Peace in the World by Taryn Strauss

Though I cannot promise to solve world peace in a single sermon, I can promise we’ll go on a journey together.  We’ll examine a Unitarian Universalist ethical approach to Peacemaking, I’ll propose a relationship to that ethic, we’ll take a trip (in our minds) to a museum, we’ll learn about a game, and finally let’s not forget to include the poet’s perspective on the quality of peace, and what it could feel like.

Our UU denomination undergoes a process every few years called the Study-Action Issue, SAI.

Here’s my 2-minute skeptic’s analysis of our Study Action Issues, a well intentioned process to train our collective eye towards a single, large-scale justice issue.  We often spend 2-4 years studying this single issue.  Some congregations are aware of this, and they’ll join a common read.  Other congregations remain unaware.

After a few years, a resolution is passed, a circle of General Assembly and denominational enthusiasts participate, and word slowly trickles outward, towards congregations, most of whom take very little immediate action.  My greatest critique of the process is that the issue, while somewhat widely discussed and considered, quickly becomes a missed theological opportunity for Unitarian Universalist orthodoxy.

Before you shout me down or run me out with pitchforks, keep in mind the definition of orthodoxy is merely “authorized or generally accepted theory, doctrine, or practice.”

Did you know Peacemaking was our study action issue from 2006-2010?  I didn’t. The Study Action Issue was framed this way:

Should the Unitarian Universalist Association reject the use of any and all kinds of violence and war to resolve disputes between peoples and nations and adopt a principle of seeking just peace through nonviolent means?

The SAI’s accompanying Resource Guide offers a list of possible study questions, and the first two of these reframe the central question in terms of the “just war” and “pacifist” traditions:

  • Should we, the Unitarian Universalist Association and member congregations, adopt a specific and detailed “just war” policy to guide our witness, advocacy, and social justice efforts?
  • Should we, the Unitarian Universalist Association and member congregations, reject violence in any form?

In his 2009 paper in the Journal of Liberal Religion titled,  “Beyond Just War and Pacifism,” UU theologian Paul Rasor makes a case for the adoption of a theological-ethical stance he calls “prophetic non-violence.”  He suggests as a religion we have historically taken a just war stance, while welcoming pacifists on an individual basis.  If you are wondering about these terms, “just war,” pacifism, and prophetic non-violence, I’ll return to those in a minute.

In recent years, “peacemaking” has fallen out of fashion.  Growing up in the 1980s under the shadow of the cold war in Chicago, in my memory, peace was on everyone’s lips.  I remember the massive protests against the first Iraq war in downtown Chicago, hoisted up on my dad’s shoulders so I could see the crowd, stretching into the tens of thousands.

This was no fringe peace effort.  I remember packed out forums at 3rd UU church of Chicago on nuclear disarmament that felt relevant and fresh, and “peace is possible” bumper stickers and peace sign earrings and peace dove buttons.  I remember visiting the Peace Museum often with my family.

If you’ve never heard of Chicago’s Peace Museum, our country’s only museum of peace that sadly closed its doors in 2007, I encourage you to look it up on the internet.  Founded in 1981 by the muralist Mark Rogovin, the museum opened with a stunning exhibition of drawings by survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings, called “The Unforgettable Fire,” drawing the attention of U2’s Bono who named their next record after the exhibition.

As a child, I remember Saturday trips to the small museum to see John Lennon’s guitar, or the exhibit of cartoonist Gary Trudeau’s work. I remember making paper cranes to hang from the ceiling, in honor of Sadako Sasaki, a precocious young girl who was born in Hiroshima and died of cancer at age 12 due to her close proximity to the bomb.

Most of all, I remember the final station of the museum called: Letters to the President.  I wrote countless letters to President Reagan in that room, imploring him (in purple crayon) to disarm, to end all wars, and become an international leader for peace.  I was eight years old.

Then came the rise of Clinton-era neoliberalism, Bush-era neoconservatism and post-911 nationalism, then Obama’s endorsement of “just-war” theory, and nowadays we don’t talk about peace so much anymore.

In 2010, at our annual General Assembly, the UUA adopted a Statement of Conscious.

We believe all people share a moral responsibility to create peace. Mindful of both our rich heritage and our past failures to prevent war, and enriched by our present diversity of experience and perspective, we commit ourselves to a radically inclusive and transformative approach to peace.

  1. We advocate a culture of peace through a transformation of public policies, religious consciousness, and individual lifestyles. At the heart of this transformation is the readiness to honor the truths of multiple voices from a theology of covenant grounded in love.

I understand our lack of doctrine maintains a commitment to honoring multiple truths, however I wonder how well a statement of conscious on peace that allows for war is serving us.  Make no mistake: I’m not saying all UUs should be barred from deciding to take up arms in defense against a despot.

However, I believe we should have a branch of Unitarian Universalists who are committed to a life of what Paul Rasor calls “Prophetic Non-violence.”  This does not mean all UUs must commit to this life choice, but it will be an ethic by which the rest of us measure our own moral position.

What is this prophetic non-violence, and how does it work in relationship to Just War theory or pacifism?


To move “beyond just war and pacifism” is not to abandon either tradition; it is rather to recognize that both perform important roles in our ongoing efforts to reduce the violence of war.  Rasor wants us to maintain our affirmation of peace as a core value, while continuing to stay engaged in the world, and not apart from it.

Just War theory, when applied, filters through the moral checklist of just cause, right intention, probability of success, legitimate authority, and last resort.  When applied to a Unitarian Universalist religious stance, this ideology becomes problematic.

Christian ethicists Stanley Hauerwas, Linda Hogan, and Enda McDonagh point to this problem by asking whether the just war tradition might itself be part of the historical narrative that legitimizes and perpetuates the logic of war.

The stories we tell about ourselves and our histories include positive accounts of war, and over time these stories become self-legitimizing.

War comes to be seen as normal and rational. By the same token, because the just war tradition has long used rational analysis to make moral judgments about war, it too becomes part of this historical narrative and so “unwittingly functions as part of the logic of war.”56

If this assessment is right, it would suggest that the just war model cannot help reduce the violence of war in the long run. Instead, it argues that the just war tradition inevitably undermines its own effectiveness simply by treating war as a rational human enterprise.

Then we have pacifism, a philosophical or religious stance of opposition to war.

The word pacifism did not appear until the early twentieth century. Previously, nonresistance was the term used by most Christian pacifists to describe what we now call pacifism.

Rasor reminds us both just war and pacifism are concerned with the limits of loyalty to the state. This is more obvious in pacifism, especially religious forms of pacifism, which often explicitly frame their responses to the government’s war efforts in terms of a higher loyalty to God. Ethicist Joseph Fahey makes the important point that “Today’s nation states presume that young men and women are willing to kill other young men and women for their flag.”136 This presumption is reflected in our national policies toward conscientious objection, among other things. Killing is considered the norm, and an individual must make a case for not killing.

By incorporating the counter-assumption in both the pacifist and just war traditions, prophetic nonviolence takes a principled stand against the official presumption that young people must be prepared to kill at the behest of the state.

Christian theologian and contemporary mystic Richard Rohr uses this term Prophetic Non-violence as the religious response to war.  “[Now] is a good time to reflect on our public lives as active peacemakers, to investigate the quality of our loving kindness and peaceableness behind our activism, as well as the boldness and derring-do of our work…

We need to be prophets of nonviolence, that is, we need to speak out publicly . . . and lend our voice to the grassroots movement calling for an end to war, racism, nuclear weapons, poverty, corporate greed and environmental destruction, and for a new culture of peace and nonviolence.”

UU Paul Rasor closes his essay by saying, and I agree, we need to be as clear and as theologically grounded as possible. Progressive Christian theologian Walter Wink puts this in blunt terms: “What the church needs most desperately is precisely a clear cut, unambiguous position.”143

If we are going to adopt prophetic nonviolence as a denomination, which is at once a convergence and an exclusion of aspects of both just war theory and pacifism, we can still make room for other positions.  We can honor the service of military families and veterans, and provide pastoral care and welcoming ministries to them even as our UU ethicists maintain a stance of prophetic non-violence.  Similar to our theological position, we may have individuals in our midst who practice pacifism, and others who hold a just war approach.

However, much like Jews who don’t keep kosher or Christians who choose not to fast for Lent, they will be a part of a clearly understood spectrum of orthodoxy.

What I’m saying is I’d like to see a branch of Unitarian Universalists who practice Prophetic Non-Violence.  We can observe their practice, we can learn through their modeling.  Just like the Jews who do no not keep kosher, they still take care to make sure a kosher kitchen is available for those who are the most orthodox in their practice.

I would like for those of us who feel called to Prophetic Nonviolence to begin their holy practice  today, and proclaim a Unitarian Universalist stance against US military intervention in Venezuela, where polarization has reigned for many decades.

May those early adopters of Prophetic Nonviolence call upon our allies and our government to instead support negotiations between the Venezuelan government and its opponents that could allow the country to finally emerge from its crisis, for the sake of the Venezuelan people, the region, and for the principle of national sovereignty.  The opportunities for prophetic non-violence are plentiful.

Our video clip from earlier gave us a brief overview of The World Peace Game, developed by a Virginia public elementary school teacher from named John Hunter.  If you have a spare 15 minutes, I invite you to watch one of the most inspiring TED talks of our time, just google World Peace Game Ted talk.  John Hunter created a World Peace simulation, played by fourth graders over a period of 8 weeks, where they have to solve 50 interlocking world crisis, and they each represent different nations.

The game includes various levels including space and a weather Goddess who causes chaos, as well as a secret saboteur who acts like a player but is actually undermining various players’ goals.  No one can win until all nations have progressed economically. Every country’s asset value, rich or poor, has to be increased above its starting point.  The goal of the game is to extricate each country from dangerous circumstances and achieve global prosperity with the least amount of military intervention.

They use GI Joe figurines on a three-dimensional board to play, but one rule is that every time they lose a figure to a battle, it is replaced by a letter.

So the military commander who made the choice to go into battle has to leave the game and write out an individual letter to that soldier’s parents and family, explaining what happened and expressing condolences.  Then they have to read the letter out loud to the class.  One day, a parent was visiting the classroom, and a child had to write a letter for a soldier they had lost in battle.  Another classmate suggested the mom should read the letter out loud, because it would sound “realer.”

She read the first sentence, and she read the second sentence, and by the third sentence, she was crying.  The teacher, John Hunter was in tears as well.  From the embodied learning experience of their classroom, these kids were learning the cost of war, they explored just war theory from the inside of conflict, and they developed innovative and realistic conflict resolution skills.

Most of all, they were developing a sense of their own morality, and creatively strategizing to do the most good, with a clear-eyed understanding of the work and sacrifice it takes to do it.

I suppose I am ready for Unitarian Universalism to declare theological allegiance to something like this combined word Wildpeace, as described by the poet Yeduchi Amichai, an Israeli Nobel prize-winning poet, a three-time war veteran who immigrated to Palestine, and died in Jerusalem in 2000.

Not the peace of a cease-fire,
not even the vision of the wolf and the lamb,
but rather
as in the heart when the excitement is over
and you can talk only about a great weariness.
I know that I know how to kill,
that makes me an adult.

A peace
without the big noise of beating swords into ploughshares,
without words, without
the thud of the heavy rubber stamp: let it be
light, floating, like lazy white foam.
A little rest for the wounds—
who speaks of healing?
(And the howl of the orphans is passed from one generation
to the next, as in a relay race:
the baton never falls.)

Let it come
like wildflowers,
suddenly, because the field
must have it: wildpeace.

To build his criteria for Prophetic Nonviolence, Paul Rasor points us to a theological framework of unity: We affirm the basic unity of all existence. Beneath our individuality and our enormous diversity lies a profound relationality—an interdependent web—that connects us. This unity helps us envision a world in which there is no Other to war against.