All Kinds of Patriots

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2005 Daniel Harper.


The reading, a poem about the horrors of war, is not included here due to copyright restrictions.

SERMON — “All Kinds of Patriots”

Today is the Sunday closest to November 11, Veteran’s Day, the holiday when we honor all those men and women who served in the armed forces of this country; November 11 is also Armistice Day, the day when we commemorate the signing of the 1918 armistice which put an end to “the war to end all wars.” But war is one of those topics we Unitarian Universalists struggle with. Some of us oppose all war; others of us believe war is sometimes necessary. So on this weekend when we honor veterans and commemorate the end to World War I, let’s explore what, if anything, we hold in common about war and warfare. Not that we’ll come up with a final answer this morning, but it’s the beginning of a conversation, the beginning of an exploration.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are firmly within the tradition of Western religion, and while individually we may find inspiration in other, non-Western, religious traditions, we are nonetheless each embedded in a society with deep roots in the Jewish and Christian religions. Thus it is that when a man like Martin Luther King asked us to consider who was our neighbor, we know he meant to refer to the teachings of Jesus, who is reported to have said, treat your neighbor as you yourself would like to be treated. Thus it is that we are all familiar with the teachings of the book of Exodus, which tells the story of how Moses led his people out of slavery and into the freedom of the desert; and the story tells how in the desert God appears to Moses and gives Moses a series of moral precepts, or commandments, including the commandment, “You shall not murder” [NRSV]; or, as this commandment is more familiarly (though perhaps less accurately) translated, “Thou shalt not kill.” [KJV] Therefore, as people of the Western religious tradition, we have gut-level knowledge of these two ethical teachings: treat your neighbor as you would like to be treated, and thou shall not kill.

Thomas Aquinas, who lived in the High Middle Ages and who was one of the greatest philosophers of the Western tradition, realized that these two moral precepts seemed to indicate that all war must be immoral. But in his book the Summa Theologica, he argued that in fact some wars can be considered just wars. And Thomas Aquinas offers three criteria to help us judge whether a given war is actually a just war or not. Let’s look at those three classic criteria for determining if a war is just.

For one of his three criteria, Thomas Aquinas writes that a just war must have a just cause:

“…[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, when a nation or state has to be punished, for refusing to make amends for the wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly.’ ”

In the ongoing discussion about the Iraq war, we have been hearing both pro-war and anti-war people repeatedly referring to this criterion. But this is a criterion we religious liberals are wary of using. As Universalists we are certain that love that will transform the world, not violence or vengeance. Therefore, while we might be able to condone warfare as a short-term necessity, it seems difficult for us to justify it in terms of vengeance or punishment.

Another criterion for just war, according to Thomas Aquinas, goes like this:

“…[I]t is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil…. For it may happen that the war is declared by the legitimate authority, and for a just cause, and yet be rendered unlawful through a wicked intention. Hence Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii, 74): ‘The passion for inflicting harm, the cruel thirst for vengeance, an unpacific and relentless spirit, the fever of revolt, the lust of power, and such like things, all these are rightly condemned in war.’ ”

Again, this criterion for war remains current, and we’ve heard supporters and opponents of the Iraq war using it. We religious liberals like to use this criterion. With our strong emphasis on the dictates of conscience, we spend a lot of time thinking about intentions, and we well know that the best actions can be sullied by wicked intentions. But we are most likely to use this criterion at a personal level, for those who serve or have served in the armed forces: if your overall intention is honorable and good, by the dictates of your conscience, then your own military service is justified and justifiable. But while necessary on a personal level, this criterion does not seem to us to be a sufficient reason for going to war.

Which brings us to Thomas Aquinas’s third criterion for a just war, which requires:

“…the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged. For it is not the business of a private individual to declare war, because he can seek for redress of his rights from the tribunal of his superior…. And as the care of the common weal is committed to those who are in authority, it is their business to watch over the common weal of the city, kingdom or province subject to them. And just as it is lawful for them to have recourse to the sword in defending that common weal against internal disturbances, when they punish evil-doers… so too, it is their business to have recourse to the sword of war in defending the common weal against external enemies….”

As religious liberals, this particular criterion for just war is most problematic for us. Thomas Aquinas assumes here that society is based upon a hierarchy and authority that begins with God, who is the ruler of us all. From God, power flows down to ecclesiastical and governmental authorities, who rule masses of people, and finally trickles down to individuals. We religious liberals have a different vision of society that begins with the connections that bind us each to each; these connections lead us to develop covenants, explicit statements of how we are bound together, and the promises we make to each other; and ends with the possibility that any or all of us can have direct experience of the transcending mystery of the universe, from which experience we might be able to draw new moral and ethical insights to share with all those to whom we are connected, and with whom we are bound together by covenant. Therefore, we find that we religious liberals cannot really use this criterion to determine whether a war is just.

Indeed, we are not entirely comfortable with any of these three classic criteria for what constitutes a just war. As Unitarian Universalists, we have two ultimate authorities: first, our individual consciences; second, the communities to which we are bound by covenant. So our determination of a just war is made not because someone in authority over us says that a given war is just, nor because we wish to punish someone else; and while we require good intentions, good intentions alone are not enough of a reason to go to war. Rather, we look to our individual consciences, and to our abiding understanding of the transforming power of love.

Because we recognize the authority of individual conscience, we are going to find Unitarian Universalists with a wide range of understandings about what constitutes a just war. Among our ranks, we have many veterans who have served in the armed forces and who are proud of what they have accomplished through their service. We also have conscientious objectors who have refused to serve in the military on moral and religious grounds, and who are proud of their adherence to principle. I have talked with both veterans and conscientious objectors who say that their Unitarian Universalist faith gave them strength as they lived out their very different choices.

Therefore, as a religious lbieral I don’t think it’s possible to describe a war as just, any more than I can describe a war as purple, or fuzzy. If I describe a war as just, what do I say to the conscientious objector who feels all wars are unjust? If I describe a war as unjust, what do I say to the veteran who served honorably in that war? As a religious liberal, I find that I am not inclined to make some straightforward, abstract judgment about whether a given war is just or unjust. There is no easy determination; which is so often the case for us religious liberals — there’s no one easy answer.

Wars are big, messy. A soldier has a very different experience of war than does a child. As we heard in today’s reading, a child in Belfast in 1940 could be fascinated by the pieces of shrapnel she found; she must have had a very different experience from the pilot of the plane that dropped the bombs on Belfast. It’s impossible to reduce war’s bigness and messiness to the point where we can all them unequivocally just or unequivocally unjust. There are moral consequences of going to war; or of not going to war; and whatever action we take, we are bound to face up to those moral consequences. Any action we take is going to have good consequences and bad consequences. We make the best choices we can, but we can never make perfect choices, and so we often have to deal with the unintended consequences of our choices; and we have to deal with the consequences of the choices made by people we are in relationship to.

Nor can we pass off blame for unintended consequences onto someone else, but because of our understanding of relationships and of covenant we should not do that. I have opposed the war in Iraq from the very beginning, and it would be easy for me to say that, because of my opposition, I am not responsible for what happened in Abu Ghraib prison; but I have to accept responsibility for what happened there, because of my deep connections to this country. It’s easier to say, “Don’t blame me, I voted for John Kerry,” or to say, “People who oppose the war are destroying this country.” It’s easier to point your finger at someone else and say, “I didn’t do it — it’s them.” But if we’re going to get serious about the transforming power of love, we cannot divide the world up into “us” and “them.”

In our Western religious tradition, Jesus of Nazareth remains one of our most influential teachers and prophets. Jesus offered some cogent advice for healing human relationships. He said, treat your neighbor as you yourself would like to be treated. Herein lies the true core of our Western tradition. Treat your neighbor as yourself; and remember that every other person is, in some sense, your neighbor. When war happens, it gets in the way of us treating others as neighbors; and therefore we do all we can to bring war to a close and to achieve a just and lasting peace.

In the love for all human beings, therein lies healing for us all. In that direction lies the path to a just and lasting peace. We come to this place of sanctuary each week in order draw strength in these troubled times. May we use our strength to go out and heal the world, one human relationship at a time.