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.


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.