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Why We Fight – 12/8/2013

In April of 1917, the United States entered the First World War. When the Unitarians of the US and Canada held their General Conference in Montreal a month later, tensions ran high. Their congregations were not of one mind on the subject of this or any other conflict, according to a report presented at that meeting by John Haynes Holmes, a prominent minister from New York City. Many supported the decision to go to war, but many also had reservations about it. In particular, there was grave concern about the Espionage Act of 1917, which made it illegal for any person or organization to speak out publically against the American war effort, or to encourage conscientious objection or draft resistance. And there were also some, like Holmes, whose faith called them to stand against war in all of its forms.

At the conference, John Haynes Holmes said, “I am a pacifist, a non-resistant, I hate war and I hate this war; and so long as I live I will have nothing to do with this or any war.” Aware that he was in a small minority within the denomination, Holmes did not argue that all his fellow Unitarians should adopt his same position, but called instead for a free expression of belief and opinion, to work towards a “ministry of reconciliation” between conflicting positions, in order ultimately to realize a “gospel of peace.”

On the other side of this debate stood William Howard Taft, a Unitarian layman and former president of the United States, who was once a worshipper in this congregation – he liked to sit in that pew over there. Taft was then serving as the president of that year’s general conference, and believed that the Unitarian movement needed to make clear and certain its strong support for America’s entrance into the war and made a motion to that effect. He said, “Our house is afire and we must put it out, and it is no time for considering whether the firemen are using the best kind of water.” Taft’s motion carried overwhelmingly, and the American Unitarian Association ultimately voted to deny aid to congregations served by ministers who opposed the war. For many, this meant that they were forced from their pulpits. For John Haynes Holmes, it meant that he and his congregation both officially broke from the wider Unitarian movement.[i]

This morning’s message is the third in the series, “Why Should We Care?”, on the theological roots of our faith’s great social concerns. This morning’s topic is the dilemma of war and the quest for peace, and I began with this story about Taft and Holmes to illustrate how great our divisions have sometimes become in this area. We have never all seen eye-to-eye on when or whether the waging of war was permissible, and our tradition contains many differing voices on the subject. Yet, it is one of the greatest ethical questions faced by humankind, and though we have spoken with disparate voices, we have never been quiet about it. International conflict and the conduct of war are the subject of nearly 100 statements and resolutions made by our association in the last fifty years. These include opposing wars before their beginning in South-East Asia, Central America and the Carribean, Africa and the Middle East, seeking to end conflicts already in motion there and elsewhere, and calling for the abolition of certain highly destructive weapons and tactics, including nuclear, chemical, and biological arms, land mines, and depleted uranium munitions.[ii] And, at the same time, many Unitarians and Universalists and Unitarian Universalists serve in the military and we, including members of this congregation, have fought in every American conflict from the present battles in Afghanistan back all the way to the Revolutionary War.

The sixth principle espoused by our movement is, “The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.” As is

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the case with each of our seven principles, this is not something we believe because it is in our statement of principles; it is in our statement of principles because it is something we believe.

This is our shared eschatology, friends – eschatology being a ten-dollar word for one’s belief about the ultimate goal of history. It is the same thing, essentially, as Christianity’s Kingdom of God or Kingdom of Heaven, the Olam haBa or “World to Come” in Judaism, or Hinduism’s Satya Yuga or “Age of Truth.” Our plain and simple wording – world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all –describes none of the grand pageantry found in other religious visions of the future. There are no angelic trumpets or boiling seas; no mention is made of the great monster fish Leviathan being caught and served as a meal for the righteous, or of Kalki, the final incarnation of Vishnu, banishing all ignorance from existence and filling the universe with light. Which is not to say that any of that is entirely unimaginable or unwelcome in our understanding. As long as we get where we’re going, I don’t particularly care whose car we take. A final end to all violence and war is common to the dreamed-of futures of nearly all human religions. Though, in light of our experience as a species up to this point, that one simple goal seems as much a matter of hope and belief – rather than of reason – as mass resurrection or the moon turning red.

If international, universal peace is among the chief goals of our movement, how then can there be justification for war of any kind? The same question could be asked in its own way for most of the religions of the world. How is any Christian to take up arms when the teacher Jesus is said to have said, “If a man assaults you on your right cheek, turn and offer him your left”?[iii] How could any Jew go to war, when the Talmud declares that the destruction of a single soul is equal to the destruction of the entire world?[iv] How can any Muslim stomach violence, when the Qur’an proclaims that the killing of even one person is as wrong as the slaying of all humanity?[v] There is a very serious answer here and it is nothing as simple or easy as hypocrisy. It is that peace is not the only ideal or cause worth struggling for – not in our religion or in any other. And when life or the freedom that gives life meaning is threatened with violence, pure pacifism becomes more difficult to justify.

Still, some of us have justified it – John Haynes Holmes was neither the first, nor the last. Possibly our most ardent anti-war ancestor was Adin Ballou, who began his ministry as a Universalist and eventually migrated over to the Unitarians. His interpretation of the Gospel – what he called, ‘non-resistance’ – left no space for physical violence of any kind, under any circumstances. He was deeply critical of all nations and the very idea of nations, for they require soldiers and police and the use of force in order to continue to exist. He eventually withdrew from civic participation and argued against voting, though he did continue to pay taxes because refusing would lead to another manifestation of violent conflict. Adin eventually led the founding of the Hopedale community in what is now Hopedale, MA – an intentional, collective utopian farm. Their community’s covenant included the lines, “I hold myself bound…never, under any pretext whatsoever, to kill, assault, beat, torture, enslave, rob, oppress, persecute, defraud; corrupt, slander, revile, injure, envy or hate any human being—even my worst enemy.”[vi] Though that experiment did not outlive Ballou, his influence did. Leo Tolstoy, the Russian novelist, was an admirer of Adin’s writings. The two men corresponded for a time, and Adin was an important influence on Tolstoy’s own Christian pacifism. There is a chain from there – not of direct transmission, but of influence.

Mahatma Gandhi read Tolstoy’s work, and also corresponded with the Russian author. Gandhi credited him as helping to shape his own philosophy of Satyagraha and the nonviolent campaign to free India. Gandhi, of course, was and is an inspiration to nearly a billion people in India alone, and among the most famous activists he helped to influence were Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, who sadly passed from life just a few days ago. What an amazing network to have a relatively obscure figure from our own religious history connected with.

Particularly in the wake of the man’s death, however, it is important to remember that Nelson Mandela believed in minimal violence, but not the absolute absence of it. He said, “Violence and nonviolence are not mutually exclusive; it is the predominance

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of the one or the other that labels a struggle.”[vii] Mandela, in fact, advocated for and eventually founded an armed wing for the African National Congress during the struggle to liberate South Africa from a brutal whites-only regime. His group’s violence was measured – it focused on sabotaging military infrastructure, careful to avoid civilian and even military casualties. But the pursuit of freedom, for him, outweighed risks and evils of violence. Even Gandhi, possibly the first person who comes to mind when you think of a pacifist, wrote, “Nonviolence…is a conscious, deliberate restraint put upon one’s desire for vengeance. But vengeance is any day superior to passive…and helpless submission.[viii]

The problem is as Frederick Douglass described it in a public address about the fight against slavery in 1857: “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”[ix] To refuse to act, in the presence of tyranny or injustice, is to be a party to those same crimes. While there is always some alternative to acting through violence, the person or the people who are most in harm’s way have to be able to decide on the response for themselves.

Our tradition is not uniform on the matter of pacifism: you can find in it justification for conscientious objection and the total renunciation of violence, and you can also find there a call to oppose the most egregious injustice by any means necessary, including the force of arms. Yet we can never neglect the truth that war is hell – a literal manifestation of some of the most awful suffering the human beings are capable of experiencing or causing. Seventy-One years ago yesterday, an attack by the Empire of Japan on the US fleet at Pearl Harbor prompted American entrance into World War Two. It is often offered as an archetype for a “good war”. The Unitarian Universalist author Kurt Vonnegut was among the veterans of that conflict. In his most famous book, he makes plain the shocking wrongness of war through a little thought experiment. His character sits down to watch a movie and through a quirk in the time-space continuum, ends up watching the thing in reverse:

It was a movie about American bombers in World War II and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this: American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.
The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers , and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.
When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.”

War in reverse can only be so magically, impossibly good, because war in its normal course, is hell.

All human life is valuable, so the taking of a life is always a tragedy. In a nation with a volunteer military, any of us who has a vote has a dire responsibility only ever to support calling upon those volunteers to fight and to die when the only alternative is some truly greater form of violence and suffering. The ultimate goal has to be peace – true peace, according to the definition used by Martin Luther King: not the absence of tension but the presence of justice.

Though John Haynes Holmes and his congregation did leave our association, ultimately both did eventually return. And after almost 20 years had passed, our leadership eventually recanted their decision to punish congregations whose ministers opposed the war. If we are serious in our pursuit of peace, it requires the ongoing work of an outflowing reconciliation: beginning within ourselves, then between each other, and then out into the larger world. It is not a matter of perfect agreement between each part of the whole, but the ability of each to accept and abide with the other. Peace can never be attained without forgiveness. From the largest scale to the smallest, then, in this season that celebrates peace and goodwill – from the mountains of Afghanistan to your holiday table, may the work of reconciliation begin anew.

[iii] Matthew 5:39

[iv] Talmud: Tractate Sanhedrin 37a

[v] Qur’an 5:32

[viii] Young India, August 12, 1926, quoted in Gandhi: All Men are Brothers, edited by Krishna Kripalani

[ix] From his address, “West India Emancipation,” August, 3, 1857, Canandaigua, NY

[x] Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five


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