Give Peace a Chance

You should know – so that you know where this sermon comes from (and where it does not) – that I am not a pacifist; that is, I do not currently believe that violence and war are never justified.

Like most of my generation, I am a child of war. As a boy, I spent night after night in an underground air raid shelter under my grandmother’s garden. With each blast into the earth, I shook in a terror that left its mark on my soul. By the age of five or six, whistling bombs and V-2 rockets had taught me that life is tenuous at best. In the precocity that comes to children who play in the rubble of their neighbor’s houses I understood that there were people trying to kill me. I called them “bad people,” probably as I was taught. I say now that they were possessed of an evil that had overwhelmed their humanity.

I am not a pacifist. Given the opportunity, I would have killed those who wanted to kill me and my family, who killed my friend Jacqueline in the inferno they made of her house, and who slaughtered the innocents by the millions.

I do believe that Goodness exists. I believe that there is a Creative Power in the Universe that seeks to persuade all things to move toward their fulfillment. And I believe that there are people in whom Goodness is incarnate. Saints.

I also believe that evil exists. Joseph Campbell pointed out that one cannot recognize the Good unless one sees the evil that lives around and in it. And I believe that there are people in whom evil is incarnate. Devils.

To refuse to know the evil or take account of it is to deny the whole of being.

I know that Gandhi, with his doctrine of non-resistance, brought the British Empire to an end in India. But the British (and it pains me to say this) the British, bigoted, Kipling-infected, and arrogant, were not evil incarnate. There were limits to their capacity for atrocity. The Nazis obviously had no limit to their capacity for atrocity. Adolf Hitler was evil incarnate. I could have taken his life without a blink. One of the twentieth century’s greatest Christian theologians, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, came also to that place. He was imprisoned by the Nazis, and shot, for being involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler.

But, then, despite the facile comparisons being made, Saddam Hussein is not Adolf Hitler. He is a vicious and self-serving, power hungry man. Let us not minimize the evil that was Hitler by putting Hussein in his shoes. I have heard reasonable people say that if we do not reduce Hussein to ashes now he will create ashes all about him in the future. I have heard his actions and his capability for actions compared to Hitler’s taking of Poland and Austria. It is said that, if we do not stop this madman now, it will be as it was after those aggressions.

The arguments are seductive. They conjure the same Horst Wessel tune; the torch-lit mass screaming “Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil!” And I smell the smoke and the gunpowder again, and hear the nightmare wail of sirens in the night and the drone of aircraft overhead. I am tempted to shout, Yes! Get them now! Get them before they get us! But the scenario is really not the same. The saber rattling, the flag waving, and all the present calls to arms have not moved me. My childhood experience did not make me a pacifist. But it did instill in me a powerful aversion to the horror of war that this situation does not overcome.

I will stand on this point less than any other, but one of the reasons I do not fall in as the parade passes is that I find our own president these days to be absurdly belligerent, bellicose, strident and, frankly frightening. Equally as frightening is his conviction that he is right and the rest of the world (including the majority of the American people) is wrong.

I can’t help being fearful also when former military chiefs advise against committing to war and self-confessed hawks are urging patience with the process set in motion by the United Nations.

There is something of the schoolyard standoff in all of this. One is most reluctant to consider that a firestorm might be set off because the father of one of the set-jawed contestants was once called a wimp and the son is determined to prove he is not. But there it is. Two men have put each other into positions in which neither can get out without losing face. If it were indeed merely a matter of bloody noses in the schoolyard, it would be almost laughable. The reality is that our children, our fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers are poised on the edge of hell waiting for one of these two to call up the furies.

The novelist E. L. Doctorow wrote to the senior President Bush ten years or so ago. He said,

A new period in history brings with it a new sensibility, and what was acceptable in an earlier age is understood as monstrous in our own. It is radiantly apparent that there is now no person on earth who has inherent moral authority to send other persons to their deaths. It is no long philosophically possible. A chief Executive is not a chieftain. Nor can he be a zealot.

Doctorow’s letter echoes a letter written a century and a half earlier to William H. Herndon by Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln wrote:

Allow the president to invade a nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion and you allow him to do so whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose. When you allow him to make war at pleasure, study to see if you can fix any limit to his power and disrespect. After you have given him so much as you propose, if today he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him I see no probability of the British invading us. But he would say to you be silent. I see it if you don’t.

What will we say it was all about once we have begun the unthinkable? Well, there is that Hitler analogy – that we can’t have nations building up arms that might threaten peace in the world. Look what happened last time. Of course, Hitler marching into Poland was not the last time something like that happened. Russia marched into several countries after Hitler’s downfall. In each instance, our most serious response was to make it very clear that we disapproved. There has been China’s invasion of Tibet. And where were we when Iraq attacked Iran? If morality is to be our justification for starting a war, surely it must be said that our national moral indignation has been highly fluid and selective. Then there were our own embarrassing invasions of Grenada and Panama. Such Teddy Roosevelt adventurism. Who was supposed to be impressed by such blatant and inane posturing?

This nation has let too many opportunities for moral fist-making go by to be muttering now about making the world safe for democracy. We have not required that the nations we call friendly be democratic or even that they be moral. We have only required that they be accommodating to our economy and cooperative with our strange notions of international diplomacy and the Pax Americana.

After all our disastrous meddling, there is precious little democracy in El Salvador. There was none at all in Kuwait the last time we hammered Iraq on its behalf. Saudi Arabia is a hotbed of nascent terrorists. And how about a first strike at North Korea, now that that nation has admitted that it has nuclear capability and other weapons of mass destruction?

Is our life-style being threatened? Is this really all about oil? There is plenty of oil. Oil is a glut on the market. Ten years ago, when this began, we were getting only 1.4 percent of our oil from Kuwait. We got only 7.4 percent from Saddam Hussein and, in return, we were giving him, our friend, billions and billions of dollars in food and loan subsidies.

What of the American Way of Life? Doesn’t that warrant “defending?” Have we come to equate The American Way of Life with the fuel burning up in bumper-to-bumper traffic with one driver behind each bumper? With city lights burning bright night and day? With plastic-filled dumps? And what do we think is going to happen to The American Way of Life with our economy already in the cellar if this war begins? Our governments own analysts say that deployment in the Gulf will cost 100 million dollars a day. If we actually go into combat that cost will at least quadruple.

I have said that this sermon was to be a religious response to the threat of war. The first principle in the Purposes and Principles of Unitarian Universalism is this, “We gather to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” In light of that faith, let us consider: The state of our economy is devastating individuals and families. Millions of these families were already on the brink. Hundreds of thousands of people with jobs – let alone the unemployed – cannot afford housing or adequate food. Millions of people cannot afford basic health care. We have one of the most pathetic public education systems in the civilized world. We have a deficit once again so enormous that the numbers are incomprehensible to most of us. To deal with the situation, human services and human potential programs are being radically reduced or done away with.

The religious question is this: Whose American Way of Life are we poised to defend? The way of life of millions of Americans does not need defending. Their way of life is killing them – and their children. If there was but a trace of true religious value in this nation’s leadership all other reasons for not making war aside – it would simply be clear that we cannot afford to make war if we are to give life and hope to our people.

The pressing, agonizing, demanding question of the day ought not to be when shall we loose the dogs of war. The pressing, agonizing, demanding question of the day ought to be “How can we provide day care centers for mothers working for minimum wages, so that not even one mother would consider leaving her child in an automobile while she works?” Or “How can we provide basic medical insurance for millions of Americans who will be financially devastated if they are hospitalized for three days?” How about struggling with the national moral absurdity of CEOs and baseball players “earning”- if that’s what it is – millions of dollars while teachers, police, firefighters, nurses, public “servants” of every kind, can barely make ends meet?

I hope the next president who says he is born again has come out of the womb with an ounce more moral discernment and determination than we have seen in many a year.

If there is a God who judges, and if there is war, there will be hell to pay for the sin of it.

This is the time to declare the faith of powerful transformations. There is evil abroad in the world. Yes. But there is also a spirit of transformation abroad in the world. One synonym for spirit in the biblical lexicons is wind.

Let that remind us that, in the latter part of the last century, we celebrated what was being called a new breeze blowing through Europe, a wind of change. What we once thought would require miracles has, here and there, come to pass. In spite of it all, despots have fallen; the winds of change have brought freedom. It is a new time, and time for the most powerful nation in the world to lend its strength and influence not to the old, clumsy ways, but to the new ways of seeking to understand differences, of patience, of dialogue, of compromise, and, perhaps most of all, of humility.

Some insist that, in such times as these, we must support our president, our government, and our country. But again, as religious people, as people of faith, what does “supporting our country” mean? As religious people, there is a demand upon us to consider what values empower us, what values compel us and transcend the old values which in ages past led, again and again, to the slaughter of innocents? What would we have this nation be as a model for the world? What kind of country will we support? Frederick Lucian Hosmer’s hymn says it clearly for me, “And thou, O my country, from many made one, Late born among nations, at morning thy sun, Arise to the place thou art given to fill, And lead the world-triumph of peace and goodwill.”

If this is indeed a new world order in which we live, then it is time for this nation to create its place, to create the destiny, in which we will exert a greater courage than even the courage to face the cannon – and that is the courage to declare that, in this time, war is an anachronism. It is time to declare that human beings deliberately killing each other is so horrific a behavior that we will not go to it with banners flying but will be dragged to it reluctantly only when all else has failed, when every cheek has been turned and every second mile has been walked.

The Russian scholar, Anatole Gromyko, writes,

When in human history, other than now, have we had clear evidence, devoid of question, showing that we humans have arrived at our limit? If we move beyond that limit, our continued survival on this planet is imperiled. Does not this extraordinary situation we all face dictate equally uncommon solutions that transcend our usual point of view?

If we go to war, particularly with so little common commitment, with so little understanding, it will be a great and lasting tragedy, regardless of the outcome. But if we go to war, in my ministry and in my worship I will not denigrate the conviction of those who choose to bear arms. I will hold in my heart those who face death. As a worshipping community, we will grieve with those and pray for those who must part from those they love. I will not ask us to take a stand as a congregation. As Unitarian Universalists, we are a free congregation of people of diverse points of view. We are not asked to speak with one voice and we are not given the right to speak for each other.

We are asked to speak to each other with love and to listen to each other with love. This is the way of religious community. And we are asked to devote our energy, not to stubborn contention, but to the sincere attempt to understand the view of others.

My friends, let us never fear to test our differing views in the open and caring quest for understanding. But let us test the faith which does unite us here – that faith in the worth and dignity of every person, the faith that a Creative Spirit unites with us in willing life for us, for all humanity, and for the very earth. It is that same spirit that spoke to the Hebrews millennia ago, “This day have I set before you life and death. Therefore, choose life.”

Those of us who loathe the ancient impulse to war and who urge patience, dialogue, and humility, speak in the faith that we are part of that Spirit – and all we are saying is give peace a chance.