Category Archives: War and peace

Peace in Our Time

Sermon: Peace in Our Time

In last week’s sermon I gave you a heavy dose of the Bible, but this week is going to be completely different. If you’d like to follow along, you can find this sermon online: go to danielharper.org and click on “Sermons.”

Today is the fifteenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, the day when four jetliners were hijacked; two of those jetliners were then flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan, the third jetliner was crash-landed into the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and the fourth jetliner, after being retaken from the hijackers by passengers and crew, crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. In less than a month after those attacks, the United States and a coalition of other countries decided to invade Afghanistan, where the group coordinating the attacks was based. And the United States has been at war in Afghanistan ever since, so that most people under that age of 18 cannot remember a time when the United States was not at war.

You may remember, if you’re old enough, that in the months immediately following the terrorist attacks, it was not a good time to be an Arab. The popular perception of “Arab” was somewhat unclear, and we saw a number of assaults against persons who were perceived to look like Arabs. Which meant that in least a couple of cases, Sikhs who had roots in India were attacked because they wore turbans. I think we could safely say that these assaults were not entirely rational.

With all this in mind, here’s a question to consider: Is it possible to have peace in our time? Given that we’re still at war overseas, is it possible to have peace in our time? Given that we see plenty of irrational violence here at home, is it possible to have peace in our time? Or maybe we should really be asking: How is it possible to attain peace in our time?

To begin our consideration of these questions, I’d like to begin by telling you the story of Ox Mountain, traditionally attributed to the Chinese religious philosopher known in the West as Mencius. [1]

[The Wise Sage Mencius told this story:] Once upon a time, there was a mountain covered with beautiful trees; it was called Ox Mountain.

Now Ox Mountain stood on the borders of a large and prosperous nation. The people of this nation, needing wood to build houses, and wood for fires, went onto the mountain with axes and saws to cut wood. Before long, many trees were cut down, others were mangled, and the forest was no longer beautiful.

The tree roots and stumps remained vigorous, the rain and dew nourished the earth, and the trees and put forth new buds and shoots. But the people of that great nation let their cattle and goats graze on Ox Mountain, and soon all the green buds and shoots were gone.

So today the mountain is bare and stripped, and when people look at it, they can’t believe it was ever covered with a lush and beautiful forest.

[Having told this parable, the Wise Sage then asked:] Now, what is the true nature of Ox Mountain? Is it in its true nature to be covered with a lush and beautiful forest? Or is it in its true nature to be stripped bare of vegetation?

[The Wise Sage continued:] We might ask the same question of human beings. Think about your mind-heart, that metaphorical place where you both think and feel. Some would say that benevolence and righteousness make up the true nature of the mind-heart. But you can lose the “proper goodness” of your mind-heart in much the same way that Ox Mountain was stripped of trees by axes and saws. If the “proper goodness” is cut down, day after day after day, how can your mind-heart stay beautiful?

But an interesting thing sometimes happens with your mind-heart [the Wise Sage continued] “in the calm air of the morning, just between night and day.” In those quiet hours, no matter how badly your mind-heart has been cut down by axes and saws, you can still feel your proper desires and dislikes; you recover a faint feeling of what it is to be fully human. (This is like when the rain and dew fell on Ox Mountain, and the trees could recover a little bit.) Unfortunately, that feeling isn’t strong. You wake up, your kids are screaming, you get into a fight with your spouse, the boss yells at you at work, and before you know it you’ve lost the sense of being fully human.

Well [said the Wise Sage], this happens again and again, day after day. In your waking hours, things happen that hack away at the proper goodness of your mind-heart. You go to sleep, and some of that goodness comes back. But often it may be that not enough comes back to fully restore you. That happens to a great many people, and when it does, slowly you become like an irrational animal. And then when others see you, and see how you behave, they think that the your mind-heart never had any benevolence and righteousness. “But does this condition represent the feelings proper to humanity?” Of course not!

And so [concluded the Wise Sage], if your mind-heart receives its proper nourishment, then benevolence and righteousness will grow like a lush and beautiful forest. But if it loses its proper nourishment, then your mind-heart will be filled with decay. And the Wise Sage ended the story with a quotation from Confucius: “Hold it fast, and it remains with you. Let it go, and you lose it.”

So ends the parable of Ox Mountain.

According to tradition, Mencius, the Wise Sage of the story, lived during the Warring States era of Chinese history. This was an era of constant warfare. The parable of Ox Mountain is (in part) a cautionary tale for political leaders: the Wise Sage is telling political leaders that in order to rule with true humanity, they must cultivate their mind-heart; if they do not cultivate their mind-heart, then they will lose their benevolence and righteousness, and they will sink to the level of irrational animals.

I don’t know about you, but I see this happening in the current presidential election cycle. I am not impressed with the mind-heart of either of the major presidential candidates. I’ll pick on Donald Trump first: his pronouncement that he will vastly increase the United States military makes him sound pretty much like the ancient Chinese warlords of the Warring States era. It appears that his mind-heart is mostly bare of benevolence and righteousness, which means he acts like an irrational animal that must either fight or flee; and he categorically refuses to flee.

Nor do I find Hillary Clinton’s stance on the use of military power to be much better. On September 1, she gave a speech in which she said, in part, that “we cannot impose arbitrary [spending] limits on something as important as our military.” [2] Clinton’s statement may be more nuanced than Trump’s, but I do not get a sense of benevolence and righteousness from her words. She, too, is acting irrationally.

You may reply that this is not problem that lies within Clinton and Trump themselves. The two of them are only saying what voters want to hear: Trump needed to regain momentum in the polls so he played the military-might card; Clinton was speaking to the American Legion so she said she’d strengthen the military. If you say that, I agree with you, and that makes this an even more troubling prospect. Because this implies that a great many potential voters lack benevolence and righteousness. Or, as the Wise Sage put it, a great many voters are behaving like irrational animals. The mind-heart of the candidates matches the mind-heart of the majority of the electorate.

And I daresay most of us in this room have fallen prey, to a greater or lesser degree, to the same violent emotions. We too sometimes behave like irrational animals. If you have ever reviled either of the major presidential candidates, you have behaved in a manner lacking benevolence and righteousness. If you have ever read with pleasure one of those social media diatribes against either major presidential candidate, again you have behaved in a manner lacking in benevolence and righteousness. Let us not, therefore, be smug!

What would the Wise Sage tell us to do? The Wise Sage might quote “The Great Learning,” another ancient Chinese wisdom text, where it says: “From the [rulers] down to the mass of the people, all must consider the cultivation of the person the root of everything.” And why should we cultivate our persons, why should we cultivate the benevolence and righteousness of our mind-hearts? “It cannot be, when the root is neglected, that what should spring from it will be well ordered.” [3]

When the root is neglected, what springs from it will not be well ordered. The rough-and-tumble of day-to-day life hacks away like axes and saws at the beautiful forests of our mind-hearts. We need to cultivate the roots that are left behind so that benevolence and righteousness can grow once more within our mind-hearts. We do this by recalling ourselves to that which is best within us; we do this by striving always to become more fully human.

Which sounds very abstract and maybe even impossible, doesn’t it? I’m a pragmatic guy, I want to know the specifics of what I can do. Well, hundreds of years after Mencius and Confucius lived, their followers developed a spiritual practice called “quiet-sitting.” You sit in a chair with your back straight and your hands on your knees. As you sit there quietly, you examine your mind-heart. Now, there’s an ancient Chinese metaphor that equates the mind-heart with a lively monkey which likes to run around and never sits still. When you do quiet-sitting, though, your goal is to get the lively monkey of the mind-heart to sit quietly, so you can reflect on “ren” or humaneness. You reflect on how human you are.

This quiet-sitting technique may sound a lot like Buddhist meditation, but the followers of Mencius and Confucius believed it was quite different. The goal of quiet-sitting is not to achieve a kind “quasi-independent mental state” as the Buddhists do. The goal of quiet-sitting is to cultivate your mind-heart so that you better understand yourself, and the goal of better understanding yourself is to be able to act ethically. [4]

I see a parallel between quiet-sitting and what we do in Unitarian Universalist worship services. When you watch children learning how to behave in our worship services, you will see that the first skill they have to learn is how to sit quietly. Because sitting quietly requires stilling the mind-heart, the next thing children learn is how to still their mind. And then as you get older, once you have learned how to sit quietly, once you have learned how to still your mind-heart, you next learn how to reflect on yourself, and understand yourself.

When I was in my twenties, I was in sales, and I used to attend Unitarian Universalist worship services nearly every week. I felt as though it was a time when I was restored to my best self. Selling building materials for fifty-five or sixty hours a week would take its toll, then I’d go sit quietly in a Unitarian Universalist worship service — and my mind and heart would revive again. Interestingly, this didn’t have much to do with the sermons; it was more a function of sitting quietly and reflecting on what is most important in life.

Something happens when you spend an hour sitting quietly here. If you can sit quietly — which is not something that I can manage in every worship service — if you can sit quietly, this can help your mind and heart to revive, then you may find yourself feeling more fully human. You can recover from a week at work, or a week of unemployment, or a week of mourning the death of someone you love, or any week that leaves you feeling less than whole. You can leave behind your irrational animal self, leave behind your fight-or-flee instinct. You may then find that you have the energy to cook dinner for Hotel de Zink, the homeless shelter that houses guests here on our campus every September. You may find that you are motivated to take part in the multifaith Peace Walk this afternoon, joining Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and other faith communities in a public demonstration that we can all get along. You may find yourself acting more humanely to family and friends and co-workers.

Now let’s circle back and consider the question of whether peace is possible in our time. In many ways, I am not at all hopeful that we can achieve peace. We have two major presidential candidates who are acting like what Mencius calls “irrational animals,” less-than-human beings that only know how to fight or flee. What makes it more worrisome is that these two presidential candidates are simply reflecting the mental state of the electorate.

From the presidential candidates down to the mass of the electorate, the root of the problem is the cultivation of our essential humanity. Cultivating our humanity takes effort — constant effort. There axes and saws everywhere, ready to hack away at our benevolence, our humaneness; ready to make us a little less human. And so again and again we must take the time to sit quietly and nourish our best selves.

If we can do this, our thoughts become sincere, and our hearts are restored. As our hearts are restored, we become more fully human. As we ourselves become more fully human, so too do our families become more human, more humane. When our families are well-regulated, we have time to reach out to others; and when we reach out to others, we will find that our leaders at the county and state level govern rightly. And when that happens, then we may have hope that the nation, and indeed the whole world, will be “made tranquil and happy.” [5]

This is how we may achieve peace in our time. Peace begins with the cultivation of our inner selves. From there, peace grows outwards, into our immediate families, out into wider communities. So you see, peace requires of us active participation “in a spiritual joint venture.” [6]

You may think that such a spiritual joint venture is going to take a long time. Even if everyone in this room manages to cultivate their own persons, thus stabilizing their families, it’s going to take a while for that influence to spread out into the wider world.

There is an old story about the king who wanted a line of majestic oak trees growing along the road leading to his castle. Upon hearing this, the gardener said, “But king, it will take a hundred years for the trees to grow big enough to be majestic!” To which the king replied, “Then perhaps you had better start planting them today.”

If we are going to have peace in our time — if we are going to replant Ox Mountain with a lush and beautiful forest — then we had better start planting today.

NOTES:

[1] I retold the story of Ox Mountain from James Legge’s English translation of Mencius (Mencius 6A.8). Here is Legge’s translation:

“Mencius said, ‘The trees of the Niu mountain were once beautiful. Being situated, however, in the borders of a large State, they were hewn down with axes and bills — and could they retain their beauty? Still through the activity of the vegetative life day and night, and the nourishing influence of the rain and dew, they were not without buds and sprouts springing forth, but then came the cattle and goats and browsed upon them. To these things is owing the bare and stripped appearance of the mountain, and when people now see it, they think it was never finely wooded. But is this the nature of the mountain? And so also of what properly belongs to man; shall it be said that the mind of any man was without benevolence and righteousness? The way in which a man loses his proper goodness of mind is like the way in which the trees are denuded by axes and bills. Hewn down day after day, can it — the mind — retain its beauty? But there is a development of its life day and night, and in the calm air of the morning, just between night and day, the mind feels in a degree those desires and aversions which are proper to humanity, but the feeling is not strong, and it is fettered and destroyed by what takes place during the day. This fettering taking place again and again, the restorative influence of the night is not sufficient to preserve the proper goodness of the mind; and when this proves insufficient for that purpose, the nature becomes not much different from that of the irrational animals, and when people now see it, they think that it never had those powers which I assert. But does this condition represent the feelings proper to humanity? Therefore, if it receive its proper nourishment, there is nothing which will not grow. If it lose its proper nourishment, there is nothing which will not decay away. Confucius said, “Hold it fast, and it remains with you. Let it go, and you lose it. Its outgoing and incoming cannot be defined as to time or place.” It is the mind of which this is said!'”

Not everyone likes Legge’s translation, e.g., some have translated the key word “mind” as “mind-heart” — and later in the sermon, I’ll use “mind-heart.” So for those who do speak Chinese, here is the parable in the original:

孟子曰:「牛山之木嘗美矣,以其郊於大國也,斧斤伐之,可以為美乎?是其日夜之所息,雨露之所潤,非無萌櫱之生焉,牛羊又從而牧之,是以若彼濯濯也。人見 其濯濯也,以為未嘗有材焉,此豈山之性也哉?雖存乎人者,豈無仁義之心哉?其所以放其良心者,亦猶斧斤之於木也,旦旦而伐之,可以為美乎?其日夜之所息, 平旦之氣,其好惡與人相近也者幾希,則其旦晝之所為,有梏亡之矣。梏之反覆,則其夜氣不足以存;夜氣不足以存,則其違禽獸不遠矣。人見其禽獸也,而以為未 嘗有才焉者,是豈人之情也哉?故苟得其養,無物不長;苟失其養,無物不消。孔子曰:『操則存,舍則亡;出入無時,莫知其鄉。』惟心之謂與?」

[2] The text of this speech to the American Legion was reported by the Time Magazine Web site, http://time.com/4474619/read-hillary-clinton-american-legion-speech/

[3] The quotation from The Great Learning is from the translation by James Legge; where Legge has “the Son of Heaven,” i.e., the king, I substituted “the rulers.” Here is the full quotation in English and Chinese:

“From the [rulers] down to the mass of the people, all must consider the cultivation of the person the root of everything besides.

“It cannot be, when the root is neglected, that what should spring from it will be well ordered. It never has been the case that what was of great importance has been slightly cared for, and, at the same time, that what was of slight importance has been greatly cared for.”

自天子以至於庶人、壹是皆以脩身爲本。
其本亂而末治者、否矣。其所厚者薄、而其所薄者厚、未之有也。此謂知本、此謂知之至也。

[4] The description of quiet-sitting is adapted from John H. and Evelyn Nagai Berthrong, “Confucianism: A Short Introduction” (Oxford: Oneworld, 2000), p. 34.

[5] This paragraph adapted from “The Great Learning,” trans. and notes by James Legge, in “Confucius: Confucian Analects, The Great learning, and the Doctrine of the Mean” (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1893; rpt. 1971), pp. 357-359. I am indebted to Legge’s interpretation of this passage in the note on par. 4, pp. 357-358.

[6] This phrase comes from Tu Wei-ming, “Beyond the Enlightenment Mentality,” in Mary Evelyn Tucker and john Berthrong, eds., “Confucianism and Ecology: The Interrelation of Heaven, Earth, and Humans” (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions, 1998), p. 4. In this passage, Tu is specifically addressing how the West might deal with ecological crisis, but the same principle applies to how we might achieve world peace.

Peace Experiments

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2012 Daniel Harper.

———

Ever since Easter in the Sunday school, we have been doing a program called “Peace Experiments.” The notion behind “Peace Experiments” is quite simple: Rather than tell each other about the horrors of war and violence, maybe we could make more progress towards establishing a peaceful world if we experimented with peace.

I can explain this better with a story that we heard during the Peace Experiments program. The story comes from 101 Zen Stories, a small book compiled by Nyogen Senzaki in 1919, and reprinted in 1957 in the book Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. (I hope those of you who are fluent in Japanese will forgive my poor pronunciation of Japanese names.) The story is called “The Gates of Paradise,” and the main character is a Zen master named Hakuin Ekaku, an influential teacher in the Rinzai tradition.

 

A soldier named Nobu-Shige came to Haku-In and asked, “Is there really a paradise and a hell?”

“Who are you?” inquired Haku-In.

“I am a Samurai,” the warrior replied.

“You, a soldier!” Haku-In replied. “What kind of ruler would have you as his guard? Your face looks like that of a beggar.”

Nobu-Shige became so angry that he began draw his sword when Haku-In continued, “So you have a sword! Your weapon is probably much too dull to cut off my head.”

As Nobu-Shige drew his sword Haku-In remarked, “Here open the gates of hell!”

At these words the Samurai perceiving the master’s discipline sheathed his sword and bowed.

“Here open the gates of paradise,” said Haku-In. (pp. 79-80.)

 

The story tells us about two different ways of being in the world. The first way of being in the world, which Hakuin calls “The Gates of Hell,” makes you feel angry, makes you want to do battle, makes you want to get your own way no matter what. That’s the way people feel when they go to war. That’s the way many Americans feel these days about politics. Sometimes, that’s the way people feel who are working for good causes and social justice, as when we say something like, “People who won’t install compact fluorescent lights are stupid!” or something like, “I just hate people who are racists!” Sometimes, that’s the way we feel about our own families, as when we say something like, “What’s the matter with you? Why can’t you pick up your clothes?” or something like “I hate you, mom!” (And by the way, adults say that to their moms, too!)

Hakuin calls this state of being “The Gates of Hell.” If you pass through those gates, your soul will be in torment: you will be angry, you will want others to do your bidding regardless of their humanity, you may want to hurt someone else. This is not a pleasant place to be.

And after fearless Hakuin shows “The Gates of Hell” to the samurai, he then shows what he calls “The Gates of Paradise.” If you pass through “The Gates of Paradise,” your soul will be at peace. And as the story shows us, if your soul is at peace, like the samurai you are not going to cut Hakuin’s head off with your sword — if your soul is at peace, you too will be at peace in all your dealings with others.

It is no accident that Hakuin called these two states of being “paradise” or “heaven,” and “hell.” There are some people who try to tell us that heaven and hell are where you go after you die, but that is not true. Heaven and hell happen while we are alive, right now, right here. When we, like the Samurai, are ready to draw our swords in anger, we are headed into hell. But when we, like the Samurai, find internal peace, then we are headed into paradise.

 

This is what we were trying to do with Peace Experiments: we offered activities to children and middle schoolers that we felt would open Hakuin’s “Gates of Paradise.” Those of us who were planning this program — Heather Chen, Carmela Abraham, Beth Nord, Edie Keating, and Shannon Casey — sat around and brainstormed a list of fun activities that we thought would help children experience peace. Here are some of the activities we chose:

We decided we would play non-competitive games. What could be more fun than playing games? And the best non-competitive games can transcend simple fun and take us into higher realms of deeper connection with other human beings. In his book The Ultimate Athlete, George Leonard describes the phenomenon like this: “Spirit in flesh, flesh in spirit. Abstractions in the muscles, visions in the bones…. The body opens us to wonders in this and other worlds. Its movements through space and time launch us on a timeless voyage to a place beyond place.” We can call this: “playing for peace.”

We decided to bake cookies with the kids. Part of the reason we wanted to bake cookies is because — they’re cookies! — you can’t go wrong with cookies. At a deeper level, the process of baking cookies brings your soul to Hakuin’s “Gates of Paradise”: it is difficult to be angry or hateful when you are baking cookies. And at a still deeper level, we know we cannot have a peaceful family if people are hungry; we cannot have a peaceful nation if people are hungry; we cannot have a peaceful world if people are hungry. Obviously, we can’t bake cookies for the whole world — the children distributed the cookies they made at social hour — nevertheless, the act of baking reminds us of the importance of alleviating hunger.

We decided we would sing peace songs, songs like “May I Be an Instrument of Peace,” “This Little Light of Mine,” and “Peace Like a River.” When you sing peace songs, at the most literal level, you’re singing about peace. Beyond the subject of the songs, singing also has physiological effects on your body: your blood gets more fully oxygenated and the vibrations in your body created when you sing seem to have beneficial effects; the end result is that you feel better, more at peace with the world. At the metaphorical level, singing is about creating harmony with other people; and being in harmony is one of our primary ways of understanding peace.

And we decided to make a quilt made up of peace symbols. Partly this would be a way to introduce everyone to a variety symbols for peace. But at a deeper level, quilting is a process in which the individual efforts — the making of the individual quilt squares — combine into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. And an amazing thing happened as the children worked on the quilt: some of them began to spontaneously work together on the same quilt square, and they found they had even more fun working together than working side by side.

 

By now, I suspect you will have noticed something. All these peace activities had a physical element to them. One of my grounding assumptions is that we are not going to learn how to be peaceful simply by talking in abstractions. This is not to say that we shouldn’t talk abstractly — I’m a preacher, I fully support the value of abstract talk. But think about the story of Hakuin and the samurai. When the samurai asked Hakuin whether there really is a paradise and a hell, Hakuin could have engaged the samurai in an abstract philosophical discussion, which may or may not have proved satisfying to the Samurai. Instead, Hakuin brilliantly demonstrated paradise and hell to the samurai, in a very physical manner, and through this embodied demonstration, the samurai comes to a clear understanding of heaven and hell.

I believe this is the best way to teach peace: not abstractly; but in the real, embodied world in which we live. One of the greatest teachers of peace was Jesus of Nazareth — I say this in spite of the fact that after his death, not all his followers were able to continue to teach peace. Jesus taught peace partly by talking, but more by doing: he walked through the countryside; he fed the hungry; he helped heal those who were ill; he assisted those who were poor. Confucius was another great teacher of peace, and he did this by visiting kings to help them understand how to make their kingdoms “tranquil and happy.” “From the Son of Heaven down to the mass of the people,” Confucius taught, “all must consider the cultivation of the person the root of everything….” [Great Learning, ch. 6]

Earlier, during the congregational prayer for peace, we heard a poem by Denise Levertov, which said in part: “Peace, like a poem, … can’t be imagined before it is made.” If we are going to teach peace, it is not enough to imagine it abstractly: we must experience peace physically, we must experiment with peace, we must make peace in our own selves so that there can be peace in the world. May we all find peace within, and spread peace through our lives.

Just Wars, Unjust Wars

This sermon was a revised version of a sermon first preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford from March 25, 2007. Because Dan was ill, Karen Andersen delivered this sermon. Sermon copyright (c) 2009 Daniel Harper.

Sermon

This morning, I had planned to preach a sermon titled “Emperor as God.” But a couple of things got in the way of that plan. First of all, my mother-in-law, Betty Steinfeld, whom I loved dearly, died a week ago today. Second of all, I somehow managed to a nasty gastro-intestinal virus early in the week. Between those two things, and some other things going on, I’m afraid I didn’t have the energy to write a whole new sermon — instead I rewrote a sermon from March 25, 2007. Indeed, I’m ill enough that I have asked our worship associate Karen Andersen to preach this sermon for me.

We Unitarian Universalists are both Christian and not-Christian; some people call us “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 is an utterly ridiculous statement. If anyone strikes us on the right cheek, there is no way that we are going to just stand there and offer our left cheek also; we would either call the cops, sue the jerk who hit us, call the domestic abuse hotline, or simply walk away. But to just stand there, waiting to be hit on the other cheek — we are not going to do that, it is asking to be hurt.

Or take a more extreme example. When the fanatics hijacked those jets and flew them into the World Trade Center towers, our natural impulse was to strike back, to invade Afghanistan. Of course we invaded Afghanistan. We sought justice. We sought justice for the hundreds of people who died in terror on those jetliners. We sought justice for the thousands who died in the twin towers: the people who burned to death, the people who jumped to their deaths rather than be burned. Of course we invaded Afghanistan to hunt down terrorists; we could not sit passively waiting for the terrorists to strike again.

The Christian tradition tells us that some wars can be just wars. Thomas of Aquinas, one of the greatest Christian thinkers, said, “In order for a war to be just, three things are necessary. First, the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged.” We fulfilled the first criterion, because our sovereign powers, the President and Congress, approved the invasion of Afghanistan. Thomas Aquinas continued, “Secondly, a just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault. Wherefore Augustine says: ‘A just war is wont to be described as one that avenges wrongs….’” Clearly, we had been wronged; clearly we fulfilled this second criterion as well. Thomas Aquinas says we must meet yet a third criterion for a just war: “Thirdly, it is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil. Hence Augustine says: ‘True religion looks upon as peaceful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good.’” And when we invaded Afghanistan, we assuredly felt that our object was to secure the peace, to punish evildoers, and to uplift the good.

And then we took another short step; on March 20, 2003, we invaded Iraq. That was but a short step further along the same path. Wasn’t it? Wasn’t the invasion of Iraq justifiable? Can the invasion of Iraq be justified religiously as a just war?

Most Christian religious leaders and thinkers did not believe that the invasion of Iraq was justifiable. A typical example: on March 9, 2003, former president Jimmy Carter, a Christian and a deep thinker in his own right, said:

“As a Christian and as a president who was severely provoked by international crises, I became thoroughly familiar with the principles of a just war, and it is clear that a substantially unilateral attack on Iraq does not meet these standards. This is an almost universal conviction of religious leaders, with the most notable exception of a few spokesmen of the Southern Baptist Convention who are greatly influenced by their commitment to Israel based on eschatological, or final days, theology.”

Jimmy Carter, who has studied Christian just war theory and who has updated that theory to account for the way the world works today, had an updated list of criteria for a just war. But he said that the 2003 invasion of Iraq failed all his criteria for what constitutes a just war. And he asserted that most Christian religious leaders and thinkers agreed with him.

Perhaps some of you believed then, and believe now, that the invasion of Iraq was justified. And I know that you can make sound arguments that invading Iraq was politically justifiable, that it was a pragmatic act. Many of our political leaders made exactly such arguments as Congress voted overwhelmingly to invade Iraq; and while some of those political leaders have since changed their minds, it does not seem to me that they changed their minds on the basis of religious conviction. Politically, the invasion of Iraq seems to have been justifiable.

I readily admit that I am not competent to argue whether the invasion of Iraq was politically justifiable. I am not a politician, and I know I am somewhat naive when it comes to politics. But to anyone within the Christian tradition — even to those of us who are post-Christians — the invasion of Iraq was not religiously justifiable. To Christians and to post-Christians, the invasion of Iraq must be considered immoral and wrong.

These are harsh words. To say that the invasion of Iraq was immoral and wrong, is to accuse our elected leaders of being immoral. And because we live in a democracy, this means that the entire electorate has allowed immorality to rule our foreign policy. We have allowed the United States to become an immoral nation. Even more harshly, those of us in this room who can legally vote, or who participate in the political process in any other way, have aided and abetted an immoral war.

These are harsh words, because if we acknowledge that we ourselves have aided and abetted an immoral war; we have aided and abetted immorality. This fact rose up into my consciousness as the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq approached — the fact that I myself was in some small sense participating in an immoral war.

So how can we make amends for this invasion of Iraq? Let me tell you how one man did so.

Two years ago, on Friday, March 16, 2007, there was a Christian Peace Witness for Iraq down in Washington, D.C. To mark the fourth anniversary of the immoral invasion of Iraq, scores of Christian religious leaders planned to commit civil disobedience in front of the White House. They planned to trespass on White House grounds and commit the radical act of praying for peace. Thousands of other Christians were going to light candles and surround the White House with light, surround the White House with prayers for peace.

I called up my friend Elizabeth — she’s a Quaker and a pacifist who lives in Washington — and asked here if she was going to participate in this Christian Peace Witness for Iraq. Yes, she said. I said the whole thing seems hopeless, and that praying for peace seemed hopelessly impractical. Well, said Elizabeth, we can’t do anything else, but at least we can pray. So I told Elizabeth that if she’d put me up for the night, I’d come down and pray for peace in front of the White House while other ministers and clergypeople got arrested for praying. Now I wasn’t going to commit civil disobedience, but I did want to be there as a witness.

And at about eleven o’clock, there I stood in front of the White House in the freezing cold, snow on the ground, along with two or three thousand other people. The organizers announced that the people who were going to commit civil disobedience should get ready. Beside me, one man said to another, “OK, Rev., guess this is it. You’ve got my cell phone number?” The other man, presumably a minister, was an older African American man whom I guessed to be about 70 — and I give that description of him so you realize that this wasn’t the stereotypical crowd of young white hippie peaceniks. The minister nodded and said, “Yes, I’ve got it, and I’ll call you when it’s time to bail me out.”

What a ridiculous thing for a seventy year old minister to do: to stand in front of the White House on a freezing cold night, and get arrested for praying for peace. I almost decided to join that 70-something minister right then and there. What a silly thing to do, to get arrested like that. It’s as silly as turning your left cheek should someone strike you on your right cheek. It’s standing there in silent witness to immorality and violence: not turning away, not striking back, not seeking legal redress, but standing there as if to say: “What you are doing is wrong, is immoral.” At that moment, I sure wished I was the one who was going to get arrested.

When we are told to turn the other cheek, it’s usually put in such a way that it means we are supposed to be meek and mild and to accept whatever crap is dished out to us. That’s not what it means to turn the other cheek. To turn the other cheek is to stand up in the face of immorality, to stand up against that which is wrong, to stand up in witness that there is a better way to live. Therefore, I do not recommend to you turn the other cheek. If you stand there in the face of immorality and violence, chances are that you’ll just get hit on the other cheek; or maybe you’ll get arrested for praying. Better to put up with immorality. Don’t turn the other cheek.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said: “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….” I have told you not to turn the other cheek. Maybe if we just ignore the war in Iraq, it will go away. Trust Barack Obama and the new batch of political leaders — they’ll get us out of Iraq, and you and I don’t have to do anything. Or maybe you agree with the political expediency of the war in Iraq, and you think we should continue to fight it with increased troop levels.

But I have to tell you, we cannot justify the war in Iraq on religious grounds. I have to tell you that we must somehow figure out how to let our lights shine: that is, we must somehow figure out how to proclaim the immorality of this war. Making such a proclamation will come at a price — like that man in Washington, D.C., we might wind up getting arrested; or look what happened to Jesus of Nazareth after he went to Jerusalem and began protesting the immoralities of his day. There will be a price, but we must somehow figure out how to ask forgiveness for our own complicity in the prosecution of this war; we must let the light of love shine in the darkness of violence. May our very being, the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts, become prayers for peace.