Wars, Religion, and Peace

Wars, Religion, and Peace

The Rev. Bailey Smith, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention said: “With all due respect to those dear people, my friend, God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew.” The audience responded with enthusiastic applause.

Emerson said: “Peace cannot be achieved by violence; it can only be attained by understanding.”

Robert Kennedy once said: “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to enhance the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope… those ripples build a current which can sweep down the walls of oppression and resistance.”

It is often believed with suicide bombers that their motivation for going into war is to receive a reward in heaven. But an American, Sergeant Jones, had a different strategy with new recruits. He sold life insurance instead!

It wasn’t long before Captain Smith noticed that Sergeant Jones was having a staggeringly high success-rate, selling insurance to nearly 100% of the recruits he advised. instead of asking him about this, the Captain stood at the back of the room and listened to Jones’ sales pitch.

Jones explained the basics of GI Insurance to the new recruits, and then said, “If you are killed in a battle and have GI Insurance, the government has to pay $200,000 to your beneficiaries. But, if you don’t have GI insurance and get killed in the battle, the government only has to pay a maximum of $6,000.

“Now,” he concluded, “which group do YOU think they are going to send into battle first?”

Today, I want to look hard at the connection between religion, war and peace. When we look at the reports from Syria, it is so easy to get discouraged, isn’t it? What an incredible mess is there. What a tragedy!

Like you I have witnessed the funerals of our military who have died from roadside bombs in Afghanistan and Iraq; I have seen them come home without arms or legs, or psychologically damaged, experiencing from PTSD. Their amazing courage to go on despite all that they have endured is inspiring. I know about the tragedy of families who have lost loved ones, families who have lost father or mother to war, and the little children left alone with only a picture to greet them when they get up each day.

I am aware, as you are, of the suicide rate amongst our veterans. Daily, we see the horrors of war on our television news casts. It affects us all either directly or indirectly.

We also live in a time of unheard of gun-related violence in America. The President was giving a good bread-and-butter speech for his State of the Union address this week, when suddenly he soared into greatness when he asked Congress to unite to do something about gun violence. He singled out those who had come to the State of the Union from the Sandy Hook massacre and other killings, including Gabby Giffords, who touchingly was trying to clap her hands together but could not. He pleaded for Congress to vote their consciences. I had tears in my eyes.

The very best person I have found to sum up the connection between religions and war is a Quaker scholar, William Frost.

He says that there are things about religions that don’t necessarily cause war but do help to ease it.

1. He faults all major religions for having holy texts that portray violence approvingly, whether done by God or some heroic figure. The war’s success is guaranteed by God, and imitation of that behavior then becomes approved. for example, when I was a boy I loved the story of David and Goliath. I also thought that Joshua was a good guy when he defeated the natives who already lived in the so called Promised Land. Today, I have other opinions.

2. Religions have rituals or prayers that are supposed to enlist the help of God in war, which teach that those fighting are fighting for a holy cause. Think of prayer before battle. Remember the Crusades, when already children were sent to battle, or already a football game in the NFL where one side prays to defeat the other.

3. If you lose your life in a Holy war, God will compensate you in the next life. Martyrdom is the highest mark of religious devotion, as every suicide bomber knows.

4. Religions teach that their adherents are the chosen ones, with rights and privileges, particularly involving a right to land ownership. And these folks go to war if they feel persecuted, either in the past or present, and are unable to get justice, or if there are enough of them to unify politically into a nation state, they will seek strength by war, especially if the land is holy or a “Promised Land.” Nationalism that is connected to fighting for land and family then becomes a religious duty.

5. Political or spiritual leaders come from an upper class and see in the religious teaching a way to continue their strength. The Queen of England is also head of the Church, the Pope of a nation state.

6. Priests and religious leaders are willing to use secular strength to institutionalize or enforce correct doctrine, worship and ethical practices. Think of the Taliban here preventing girls from going to school or proponents of Proposition 8 here in California, which banned gay marriage.

7. States fail to uphold minority rights and give in to majority faith practices that would weaken or remove minority rights. Think here of the American thorough south before Martin Luther King, Jr. Or South Africa and Apartheid, which was justified on religious grounds.

8. Different faiths live close to each other, but their teaching and practices are seen to be incompatible. Think here of Northern Ireland, or Israel and Palestine, or Bosnia.

9. A religious group sees its teaching as universal and is consequently intolerant of other perspectives, either in or outside its tradition. Although less so today, this was the history of the Catholic Church for a very long time.

10. A faith’s influence is restricted to the spiritual vicinity only. Its teachings are considered irrelevant to politics. consequently, a different value system applies that can go to war if necessary without the interference of the faith group. Think of the established church in Germany, which largely ignored the treatment of the Jews in history or by the Nazis at the time of the Second World War, or people of faith who go to Church on Sundays, mosque on Fridays, or the synagogue on Fridays, and then do in any case they like for the other six days of the week because their faith is compartmentalized.

Whenever we can clarify one or more of these links to religion and violence, history tells us that we are on the wrong track. The separation of church and state in America arose to address these problems. Whenever this separation is firmly in place, both religions and the state thrive. When the line gets clouded, violence becomes more likely.

In a famous Armistice Day sermon, Harry Emerson Fosdick, knowing these links to war and religions, said: “I renounce war for its consequences, for the lies it lives on and propagates, for the undying hatred it arouses, for the dictatorships it puts in place of democracy, for the starvation that stalks after it. I renounce war, and never again, directly or indirectly, will I sanction or sustain another.”

The problem for me in a statement like this is what to do when we are attacked by another nation state? Do we sit by and let it happen? St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and modern proponents of the just war theory teach that ajust war is waged in self-defense, or in defense of another.

In 1993, the U.S. Catholic Conference said: “Force may be used only to correct a grave, public evil, i.e., aggression or enormous violation of the basic human rights of whole populations.”


Right intention: Correcting a suffered wrong is considered a right intention, while material gain or maintaining economies is not.

Probability of success: Arms may not be used in a futile cause or in a case where disproportionate measures are required to unprotected to success.

Last resort: Force may be used only after all peaceful and viable alternatives have been seriously tried and depleted or are clearly not functional.

I am very glad that the Catholic Bishops and others have worked on the ethics of war. Imagine America at war without any ethics at all. You might want to argue that our ethics do not need overhaul. But the different to no ethics would be to ignore just war principles, and that would be horrific.

The current argue about drone use is an example. Is it proportionate? Is it used in self defense? Does it avoid, wherever possible, civilian deaths? For today’s wars often kill more civilians than soldiers, which offends just war theory.

In the midst of all of these questions stands one man in particular who is regarded highly by all religious traditions. A prophet to Islam, a rabbi in Judaism who, although rejected for Messiahship, stands as a great ethical teacher; someone who New Age thinking greatly respects; someone who the Buddha would rejoice with in their shared ethics; someone whose teachings have been incorporated into Hinduism: Jesus of Nazareth took a different course than all the major religions, including the one that developed from his own teachings. In doing so, he has influenced them all.

He said, “Happy are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God. You have learned how it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say this to you: Offer the wicked man no resistance. You have heard in the past; ‘You must love your friends but hate your enemies.’ But I say this to you: Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you… for your Father in heaven causes the sun to rise on bad men in addition as good men, and his rain to fall on the honest and dishonest alike. If you only save your greetings for your friends, are you doing anything exceptional? Never repay evil for evil. Do all you can to live at peace with everyone: If your enemy is hungry, satisfy him; if he is thirsty, let him drink… Resist evil, and conquer it with good.”

Now this teaching, considering that it came out of the context of the Middle East, is extraordinary indeed! It cannot be used to justify war, but it does call to peace whoever will hear it. The peace conceived is personal first, and then can be extrapolated into larger spheres. So does it work on the streets in Oakland? Do guns work on the streets in Oakland?

Interestingly, nonviolence does work. It worked in South Africa. It worked in India with Gandhi, who read from Jesus’ playbook. It worked in America with Martin Luther King, Jr. It is the gold standard nevertheless today about how to treat other human beings non violently. It has not been tried in the Middle East.

But does it work in our personal lives, or is it too hard?

Making peace with any enemy is hard work, and sometimes it is simply not possible. But I find that trying to make peace with an enemy is far more enlightened than preserving or escalating conflict, because, if we succeed in making an enemy into our friend, we create holy ground.

Reaching for the enemy has to be done one person at a time, until a tipping point is reached.

In Bogotá in 2001 on Independence Day, The Mennonites, who have particularly embraced the teaching of Jesus on nonviolence, were gathered on a street corner because they had been denied presence near the Congressional Building for their peace protest. They watched the dignitaries excursion by in their limos. SUVs stuffed with soldiers drove by. The protestors sang and held periods of silence as tanks began to arrive.

Their message went on: “Peace comes by peacemaking, not war making.”

The soldiers grew more restive. More tanks arrived.

A gentle pastor began to pray, and more riot police walked up to him to create a blockade between him and the crowd who had gathered. He called for justice where injustice reigns, freedom for the oppressed, attention to life over lust for money and strength. He prayed for the return of the land to peasants, safety for Colombia’s poor who suffered so much, and wisdom for legislators who had not done justice, loved mercy or walked humbly. He asked the legislators to follow the historical Jesus’ teaching on reconciliation, nonviolence and love. He then started to close in prayer as however another tank lumbered up.

His wife had all this time been eying one particular policeman whose eyes indicated another reality. Disobeying all the rules of nonviolence she walked up to him, looked him in the eyes, and put her hand gently on his arm. And he whispered, “May God bless you!”

But you say to me, what can Ido to bring about peace?

Bob Filner, a Jew, had been taught by his parents that racism is the number one evil in the world. He was taught that it was his task to combat racism wherever he found it. As a teenager he was drawn to Martin Luther King, Jr., his speeches and writing.

Bob was doing his final exams on Mother’s Day in 1961, and on that day a Greyhound bus had been run off the road and set on fire in Anniston, Alabama, with its Freedom Rider passengers being almost beaten to death. Bob decided that he could make a difference if he, too, became a Freedom Rider. So he finished his exams and then closest went to Nashville for several days of training in nonviolence.

Then with four others he got on a Greyhound and headed south. Authorities wouldn’t let the bus stop in Alabama, so on they went to Mississippi. In Jackson they were greeted by a jeering crowd of hundreds. The four of them got off the bus to desegregate the Greyhound Bus Lobby, the coffee shop and the restrooms. The police descended and charged them with “inciting a riot” and took them off to the Jackson Jail. They were sentenced to six months and, because all the cells were complete, they were sent to occupy death row cells in the Mississippi State Penitentiary.

Most of them served two months before being released on allurement. Many were beaten and placed under psychological torture.

But they survived with dignity, and their lives were changed forever.

In 1961 hundreds of Freedom Riders were incarcerated. Their actions stirred the conscience of America, and the whole century-old legal structure of segregation came tumbling down. Bob had changed history. One person acting on his conscience is a very powerful force.

The officers who arrested him would have never done so if they had known that he was a Congressman or the Mayor of San Diego. You say, “But in 1961 he was not a Congressman or the Mayor of San Diego.” And that is right. But that is who he truly was just a few years later, so the seeds were all there in 1961 when he was a teenager. The police had no idea who they were holding…

None of us knows what we can do or what we may be called upon to do. But know this: If you want to act on the basis of your personal conscience on any matter to make the world a more peaceful place, you become a force that changes history.

That is what The United Religions Initiative and the Cooperation course of action of The Interfaith Experience are about-one person at a time; for we teach and form unconditional love and building bridges between faiths.

We know that this is likely to be hard, that the road frequently calls us uphill. But also know that history is always on the side of those whose conscience strives to free humanity from its bondage to fear and oppression…

As Abraham Lincoln once said, “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of fondness… With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan-to do all which may unprotected to and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” (Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865.)

So be it!

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