, lasting from 5th April 1992 to the 29th February 1996. Three times longer than the Battle of Stalingrad, and a year longer than the siege of Leningrad in the Second World War. A great deal can happen in twelve years.
Walking down the track, (one of the steepest of its kind ever built) you get a sense of the sheer fear that bobsleigh teams have to overcome. It was an eerie experience, the silence broken in part by the sounds of bird-call, the lazily drifting clouds bringing periods of intense rain, only to be replaced by the steams of spring sunlight breaking through the rich canopy.
Whilst engaging in childish imagination of what it must be like to hurtle through the curves at upwards of 97 kmh, I was reminded of this verse from Isaiah. Israel is desperate to be rescued from the struggles that their exile in Babylon is bringing them; they cry out for deliverance and are looking to the past, specifically their rescue from Egypt, for hope. And whilst Isaiah (in preceding verses) is honouring, indeed applauding God’s incredible mercy and power during the Exodus, he is also simply saying that it ain’t going to be that way again. The ‘former things’ in this context included plagues, rivers turning to blood and ultimately death, as the Pharaoh was defeated; the ‘new thing’ involved peace, life, generosity and ultimately prosperity as Israel was released from Babylon to return to Jerusalem and re-build the walls. For when we read Nehemiah and Ezra, we find the account of how God answered their prayers, even though it was still not without its challenges. It was the goodness of God that ultimately led to the repentance of an entire nation. Sound familiar?
When faced with cycles of conflict, whether that be at the scale of whole nations, or more likely in our own families, churches or workplaces, we often cry out to God; who wouldn’t! None of us like being involved in what sometimes can seem to be impossible to escape situations, and so often attempts to resolve conflict can very quickly turn into a regurgitation of familiar arguments. I returned from Bosnia-Herzegovina with a very realistic view, I think, of the challenges that still remain.
Martin Luther-King Jr once wrote from his cell in Birmingham jail that ‘Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love’
The peace-enforcement operations that I was involved with in the mid nineties certainly had the effect of stopping a war that, had it been allowed to continue, may well have see a far far greater loss of civilian life. However, twenty five years on, it seems as though very little has changed; has the can simply been kicked down the road? Maybe, but there are always stories that will bring hope. In the town of Jajce in Bosnia and Herzegovina, twenty minutes from where I lived, pupils at the two secondary schools still study in ethnically mixed classes which follow the Croat curriculum. In June 2016 the local authority voted to establish a new school where Bosniak (Muslim) students would follow their own curriculum. The students themselves didn’t agree, and many spent their summer protesting together against the plans, this protest successfully resulting in no new school being built. This is far closer to Martin Luther King’s vision than anything I was ever involved in.
So what of the bobsleigh track; will it ever be used again? Sadly I doubt it, however there are greater works to be done. There may be an increasing appetite for war amongst the ‘usual suspects’, however there is a tangible and significant appetite for peace within the next generation of young people who see a future greater than their divided past. Quietly, yet significantly, swords are being beaten into ploughshares. I think it is safe to say that anther war will not hold the answer.
And so what did I learn whilst exploring a relic of the past? Simply, that in any conflict or difficult circumstance, there is always the promise of hope. This promise lies in the words of Micah, that it is only when the Lord mediates between peoples that eventually everyone will live in peace and prosperity. And if we follow the example of Christ, through the lives of those peacemakers that have gone before us, as far back as St Francis of Assisi, we will discover that the greatest weapon in mediation that we can ever reach for, is simply the one that requires us to drop our own.