Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Sermon: "Where Does Peace Begin?" (Delivered 5-9-10)

Most years at our church auction I’ve sold the rights for the highest bidder to choose the subject of a Sunday morning sermon. This year’s winner was Bill G. Bill and I went out together for Chinese food to discuss what he had in mind for a sermon. During our lunch, Bill told me that he wanted me to speak about the topic of attaining world peace. Thanks, Bill, for giving me such an easy topic. Yeesh!

So, let me begin by sharing with you some of the thoughts that Bill had about peace that he wanted me to think about. Bill wanted me to try to define what world peace actually means. How do we know if we are actually getting closer to it? Do we really want it? Bill also observed that human life often has a certain “dog eat dog” quality to it. We compete with one another and the way in which we live often involves hurting other beings. Bill wondered if this negative view of who we are as human beings—if it were true—makes world peace an impossible dream.

If you look not only at the world today, but at the history of the world, the goal of world peace can seem like an impossible vision. In the book, What Every Person Should Know About War, Christopher Hedges writes, “Of the past 3,400 years, humans have been entirely at peace for 268 of them, or just 8 percent of recorded history.” And, it is not as if we can point to any kind of modern moral progress. More people died in the wars of the twentieth century than in all the other wars that were ever fought throughout human history. At the beginning of the year 2003 there were 30 active wars going on around the globe.

But, I want to make Bill’s question about attaining peace even more challenging. Peace is not the same thing as the absence of war. I want to argue that even if you could end every war on the planet, as wonderful as that would be, you might still not have peace. Don’t get me wrong, it would be amazing if every war ended, but even that would not guarantee peace.

How is that possible, you ask? Well, let me give you this example. The Roman Empire conquered lots and lots of lands all over Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. The leaders of the Roman Empire believed that they had the right to conquer other lands and to force the people there to live under their rules. Their power made it so that some of the people they conquered couldn’t or wouldn’t fight back. This was known as the Pax Romana, or the peace of Rome, but I don’t think this felt like peace to the people who were forced to live under foreign rulers. But, just because the people couldn’t (or wouldn’t) fight back, didn’t mean they did not have something to protest and speak up about.

As we learn about the history of our country, we learn that ours has been a history of being very unfair to many people. This land is not ours. This land right here, this land where we live and this land where we worship, first belonged to Native Americans. Our country took this land unfairly and often violently. Now, it has been a long, long time since there was an actual war between an Indian tribe and the United States military, but just because there aren’t war battles raging, that doesn’t mean that there is peace exactly. An absence of violence does not equate to peace.

There is a popular bumper sticker that reads, “If you want peace, work for justice.” I used to see this bumper sticker and interpret it as a threat. (“You better start working for justice, or else!”) That, of course, isn’t what the bumper sticker actually means. What it means is that you can’t really have peace until there is justice and fairness.

This point makes a lot of sense when you stop to think about it. I bet a lot of you have brothers or sisters. I bet that a lot of you have fought about something with your brother or sister. When children fight there is often a maneuver that is employed that helps us to imagine what I am thinking about here. That maneuver involves sitting on your sibling and pinning his or her arms underneath your knees, so that your sibling is completely immobilized. In that moment all struggle is eliminated, but the person being pinned down feels something other than peace. We might call that arm-pinning, chest-sitting maneuver the Pax Romana.

Fighting with your brother or sister is not just something that kids do. (I bet some of the adults here still have fights with their brothers or sisters, although I hope it doesn’t involve pinning each other to the ground.) But, the point is this: if you’ve had a fight with somebody, there is often a space between when the fight is over and when peace is made. That space is not fighting, but it isn’t peace either. Peace requires more than just that the fighting stops. It requires healing and resolution, so that both sides feel that justice has been done.

If you want peace, work for justice. I think that this is what the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah had in mind when he said, “They dress the wound of my people as though it was not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is not peace.” A few verses later in Jeremiah there are some very interesting words of prophetic wisdom. Jeremiah says, “Take your stand and watch at the crossroads; ask about the ancient paths; ask which is the way that leads to what is good.”

One of the questions Bill asked me was whether human beings really want peace? I think it is all too often that human beings stand at a metaphorical crossroads and do not ask which path leads us to what is good. I think it is all too often that human beings stand at the crossroads and ask, “Which is the shortest path?” “Which is the easiest path?” “Which is the most comfortable path?” “Which is the most pleasant and enjoyable path?” Not, which is the good path?

I should note that in our own tradition, delegates to this June’s General Assembly will get to vote on a statement of conscience about creating peace. Part of that statement of conscience talks about three successive forms of action: peacebuilding, peacemaking, and peacekeeping.
Peacebuilding has to do with creating a fair world where the roots of conflict are addressed. The roots of conflict include things like economic inequality, the violation of human rights, and political oppression.

Peacemaking has to do with negotiation, mediation, and reconciliation when there is conflict.

Peacekeeping also has to do with taking action, with intervening to try to minimize the harm that violence causes and to support the creation of space for diplomacy and humanitarian aid.
Unitarian Universalist social ethicist Sharon Welch talks about war and peace as much, much more than a black and white issue. She claims that when we argue about war, we tend to divide ourselves into two camps. One camp contains people of good will who believe that war and violence are always wrong, are never right. That position is known as pacifism. On the other side are people of good will who believe that violence and war are sometimes necessary. This way of thinking is often known as “just war” theory. Both sides have faith that they are right.

We have diversity in this room on this subject. Some people in this room believe that war is always wrong and should be protested. Other people believe that sometimes war is necessary. But, Sharon Welch argues for a third way that gets us beyond black and white thinking, a way of reconciling these two positions. She writes,
“When I was first a peace activist, the choices facing us seemed clear: the limited violence of just war or the renunciation of violence in any form. Now, however, our options are greater and our choices more complex. Since the early 1990s, the world of peace activism has been transformed by a focus on the vast areas of concern shared by proponents of nonviolence and by supporters of just war. The debates that divided us are now overshadowed by a recognition of what we share - the need for a third way: joint efforts to prevent war… and repair the damage caused by armed conflict. […] If [we claim that] war is the last resort, what are the first, second and third responses[?]”
When Julia Ward Howe issued her Mother's Day Proclamation, she was issuing an invitation for mothers to take action, to, in her words, “take counsel with each other as the means whereby the great human family can live in peace.”

This afternoon members of this congregation will gather with friends from our city for our third annual Julia’s Voice Stand for Peace event. Even better, this year we are being joined by many other Unitarian Universalists all around the country. Julia’s Voice events are being held in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Ohio, and Colorado. As a church, though, we do more than witness and protest. Our witness is made all the more powerful by other acts undertaken by those in our church community. Do we work to prevent war? By small acts. Our religious education classes have participated in the Pennies for Peace initiative started by Greg Mortensen, which has helped to build schools in Afghanistan, something that is needed if there is to be peace in Afghanistan.

Our church and our individual members have been active in working to repair some of the damage caused by armed conflict. Some of our quilters have been involved in the “Quilts of Valor” program, a way of showing tenderness and care to those harmed by war. At the same time we have worked to provide support services to Iraqi refugees living in the Kansas City area.Such efforts, large and small, are relevant to that third way of engagement that Sharon Welch tells us about.

At the beginning of this morning’s sermon we read together words from the Taoist tradition. Lao-Tse tells us,
If there is to be peace in the world, there must be peace in the nations.

If there is to be peace in the nations, there must be peace in the cities.

If there is to be peace in the cities, there must be peace between neighbors.

It there is to be peace between neighbors, there must be peace in the home.

If there is to be peace in the home, there must be peace in the human heart.
Is this true? Does peace actually begin in the heart? Yes and no. I would also say that the opposite could also be true. If there is not peace in the world, a moral nation should not feel a sense of peace. And if a moral nation does not feel a sense of peace, a moral city should not feel at peace. When the city does not feel at peace, neighbors should not feel at peace. When neighbors do not feel at peace, families can’t really feel a sense of peace. And when we do not feel peace in our families, we often have a troubled feeling in our hearts, a discomfort stemming from an honest view of the world.

Our Unitarian Universalist seventh principle talks about the interdependent web of all existence of which we are all a part. One place we see that web is in nature. If your neighbor decides to go outside and burn all their trash in the backyard, the smoke will make you cough. If you burn trash in your backyard, the smoke will make your neighbor cough.

It is a rich and complex system. Our choices, our decisions, our actions, our relationships, our efforts to heal, our efforts to reconcile, our voice, our witness: Each of these touch the whole.


I leave you this morning with a paradox from an unlikely source. Some years ago business author Jim Collins went to interview Admiral James Stockdale, Ross Perot’s running-mate in 1992, who had been brutalized as a prisoner of war during Vietnam. In the interview, Stockdale said that those of his fellow prisoners of war who lost all hope perished. However, Stockdale also revealed that the optimists, those that were certain that they would be going home by Christmas or Easter or Thanksgiving also perished; “They died of a broken heart.” He said, “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

As you go forth this day, choose to follow the good path, the path between despair and ungrounded hope. Do what you can, knowing that by doing this, you touch the whole.