Sunday, May 27, 2007

Let There Be Peace

John 14: 6-17

Pentecost Sunday

Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you.

After four years of war and five years of fierce debate about war, these solemn dominical words sound like sentences from a foreign land, in a foreign tongue. Originally Greek, now English, they sound Greek, in American English. For half a decade our pulpits across the remaining outposts of responsible Christian liberalism have struggled to interpret John 14: 26. Peace. Let there be peace.

Today we are grateful for and mindful of those who have offered themselves in the service of others, and the protection of freedom. From our Marsh Chapel fellowship, three are currently serving in Iraq. Last Saturday, one of our graduating seniors, a young man present almost every Sunday this past year here in worship, was commissioned as a second lieutenant in historic Faneuil Hall. He gave the senior address. In the winter Jan and I revisited the desert southwest, and particularly Nellis Air Force Base, where I grew up, nearly fifty years ago. We recognize the courage and the sacrifice of many in our time, and across time.

Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you.

Today’s sermon is the first of two, the second to be delivered next Sunday, which bear witness to a portion of the church’s attempt, 2001 through 2007, to speak a word of truth about peace in a time of war. Pentecost is a moment of spirit, of truth, of peace. Yet we are a people caught up in the tides and undertows of war. Since 2001 the pulpits of Christendom, including mainline Methodism, here and there, strained to speak a word of truth. One simply cannot convey the extreme difficulty of leading a congregations, growing churches, bringing pastoral care to communities, raising budgets, building buildings, and yet struggling to say what had to be said, across difficult years. To the preachers and laity in the churches of the church, these sermons are offered, in honor of your own, their own, witness, service and sacrifice, year by year.

Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you.

2001: To Begin

On September 16, 2001, our pulpits recognized the terror and loss of nineleven, and counseled faith. Some were criticized for not using ‘God Bless America’ as the final hymn. One preacher said (Robert Allan Hill, Asbury First UMC, Rochester, NY),

Have faith, people of faith.

Terror may topple the World Trade Center, but no terror can topple the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, hub of global economies may fall, the economy of grace still stands in the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, communications nexus for many may fall, but the communication of the gospel stands, the World Truth Center, Jesus Christ.

The World Trade Center, legal library for the country may fall, but grace and truth which stand, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, symbol of national pride may fall, but divine humility stands, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, material bulwark against loss may fall, but the possibility in your life of developing a spiritual discipline against resentment (Niehbuhr) still stands, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.


A year later, the drums were beating, and with a steady, recognizable, intent. An argument was advanced, tragic and reckless, to countenance for the first time in American history a project of pre-emptive warfare. Yet, from our pulpits, with some freedom, some grace, and some courage, there came careful, responsive rejoinders. We were reminded of the history of Christian teaching, regarding war. We rehearsed the arguments for pacifism. We remembered, as we do this Memorial Weekend, the long centuries of teaching about just war. From one pulpit, many heard, (though a few walked out midway) (RAHAFUMC, 9/29/02):

People of faith have usually assumed one of two traditional positions in the face of armed conflict, or as is often the case, a kind of wisened situational combination of the two: pacifism or just war. Often, too, the chief job of the pastor in such a time is to help the congregation think theologically, and think clearly, and to maintain space for a variety of views within one body. The pacifist position depends upon Matthew, in verses like chapter 5: 38 “You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also”. The activist position does too, in verses like Matthew 10: 34, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword…he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me”. How shall we think about this?

I know, given the stature and venerability of this pulpit, that many of you have heard these points rehearsed many times, and engaged wisely and sensitively in the past. Perhaps there is little that I can add. You remember that there have been five basic criteria, from Augustine to Aquinas to us, in the so-called just war theory: just cause in response to serious evil; just intention for restoration of peace with justice, not self-enrichment or devastation of another; last resort; have legitimate authority; have a reasonable hope of success, given the necessary constraints of discrimination and proportionality. Shakespeare: “Who the sword of heaven would rear must be as holy as severe”.

Response…Restoration…Last…Authority…What has caught us unprepared this fall, is that it seems that our current course as a country moves in a third way, apart from both the pacifist and activist positions in the history of Christian thought. It seems, at least, that some our moral debate has now taken leave of the history of Christian ethics altogether, leaving behind both the pacifist and the activist, both the non-retaliatory and the just war positions. What congress now debates, and is apparently ready to approve, is not a response but a preemption; not a restoration but a dislocation; not a last but an initial resort; not an act based on a communal authority, but a nearly unilateral act. We are told that this is a new age, that patience must be balanced with realism about the threat at large, that in due time we shall be shown the proof for the need of this new doctrine. But let us be clear: preemption, destruction, initiation, usurpation—these have little basis or foothold in the history of Christian thought, to this point. None, in fact. We are left, as disciples of Jesus Christ, either to redefine the expanse of Christian ethics developed over 2000 years, or to reconsider our current debate.


On the eve of disaster, across the land, here and there, some sentient consideration, some reflection, some attention to response rather than reaction, was uttered. One congregation, on March 2, 2003, heard this, even as one parishioner said the preacher sounded nervous and anxious (RAHAFUMC):

Christ is not at home in a world of collateral damage. I never will take for granted the regard of this congregation for the freedom of the pulpit. Most of you disagree, I know, with what I have said about the impending conflict with Iraq. Yet, you have graciously accepted what you cannot recommend, and you have graciously heard what you would not have said, and you have graciously protected what you would not have preferred. In my own ways, I will strive to measure up to your spiritual maturity in the years to come.

Once more: the opposition here voiced, over many months, to preemptory, unilateral, imperialistic, unpredictable military action continues. I have tried to show that such is outside the bounds of inherited Christian just war ethics. I have tried to argue that such is unreasonable when compared to the alternative of ongoing containment and potential retaliation. I have tried to calculate the consequences of first strike, non-multilateral, imperial invasion by one country of another. I have quoted Robert Kennedy, from another setting, that such would be “Pearl Harbor in reverse”.

What then do I say to the day that one of these terrorists further harms our people? They will. Our president has rightly said, “We shall meet violence with patient justice”. W here we can bring justice, in response to attack, justice, in concert with the united nations, justice that is a republic in defense not an empire in expanse, justice that makes for peace, even when this justice, to be temporarily achieved, may tragically involve the utter horror of war, then, let us say, we may have to act. That is 1991 and that is Afghanistan. But this new war is something else. Terror will continue. Students died in Lockerbie, and that did not end it. The towers came down on 9/11 and that did not end it. Until a global tide of liberty and justice reaches the poorest Moslem hamlet in the most hateful Islamic nation, there will still be terror: to be met with patient justice.

Not all of our voices were silenced, through shock and awe, and the report of a mission accomplished. Even in the brightest, that is the darkest, days of summer, 2003, here and there, for those with ears to hear, there was a homiletically resistance movement afoot. On Independence Sunday, July 6, 2003, the Christian community, at least in some settings, counseled together. Some were beginning to listen. After singing ‘Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory’, preacher addressed a congregation in the following manner (RAHAFUMC):

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 ever 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?

To this question, and to the years 2004 and following, we shall return Come Sunday, come next Sunday.

In the rear of our sanctuary here at Marsh Chapel, there is an unusual stained glass window, of an unusual person, Abraham Lincoln. We await both his insight and his eloquence, applied to our time: 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.

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