Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072
Children's Chapel: 10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, March 18, 2007
War, by its very nature, is a ghastly spectacle: carved at its heart are
the awful realities of violence, destruction, suffering, and death. War—any
war, every war-- is filled with so many horrors and is such an unspeakable
human tragedy. War brings out the worst in us; it unleashes the worst of
human passions: hated, vengeance, unbridled ambition, cruelty, blood-lust,
and all forms of wickedness. It was the great Greek poet Pindar who originally
said: “Sweet is war to him who knows it not.” Or, as General
Sherman testified: “War is hell.” (Words, I bet, that would
be echoed by all of those who, like Sherman, know war well.) Only the most
addled soul, the most confirmed misanthrope, the biggest jerk in the world,
would ever dare to say something like: “War is great. I really dig
it.” No, everyone hates war; or, says they do. How could anyone professing
to be a religious man or woman of any sort ever be in favor of going to
But, of course, war is a common condition of human affairs. From the earliest days of human history, all the way down to the present (and, no doubt, into the foreseeable future) human beings have been at war with one another. War is a strong intoxicant to the human spirit. In his book, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, New York Times reporter (and Harvard Divinity School graduate) Christopher Hedges tells us how we are conditioned to embrace what he calls “the myth of war” -- the idea that combat is noble, selfless, and glorious. In his book Hedges explodes the myth, by chronicling the devastating reality of the wars he has witnessed firsthand. Warfare, Hedges states, inevitably leads to the destruction of culture, the perversion of human desire, and the embrace, ultimately, of death over life.
Yet, he admits, "War is an enticing elixir."
War may be hell, Hedges says, but it fills a deep spiritual void inside of us. "[War] gives us resolve, a cause," he writes. "It allows us to be noble." And war is seductive. "The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug. It is peddled by mythmakers,¬ historians, war correspondents, filmmakers, novelists, and the state ¬ all of whom endow it with qualities it often does possess: excitement, exoticism, power, chances to rise above our small stations in life, and a bizarre and fantastic universe that has a grotesque and dark beauty."
"War makes the world understandable," Hedges continues. “That is why it is such a powerful force. When differences can be reduced to the struggle between good and evil, the ambiguities of the world are clarified. A terrorized public wants to wrest meaning out of the darkness and confusion. War offers a black-and-white tableau of ‘them’ and ‘us’." It provides societies with a sense of cohesion and solidarity. It consoles us that human suffering—even the deaths of those we hold near and dear-- can serve a higher good, and some noble purpose.
I like to believe that war is a social construct—a human creation—and not a natural component of who we are as human creatures. I want to agree with Gandhi that non-violence is the true law of our species. But sometimes, I’m not so sure. Watch the intensity (ferocity, even) with which some of our own children—gentle souls all, raised in the most progressive and non-violent and (supposedly) socially “aware” families and households imaginable—engage in one or another of those “shoot ‘em up/ take no prisoners” video games that are all around. It kind of makes you wonder. I remember my hippie friend Ben up in Maine, the most mild and non-violent person you would ever want to know—dedicated to the anti-war movement and understanding between people. Yet, Ben was also an expert on military history. He knew everything about every war ever fought, it seemed to me. He loved war novels, and old war movies, and watching documentaries about World War II on television. (I used to joke with him that when I became President, I was going to make him Secretary of Defense!)
So, perhaps the ways of war we will always have with us. Perhaps, at
times in human history, war is inevitable. At times of deep anxiety, especially—like
these days in which we live today—there is a tendency to resort
to violence; to go to war; as though at least “doing something”
can somehow ameliorate the tension and dread we feel, and reduce the world
to a stark and simple choice between good and evil.
Up until that time, from the first through the fourth centuries, from the death of Jesus on, the early Christian community had lived often under siege; marginalized from the rest of society; often persecuted by the Romans. Under these circumstances, Christians were expected to be pacifists—to oppose all resort to violence—just as Jesus himself had, as when he declared, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and “Those who live by the sword will perish by the sword.” The early Christians, as we have said, were all pacifists; they were forbidden from serving in the military, and were even excommunicated if they did so.
However, early in the fourth century, around the year 325 or so, the persecution ended, and, the emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. The religious world (of Europe, at least) was turned on its head; the once persecuted Christian faith now became the religion of the state. That was something that the early Church Fathers (and Mothers) had never foreseen. (But it is the way history works sometimes; overnight, the last can become first, and those on the bottom end up on top of the heap. It happens all the time in human history.)
But then, from the north, and from the east, from all over it seemed, those darned barbarians started invading. Pagans and heretics were now overrunning the entire empire, and by 410, Rome itself had fallen to the dreaded Visigoths.
“New occasions teach new duties,” the leaders of the church decided, and Augustine, a bishop and a Roman citizen, began to consider whether a Christian could ever, in all conscience, take part in a war. About eight centuries later, another great Christian theologian, Thomas Aquinas, would take up Augustine’s principles of Just War and attempt to update them and expand upon them.
“When is going to war just?” Augustine and Aquinas asked. They came up with six criteria:
First—The war is conducted by legitimate civil authority.
The authority to go to war resides in the state alone. No other institution or individual can commit a nation to war. Even if you’re Bill Gates, you can’t just raise and army, and invade Canada (not that Bill Gates would ever want to do that). Nor can a terrorist, like Bin Laden, declare war on the United States, or some other “enemy”. Only a state can go to war.
There are a couple of challenges here: Living in a radically interdependent world, as we do today, might it not be fair to say that, aside from when nations are clearly attacked by others—that is, in the case of self-defense against overt aggression— the decision to go to war must rest on some authority higher, even, than a single nation state?
Perhaps a “just war” in our own day (except in cases of self-defense) requires sanction of the United Nations—as a sort of “supra-nation-state”—as the encapsulation (imperfect as it is) of the consensus and will of the people of the world as a whole. Maybe just having a single national government deciding it needs to go to war just isn’t enough justification for war in this dangerous, modern world.
Then, there is the case of revolution. If war can ever be justified in human relations, then certainly there are no times when it is more justifiable than when the people of a nation rise up against foreign domination, or a tyrannical leader, or against a racist regime. Later Just War theorists have added the idea that the “will of the people” can, in cases of extreme oppression, supplant the rightful role of the civil authorities in making war.
But here, too, history is not a dogmatic teacher—and there are so many examples throughout history of one side’s “freedom fighters” being another side’s “terrorists”. In the Boston Tea Party, for instance, who were the “patriots” and who were the “hooligans” and “bandits”? It depends how you look at it. A good deal of discernment and reasoned judgment would seem in order, then, when we declare that this or that violent outburst is, indeed, “the will of the people”.
Second, a war can be considered just if it is based on a just cause. The state exists to exercise justice, and it can only wage war to uphold and extend justice (and perhaps, to avenge evil). Thus, wars may be fought to defend a nation’s life and property; one may be fought to end aggression, or ethnic cleansing, and to reestablish peace. International war can be a just response to international lawlessness and terror.
But aggressive war is never justified. It is never just, according to Augustine and Aquinas and their followers, to go to war to seize the territory or resources of others. Obviously, war for financial gain or profit is ruled out. But so, importantly, is any doctrine of preventive war (including, obviously, the Bush Doctrine which says that the United States has the right to go to war, even if not attacked, if our enemies possess—or we think they possess—or might possibly possess—Weapons of Mass Destruction, which threaten our nation and the stability of the world). “It is incontestable that a Christian may not fight in either a preventive or an aggressive war,” one modern theologian has put it.
There is no “first strike” capability in the doctrine of Just War.
Third, the war is waged with right intention. Not only must the cause be just, but the just cause must be the only reason the nation goes to war. Often, a “just cause” is the window dressing, and it was Augustine who wisely pointed out that often nations go to war for mere political or economic advantage alone. “A just war cannot be considered to be just if reasons of national interest are paramount or overwhelm the pretext of fighting aggression.”
Fourth, in Just War theory, the war is undertaken only as a last resort. All non-violent means and options for the redress of grievances have been exhausted. There is no other way to repel an attack, or to end injustice, or to obtain peace.
But peace should not be secured at the price of justice. The principle that war should always be the last resort doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice everything to the aggressor in order to maintain peace. In Just War theory, peace is not an absolute, but justice is. As Gandhi said, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, we must choose violence.
So, the Western powers back in the 1930s would have been justified in standing up to Hitler sooner, rather than trying to appease him at Munich.
In more recent days, however, was there any justification for launching
a war against Iraq on the pretext that Saddam Hussein had Weapons of Mass
Destruction, when there were still international weapons inspectors on
the ground in Iraq, searching for (and not finding) those (supposed) weapons?
Fifth, a just war is fought on the reasonable chance of success.
Of course, nothing in history—especially in warfare—is pre-ordained.
But before a war is pursued, there has to be a careful reckoning as to
whether a nation has the strength and the resources—not to mention
the willpower—to win the war. If not, a leader may not then send
his soldiers to fight and die in a hopeless cause.
But our leaders have absolutely no right to lead us to war unless they have clear plans—and a reasonable expectation—of securing a just and lasting peace. That is something which the present American administration, in its arrogance and incompetence, has dismally failed to provide in Iraq.
Finally, in a just war, there is a sense of proportionality. The overall destruction expected from the use of force must be outweighed by the amount of good to be achieved. Civilians may not be deliberately targeted; indeed, due diligence must be exercised to minimize “collateral damage” (which is what we now call the slaughter of civilians). Military personnel and military industry should be the sole objects of military operations, in a just war.
Such is the theory at least. But if there is one thing that differentiates modern warfare from the forms that came before it lies in the whole-scale killing and pillaging of civilian populations. The American government may have said it chose to drop the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki because both of those cities were “military installations”. But obviously, that was not the case. Over 200,000 people died when our government dropped the bomb—most of them—almost all of them-- with only peripheral connection to the Japanese war effort. Can such an attack ever be justified on a deeper, theological level? I think not. So our nation stands judged as the only country ever to unleash such horror upon another people. “Their shame is ours,” wrote James Kirkup of Hiroshima. “We, too, are haunted by their fate.”
And by the fate of those 3,300 American soldiers killed in our most recent folly. And by the 650,000 Iraqi lives which it is estimated this war has cost.
May we, too, be haunted by a world that has made going to war just too easy; which has, all too often, made going to war the first resort, rather than the last.
May our sense of being haunted dash away our sense of resignation in
the face of war, and remind us why we are here:
We can never make the world safe by fighting.
My friends, however difficult it may be in this world in which we are now living, may this remain, forever, our calling as religious men and women.
May God grant us wisdom, and grant us courage, for the facing of this difficult hour.