Meditations on peace

A dear friend sent me this the other day:

Keep Making It

It’s from, by the artist Rick Hotton.


I wrote the following peace sermon in 2007, and rewrote it for this past Sunday, April 5. I don’t usually care for my own sermons, but I thought this one was worth reprinting here.

I’m neither Christian nor not-Christian; it’s probably safest to call me a “post-Christian.” Although “post-Christian” can be meant as an insult, I like being a post-Christian. As a post-Christian, I can hold on to the best of the Christian tradition; and through the use of reason I can reject the parts of the Christian tradition that are obviously wrong-headed.

It’s just after the sixth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Today is also Palm Sunday, that day when Jesus of Nazareth went to Jerusalem, and challenged the ethics of the regional political and religious leaders. Today, I find myself holding on to the best of the Christian tradition.

And I believe the best of the Christian tradition can be found in what is popularly known as the “Sermon on the Mount.” This is a sermon that was supposed to have been preached by the great rabbi and spiritual leader Jesus of Nazareth, long before he went into Jerusalem. Jesus and his disciples were going through the countryside in the land of Judea. Rumors began to spread through the countryside that a great and good and wise man was preaching with such authority and such deep humanity, that he was said to be the Messiah, the Chosen One who would lead the Jewish people into righteousness and freedom. Thousands of people flocked to hear this great man preach. His disciples found him a hill on which he stood while the people gathered around him. And there he preached a sermon that contained the core of his beliefs.

In that sermon, Jesus of Nazareth preached: “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

And then he also preached this:

“‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your [God] in heaven; for [God] makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly [God] is perfect.'”

Taken as a whole, the Sermon on the Mount comprises what is arguably the highest and best statement of Christian ethics. On this fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, I would like us to reflect on the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” To help explain what he meant by this, he offered a dramatic example of how we are to live this out in our own lives, saying:

“‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also….” [5.39-40]

That, my friends, is an utterly ridiculous statement. (more…)

We’ve all heard about warmongering. But what about peacemongering?

When we were kids, once in a while one of our parents would yell, “I need a little peace and quiet around here!” We knew what this meant. Don’t invite any friends over. Don’t argue. Don’t do anything that could lead to arguing, such as discussing things you disagree about, or playing games that are too challenging or competitive. Don’t play rowdy music. If you want to play loud, go outside. But if you do go outside, don’t do anything that could lead to getting hurt. Above all, don’t come to Mom or Dad with any questions or requests.

Everyone needs “a little peace and quiet” once in a while. It’s only dangerous when we try to force our communities to give it to us all the time. When we try to shut down discussion about conflicting ideas. When we harumph and complain about loud art, or vigorous games, or too much laughter or yelling. When we lock our doors against new ideas or new people. When we resent questions or requests for help.

That’s not peacemaking. It’s peacemongering.

I think our culture is so steeped in the idea of war that we sometimes have trouble conceiving of it as anything other than a normal thing.

Yesterday, on the way home from the IETF conference, I ran into a soldier on BART who was on the way back to Iraq. It’s hard for me to fathom what that must be like – here he is, on a train, in a beautiful city, chatting with a couple of nice women (he didn’t have any time for me, and who can blame him) and in a few short hours he will be back in the war which, by the way, is still going on, in case anyone forgot.

This fellow is 39 years old. He had no sense of balance—he fell down twice getting off the train. He was not drunk —I didn’t smell any alcohol at all, and I would have. So he’s got some head injury. And he was showing the women he was chatting with the exit wound from some bullet that had hit him. And he’s going back to that. He didn’t look thrilled, and he didn’t look upset—he just looked like that was his life, and he didn’t expect anything else.

Being a science fiction reader, I’ve encountered the Aztecs a few times in science fiction novels, and this has led me to do a little research about what they were like in real life. The Aztec culture was a culture that engaged in human sacrifice. They would rip peoples’ hearts out and offer them to the sun god. Our written records of the day to day life of Aztec culture are not very complete, but we do have written records, and we have some idea of what life was like in those times, in that place. How does a culture tolerate human sacrifice?

The answer, as best I can glean, and I do not claim to be an expert, is not that they were simply barbarians who were too stupid to know any better. They tolerated it for a number of reasons. First, they had reason to believe that they would not be the ones sacrificed – sacrifices usually weren’t taken out of the general populace, but rather from military captives. Second, they were told that it was necessary – that their future depended on it. That the sun would not rise if it was not done. Third, most of them didn’t have much choice about it.

I think the parallels between the Aztec tradition of human sacrifice and the modern tradition of war are strong enough to be taken seriously. The Aztec culture was dominant in its part of the world, in its time. It was prosperous, up to a point. And it was fragile, in that the conditions supporting it could not be counted on to persist, and in that there were severe injustices being done in the name of stability. And it fell, and the human sacrifices stopped. And, fortunately, the sun kept rising.

So when we are talking about war, trying to figure out how to explain just how barbaric it is, the history of the Aztecs might be worth visiting. They were not so different from the culture in the United States. They had sacrificial victims. We have soldiers—our own, and the enemy. They had a civilian population trapped between the fear of the apocalypse and the comfort of business as usual. We have a civilian population that is still afraid of terrorist attack, and still wants the comfort of a normalcy that is still present in some places, but fast fading in many.

They believed in magic; when we go to war, so do we. You probably have some inkling that the belief in war as a cause for peace is magical thinking, or you wouldn’t be reading this. But I think this is a point that might be convincing for some people who still accept the idea of war as a cause for peace. So I mention this here because it might be something to bring out when you are trying to get someone to doubt their faith in war. We are more like the Aztecs than I we imagine. We need to learn to believe that when we stop using war to get what we want, the sun will continue to rise.

Tomorrow, March 20, is the sixth anniversary of the invasion of the war of Iraq. So here’s a meditation for pacifists….

Jesus of Nazareth allegedly said:

“Don’t react violently against the one who is evil: when someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other as well. When someone wants to sue you for your shirt, let that person have your coat along with it. Further, when anyone conscripts you for one mile, go an extra mile. Give to the one who begs from you….” [Scholar’s Version, Matthew 5.38-42]

All these suggestions are, of course, absurd. If someone slaps your right cheek, why wouldn’t you just walk away from that person? — and how does this advice apply if someone slaps you on the left cheek? Absurd, absurd. As for that business about the shirt and coat, you have to remember that in a society where people only owned two garments, wouldn’t that would leave you standing around naked? Absurd. Carry a Roman soldier’s pack for an extra mile? Absurd. Give to the one who begs to you? — also absurd.

OK, maybe these things are absurd. But the alternative is the old eye-for-an-eye-tooth-for-a-tooth morality, e.g., when “Axis of Evil” kills some of our people, we automatically go and kill some of their people. Isn’t that old eye-for-an-eye morality just as absurd, in its own way?

Now I tend to be a pragmatic guy, and if someone slaps me on either cheek, I’m going to just walk away. For that matter, I’m not going to give away all my clothes and be naked, I’m not going to carry a Roman soldier’s pack. But as a pragmatist, results matter, and I don’t see that my pragmatism has done much to bring about world peace, either.

I don’t have the answer. But I am drawn to the clarity and elegance of Jesus’s moral philosophy. I’m not sure I want to try everything he suggests, but I do wish I had given money to the beggars I passed on the street today, just to live out his absurd teaching in a small way.

Rewritten for clarity. X-posted.

“I am for peace: but when I speak, they are for war.”

— Psalm 120:7, from the King James Bible

Jeff mentioned a song in the comments here a few days ago, “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier”, by Alfred Bryan and Al Piantadosi. Coincidentally, my friend Estelle Seguin ran into the same song because it was a number one hit the year before her grandmother was born, at a time when America was debating the need to prepare for war. You can find the audio on iTunes or at History Matters.

Here’s what Estelle has to say about it.


“I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be a Soldier”

by Estelle Seguin

As a mother, I have first hand experience with the way frustrations can boil over, whether it is me with my kids or sibling rivalry. It’s not that huge a leap to imagine entire nations getting carried away with hate and misunderstanding. Luckily, my Buddhist training sometimes actually comes back to me during such moments. Sometimes.

The idea of extinguishing a precious human life I carried in my body, nursed and educated just for some extended real life chess game is beyond rational thought. I don’t even think I know of a proper word to use when pondering the notion. Preposterous? Outrageous? Perhaps, if you go to the root of the words and forget how they’re misused nowadays to describe trivial matters.

Like just about every mother in the world, a good part of my time is spent mediating. I cannot count the times I’ve said “well, who will be the first smart enough to stop”, “just because he hit you doesn’t mean you have to hit him back”, et cetera… You get the idea.

Now imagine the questions that must come up in these young minds when all they hear on the news are words like retaliation, defense systems, blah blah blah. People in fancy suits and cars negating absolutely everything I’ve tried to teach them about conflict.

I have enough to worry about: am I feeding them well enough, loving them enough, protecting them yet giving them enough independence, encouraging them. The list goes on. And then some person can decide to put them in front of a bunch of guns just to put a different coloured flag on a piece of land? I don’t think so.

Am I being selfish? Perhaps. Is it selfishness when my heart wants to rip in two when I see a mother on TV wailing in front of her son’s dead body? Maybe it is, maybe I only get it now because I’ve given birth.

I can’t even imagine sitting at a desk, ordering the mobilization of thousands of troops. Maybe we should change the language around war, make it harder to execute. Instead of troops, let’s use the words sons and daughters. Instead of front, let’s use the word target. Reporters will have to dirty up the language they’ve worked so hard to sanitize.

I would never wish it on a reporter or politician but it’s quite obvious they don’t feel the ache a mother feels when her child has died, just one of many lives destroyed forever.

I struggle to understand mothers of fallen soldiers who still support the war they lost their son to. It would be so easy for me to condemn them, get angry at them, want to shake some sense into them, but then I wouldn’t be setting a very good example for my kids. Maybe, when you think about it, they’re the ones teaching me.

There’s a brief article about the song on the History Matters site:

Roosevelt’s retort to the popularity of the antiwar song was that it should be accompanied by the tune “I Didn’t Raise My Girl to Be a Mother.” He suggested that the place for women who opposed war was “in China—or by preference in a harem—and not in the United States.”

I have two boys, currently 6 and 12. If my kids ever faced the choice of going to war, I’d cut off their pinkies and make the choice for them.

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