Sunday, July 06, 2003

The Last, Best Hope?

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Luke 6:27-36

On this high summer Sunday, ringing with mystic chords of memory, and redolent with hues of past love and future hope, let us reason together along the open village green of our cherished freedoms, spiritual and temporal.

I invite you to walk with me, at least in the mind’s imaginative eye, to consider our national condition from three vantage points. First, the church’s inherited teaching about war and peace. Second, the judgment of modernity about war and peace. Third, a prospect for hope in a time of war and peace.

A. The Christian Tradition

As today’s reading happily reminds us, we are from a deep, though intricately varied ethical tradition that enshrines selfless love, christocentric love, cruciform love as the cherished ideal of human behavior. “As you wish others would do to you, do also to them.”

Over 20 centuries, and speaking with unforgivable conciseness as one must in a brief summer sermon, two basic understandings of war and peace have emerged in Christian thought. As you know, these roughly can be called the so-called pacifist and just war understandings.

Pacifism preceded its sibling, and infinitely extends to all times the interim ethic of the New Testament (which even in Luke, a late writing, expects that the coming of Christ will soon make moot our ethical dilemmas, and so tends to err on the side of quietism, or, in the case of arms, pacifism): “to him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also”. Many utterly saintly Christian women and men have and do honor this understanding with their selfless commitment, including many in this congregation today. My own pulpit hero, Ernest Fremont Tittle, the best Methodist preacher of the 20th century, did so from his Chicago pulpit through the whole Second World War. While personally I have not been able, to this date anyway, to agree with him, I never compose a sermon on this topic without wondering, and to some degree fearing, what his judgment might be.

The multiple theories of just war, or war as the least of all evil alternatives, have developed since the Fourth Century and the writing of St. Augustine. Here the command to “be merciful, even as God is merciful” is understood tragically to include times when mercy for the lamb means armed opposition to the wolf. The New Testament apocalyptic frame and its interim ethic are honored, to be sure, but supplemented with the historic experience of the church through the ages. Many utterly saintly Christian men and women have honored this understanding with their selfless commitment, including some present here today, and some who are not present because they gave their lives that others might live. Just war thought includes several serious caveats. Last September we together recalled these, in five forms: just cause in response to serious evil, just intention for restoration of peace with justice, no self-enrichment or desire for devastation, use as an utterly last resort, have legitimate authority and have a reasonable hope of success, given the constraints of “discrimination” and “proportionality” (usually understood as protection of non-combatants). Response. Restoration. Restraint. Last resort. Common authority.

These two venerable pillars of Christian thought, pacifism and just war, demarcate the limit of received Christian teaching, from Scripture, tradition, reason and experience.

B. The Dilemma of Leadership

This winter we Americans prosecuted a war upon Iraq. Our action was apparently successful. Both those who considered such an action a tragic necessity (a clear majority in this community and elsewhere) and others who considered it an unnecessary tragedy (a significant minority in this community and elsewhere) give thanks that most of the hostilities have now been concluded. We have as a church ministered with and prayed for many of our own younger women and men who continue to serve their neighbor by serving their country. Today, in special measure, we pause to honor their courageous self-giving, and to continue to pray for their well-being. Neither the effectiveness of our military nor the personal courage and faith of our soldiers and sailors is in doubt here.

Now that the dust of the desert has partly settled, though, we may want to consider what we have done. To any fair minded consideration, this war, in direct contrast to virtually every other American conflict, was unabashedly prosecuted outside of inherited Christian ethical teaching. Of course, pacifism was discounted, but so too were the caveats of the just war theory. Our action was preemptive not responsive, unilateral not commonly authorized, a deliberate but not a last resort, and, for all the technological wizardry available, still brought death to thousands of unarmed civilians. Iraq 2003 is America’s first self-consciously post-Christian war.

Now it may be, and some will argue strongly that it must be, that future Christian thought, in contrast to the past, must make space for unilateral preemption given the dangers now abroad. Not for one minute do I discount the momentum of this emerging position, even though it is not, just now, one I can support. Let us reason together. Let the discussion evolve. But let us also be clear: just war theory does not currently make space for unilateral preemption.

What is darkly fascinating about the winter’s action is that the dilemma of leadership in which we Americans found ourselves was precisely rendered five hundred years ago. In the Italian Renaissance, the Florentine philosopher Nicollo Machiavelli, quietly composed a frightful, but perhaps unconquerable, understanding of leadership and power, and thus of war and peace. He argued that the leader could be either effective or Christian, but not both at the same time. He would have to choose between effective, powerful and sustainable leadership, on the one hand, and Christian virtue, on the other. He could be successful or right, but not both at the same time. I am indebted to Isaiah Berlin’s rehearsal and summary of Machiavelli’s frightful argument:

It is in fact impossible to combine Christian virtues, for example meekness or the search for spiritual salvation, with a satisfactory, stable, vigorous, strong society on earth. Consequently a man must choose. To choose to lead a Christian life is to condemn oneself to political impotence: to be used and crushed by powerful, ambitious, clever, unscrupulous men.

What Machiavelli most clearly stated has been the thorn in the flesh of Christian political ethics for the whole modern era. As Machiavelli predicted, none have been able or willing to fully face and finally solve his dilemma: As a leader, and particularly a military leader, you can be victorious or you can be Christian, you can be successful or you can be virtuous, you can survive or you can be good. But not both, argued Machiavelli.

Is this the best we can hope for? Are the horns of Machiavelli’s dilemma unbreakable?

For the country to survive are we forced to give up the application of our faith to matters of war and peace? Is this what our strategic future must now entail, unilateral preemption?

Or is there a more hopeful path?

C. A Last, Best Hope

The very nature of a real philosophical dilemma, and this truly is one, is that it does not admit of any easy resolution. You may be pleased that the sermon is about to end, but not so pleased that it cannot conclude in a major chord of resolution.

It was Abraham Lincoln who sang the praise of this great land, as the last, best hope of humanity. Our hearts are with his heart on this, especially today. I am afraid that the dilemma Machiavelli alone had the early resolve to define will remain with us for a long time, including into the time when we are, as a people, doing less of the killing and more of the dying. Not forever shall we be solely imperial and supreme. No, even the British Empire had its sunset, as our grandchildren will have cause to remember.

I do however believe that before dusk comes we as a people can, in some measure, live out Lincoln’s majestic hope. I offer, I believe in continuity with the Scripture as read today, two promissory notes.

We may be entering an Epoch of American Forbearance. You will remember something of forbearance, patient restraint, a great power for doing good. Sometimes it is better to have patience than brains. If we can restrain ourselves, in the future, from making scapegoats of some in order furiously to retaliate against other hidden foes, that is, if we can forbear, we shall find that the community of peoples will see in us a last best hope. We may model, as a people, a path forward into a time of freedom, pluralism, toleration, compromise, and peace.

We may also be entering an Epoch of American Spiritual Discipline Against Resentment. Here I simply refer to a great American and a greater Rochesterian, Christopher Lasch:

The only way to break the ‘endless cycle’ of injustice, Niebuhr argued, was nonviolent coercion, with its spiritual discipline against resentment. In order to undermine an oppressor’s claims to moral superiority, (one) has to avoid such claims on their own behalf.

Again, in the confines of a sermon, and a summer homily no less, I can only sketch. Our Rochester writer’s essays distilled this theme, a spiritual discipline against resentment, from the lives and writings of Niebuhr, Martin Luther King, the Boston Personalists, the Progressive Leaders of our Burned Over District, and many others. He saw, as we too may see in the Lukan passage earlier read, the necessity of holding at bay those deeply human sentiments that easily, and tragically, attach themselves to us when we are fearful, attacked, and violated. For a future to emerge that is more than simply a repetition of the patterns of the past, a people must develop a ‘spiritual discipline against resentment’. If we can model as a people this discipline others around the globe will find cause to agree with Lincoln’s assessment of this land as a last, best hope.

How is one to find such power? Truly I see no other source than a confessional reliance on the Christ of Calvary.

An Epoch of Forbearance. A Spiritual Discipline against Resentment. I am not at all sure that I can define these for you, but I can give you an example, in life and speech. It was the genius of Lincoln, which best bespoke this twin hope, especially in his second inaugural. Within two months he was dead. Yet listen to his wise admonition to forbearance and discipline against resentment:

March 4, 1865 (in passim)

At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first… On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it…Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came… Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether." With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.