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Life During Wartime – 11/9/2014

Two armies take the field. Archers and cavalry are arrayed on both sides. The leading warriors position themselves in their chariots, ready to dash into the fray. Loud blasts of sound pierce the air as conch shells are blown, announcing the opening of hostilities. It is to be a civil war within the ruling family – a battle to decide whom the next king will be – and just before the first arrow flies, a lone chariot rides out and down the middle of the field. Arjuna the prince, among the greatest warriors of either faction, stands between the two armies of his kinsmen, surveys the forces destined to fight and kill each other, and despairs.

This is the scene at the opening of the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most revered books in the Hindu tradition, possibly the most influential religious text among the great many brought forth from the Indian subcontinent. In fact, the entire book unfolds in this singular moment, as Arjuna hesitates to take up his bow and fight for his brother, the rightful heir, against his cousins, the usurpers. Speaking to his chariot-driver, Krishna, he laments:

“Krishna, I see my kinsmen gathered here, wanting war.

My limbs sink, my mouth is parched,

my body trembles, my hair bristles on my flesh…

I see omens of chaos, Krishna;

I see no good in killing my kinsmen in battle…

They are teachers, fathers, sons, and grandfathers, uncles, grandsons,

fathers and brothers of wives, and other men of our family.

I do not want to kill them, even if I am killed, Krishna;

not for kingship of all three worlds, much less for the earth!”[i]

This coming Tuesday marks the observance of Veterans Day here in the United States; a time set aside to honor those who have served this nation in the conduct of war, and who have born most directly the burdens of it. For some of us, the list of those to whom that day belongs includes ourselves. For others, it records family members, near neighbors, close friends. However, many of us, I suspect, will be hard pressed to find even one living veteran to whom we are closely connected. In a nation which has been at war perpetually for 13 years, we also find ourselves in an age when many in that nation, and the country as a whole, are largely aloof from the conflict and its costs. It is too often too easy for too many of us to forget what war is, and what it means. With that in mind, then, this morning we continue this year’s worship theme of exploring the spiritual implications of places, by reflecting on the theology of the battlefield.

A battlefield is an oddly flexible sort of designation. Unlike most sorts of places, it cannot be recognized by the presence or absence of certain natural features or human-made buildings. It may occur as easily in a forest as a desert, and in a city as a farmer’s field. The designation is not even bound to land, in fact, and the term may be used just as correctly to describe a scrap of ocean or a patch of sky. What defines a battlefield is conflict: it is a place where people have fought, killed, and died. It is often said that this makes the place into a particular sort of holy ground. President Lincoln perhaps most famously expressed this sentiment when he said, “[W]e can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”

Yet the process of this consecration seems nearly as far from the realm of the holy as one might be able to reach. The phrase, “war is hell” is a cliché, but that cliché exists because so many who have experienced so many wars have compared what they saw and felt and did there to the cosmic idea of hell. What we Americans observe as Veteran’s Day began as Armistice Day, and is still celebrated as such in many countries. This marked the end of the First World War, which began a hundred years ago, this year. Direct comparisons made between the horrors of that conflict and the horrors attributed to the tormented afterlife by theologians and storytellers were perhaps the most common and the most credible up to that point in human history. The war in the north of France, pitting German forces against French and English and eventually American, brought carnage that had been unimagined before: the first major use of the machine gun, the indiscriminate use of poison gas, and casualties that tallied up into unthinkable numbers. That war reshaped and damaged the land on which it was fought – for neither the first nor the last time in human history. Streams were fouled, fields and forests made barren, and the countryside littered with unexploded bombs. War may consecrate – may give a place a particular meaning and importance by its having transpired there – but it also desecrates. War diminishes the native holiness of the places it touches. This mixture of consecration and desecration matches the moral contradiction in even the most simple and clear-cut armed conflicts: violence is destructive to the soul, but there are many other fates and circumstances which we seek to resist through violence, because the alternative seems equally harmful, or worse.

In the story of the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna struggles with this duality: he is bound by duty to resist an unjust government, yet he also feels his duty not to kill, even if it would help establish a better one. The book becomes a dialog between Arjuna and his chariot-driver, Krishna, who reveals himself to be an avatar of the divine and offers guidance on how to navigate life’s contradiction. This internal conflict becomes a way of discussing all internal conflicts, and Arjuna and Krishna play out a conversation that is really always going on inside each of us. We are constantly in dialog with the universe, trying to piece together the information and insight necessary to make the right decision. In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, our interactions with others and with the world around us can be described as our relationship with God; in Buddhism, this is see as a game we play with the illusory nature of reality, working towards the realization of fundamental truth. We Unitarian Universalists might refer to the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. The Bhagavad Gita casts this eternal interplay between the self and the cosmic other – the essence of what it means to be a living human being – against the backdrop of the battlefield. Life is a conflict, and we are always caught between two or more sides.

The understanding of life as a struggle or a battle is hardly unique to Hinduism. It occurs again and again in human culture and thought. We use the metaphors of war to describe commerce – Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko invokes Sun Tzu’s Art of War – politics – how many terms of violence have you heard in the past month leading up to the mid-term elections? – and romance – Pat Benatar sings, “Love Is a Battlefield.” And certainly we often view faith – both personal and collective – through the lens of war.

Everything from prayer and preaching to political activism to actual combat may be slapped with the label of fighting “in the name of God.” In the Gita, Arjuna’s battlefield is also dharmakshetra – ‘the field of dharma,’ the place inside us all where our moral disputes are waged. Gospel, the Greek word used for the narratives written about the teacher Jesus in the century after his assassination, is commonly translated as “good news.” This is technically accurate, but in its origin there is a colloquial meaning: “good news of victory,” or “good news from the battlefront.” A gospel was a report of successful military action by the Roman Empire’s legions, usually far away from the people hearing the message. Calling the story of Jesus’ life and ministry a gospel conveyed a similar theme to the average Roman reader: somewhere in a distant province of the empire, something important has happened. This was just one way in which the people who authored the first four books of the Christian testaments took terms and symbols associated with the empire that murdered their teacher, and repurposed them to help carry his anti-imperial message.

Still, imagining life always as a battlefield raises a number of spiritual problems. Violent metaphor can help to foster violent reality, and in the case of Christianity, the military symbols woven into the story of Jesus have come back again and again to haunt the tradition, undercutting the message of the man who said, “Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.”[ii] It also makes symbolically eternal something that is fundamentally temporary. The goal of every war is its own ending – though, of course, this is goal is sometimes achieved only with much faltering and delay. Nearly every participant in a battle has among their central ambitions to reach the end of that battle alive. Life-as-war is nonsensical, because the two are very nearly opposites.

In its moments of creation, the battlefield is defined by chaos. Particularly in the modern era, it is loud, fast, and deadly. Artists have attempted different strategies for rendering this, from the pained expressions and distorted shapes of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, to the live cannon fire called for in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. In film, there has always been a tension between rendering war in the service of a story and depicting it honestly and accurately: it is difficult for an audience to root for the proscribed heroes and against the assigned villains when everyone is caught up in a nearly random flurry of motion and made almost indistinguishable from each other. Some movies do attempt to capture the actual experience of the battlefield, however. Roughly 15 years ago, Saving Private Ryan became famous, in part, for a depiction of World War II’s Normandy invasion that was so viscerally accurate that some veterans of that and other conflicts reported having to leave the theater. Patients seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder also reportedly rose after the film’s release.

The scene itself is gory, heart-breaking, and despondently arbitrary. It’s something that can’t be done justice in a description, and that no one should be exposed to without choosing to be. Exactly the same can, of course, be said for war itself. There is one particularly striking moment in which the camera sweeps over several different soldiers as they pray. Some cower from enemy fire, perhaps praying for courage, more likely to survive. Others lie dying, praying for mercy and peace. The last is a sniper, praying that his shot should strike true. It does. The tide turns. The battle advances and ends, and for a moment, in this particular part of the world, the killing stops. At the end of it all, another soldier digs up and handful of dirt and places it in a tin marked “France.” He places it in a pack alongside others marked “Italy” and “Africa.” Apparently, he is collecting fragments of the battlefields in each country or continent he visits.

The titular mission of the movie is to save one young enlisted man from the horrors and dangers of war. In a spontaneous and beautifully irrational moment, army officials have decided to pluck one man out of the storm and chaos of the European theater, and send him home. It is such an arbitrary gift, and one that they themselves so deeply covet, that nearly every other soldier who hears about this special dispensation resents him for it, including Ryan himself. He is so appalled by it that he initially refuses the order to go. Why? Because every soldier yearns to go home, to be free of having to kill or be killed, to be numbered among the too-few soldiers who survive to be something other than soldiers. It is just as with so many blessings in this imperfect world: Everyone wants it. Everyone deserves it. But not everyone receives it.

Our spiritual ancestor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, famously said that, “War educates the senses, calls into action the will, perfects the physical constitution, brings men into such swift and close collision in critical moments that man measures man.”[iii] And though this may be read as the worst sort of disrespectful and destructive idolatry of warfare from someone who never participated in it, Emerson did not mean that war was ideal, or even good. He saw it as a symptom of our immaturity – as individuals, as nations, and as a species, and was only grateful that the experience of war can help us to reach a state at which we no longer need or conduct it. Peace, after all, is the aim of all the Abrahamic religions, a time when “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”[iv] The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai takes this one step further:

“Don’t stop after beating the swords into plowshares, don’t stop!

Go on beating and make musical instruments out of them.

Whoever wants to make war again will have to turn them into plowshares


The Bhagavad Gita closes with Arjuna relieved of indecision; he is ready to take up arms against the foe. Krishna’s council to Arjuna is lengthy and rich – it accounts for most of the book – but his basic answer to Arjuna’s internal conflict is simple. Each of us has a set of circumstances that we find ourselves in at any given moment – some by chance, some by choice, and perhaps a few – who knows? – by fate. The right choice in each moment is the most life-sustaining, justice-promoting action possible based on the circumstances we find ourselves in. We must play the role that falls to us to the best of our ability, and work hard to discern what that role is. We must ask ourselves, “What is my place in this moment? Where is my best opportunity to move the world from conflict and suffering to a peace in which life can flourish?” This may not always lead to a perfectly pure action, free of any moral conflict or ambiguity, but our creative response to the hard circumstances of life can lead us to surprising places.

This week, we honor those whose lives led them onto literal battlefields, so I want to leave you with one particular example of a creative answer to the moral questions posed by one warrior’s circumstances. After the dismantling of Saddam Hussein’s government in 2003, Lt. Col. David Couvillon found himself acting as the military governor of Wassit Province in Iraq. He and the Marines under his command served as the stop-gap government for a people long subjected to repressive tyranny, followed by the lightning chaos of invasion, and now the indignity and confusion of occupation. The primary tools at Lt. Col. Couvillon’s disposal were instruments of violence and control – he had ample access to guns and tanks and munitions, just like the previous regime, only his were more impressive. But David Couvillon resolved to show the people subject to his authority that there was something more behind him than the threat of force. He made a conscious decision not to wear body armor or carry a weapon in public. He encouraged those under his command to follow suit where appropriate: using the amount of arms and armor that each mission called for, rather than rolling out with maximum force at every opportunity. They focused instead on community relations; they reached out to informal local leaders and made a point of making friends with children in the street. The Iraqis they held authority over were living in a country that had literally become an enormous battlefield, with no end in sight. Lt. Col. Couvillon’s strategy was to make life a little more normal for the people he was responsible for – to make their country feel a little bit less like a warzone. And it worked: Wassit was secured, local infrastructure was rebuilt, and while there was still violence and injury, not a single Marine was killed on his watch.[vi]

We are not always happy with the choices life places before us. We can rail against the reasons for our circumstances and lash out to blame disloyal friends, villainous politicians, our own selves, or the God of our understanding. The list of possible culprits is long indeed. But that anger and frustration can only prove useful if it drives us on. In such moments, we are like Arjuna on the battlefield, torn between the range of options before us. And in those moments, it is up to us, in consultation with the universe of which we are a part, to look hard for the best of those options, and to act.

[i] Bhagavad Gita 1:28-35 (abridged)

[ii] Matthew 5:44

[iii] From his essay, “War.”

[iv] Isaiah 2:4

[v] From his poem, “An appendix to the vision of peace,” as it appears in the collection, Great Tranquility: Questions and Answers.



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