A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on August 25, 2013 (Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time)
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. – Matthew 5:1-12
In May, Lyonsville Church celebrated its 170th anniversary. I have been using that occasion as an opportunity to look back at some of the important events in the history of our church, and to reflect on how God was – and is – at work among us.
Today is the last in this summer series, and I decided to talk about something that happened not in the early years of the church, but much more recently – recently enough that some of you will remember. Like other churches and non-profit organizations, we have a Constitution and By-laws that is supposed to guide how we operate and make decisions. A copy is available to anyone who would like one, although I must admit they don’t make the most exciting reading. Our Constitution and By-laws state the name and purpose of our church, defines who is a member of the church, specifies the meetings we have, the officers and their duties, and so on.
I’m sure there are many parts of our Constitution that most church members don’t know much about, but one that interested me is that we have a “Peace Statement.” It was approved and incorporated into our Constitution and By-laws in the 1980s, during the time when Rev. Tom Neilsen was Pastor of the church. I read some of the reports and meeting minutes from that time. Rev. Neilsen said that people had been asking about what the church believed about our nation’s involvement in wars, and the threat of nuclear war during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. He worked with the Deacons and others in the church at the time to draft this Peace Statement. Although it was approved, there were many in the church who didn’t agree with it. I will read the statement:
When Jesus looked over Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, He wept. “Would that even today you knew the things that made for peace.” The vision of peace is rooted firmly in scripture: swords into plowshares, lions and lambs dwelling together. Peace or “Shalom” in Hebrew is a concept implying right relations; a vision of people dwelling with each other and with God in harmony.
The following peace statement is rooted solely in a theological understanding of our world and ourselves and is not to be confused with any present political or societal viewpoint. Peace is not a state where everyone agrees, but rather a process of solving conflict non-violently and allowing different viewpoints to enrich each other. People must know that they can have different opinions about how to achieve peace within the community of faith.
As disciples of Jesus the Christ centered in God’s love and reconciling power, we dedicate ourselves to the re-creation of peace in our age and for all generations to come. Witnessing to this peace, we commit ourselves to the following:
– the establishment of peaceful resolution of conflicts among human beings and the building of forums through which grievances may be peacefully and justly resolved.
– the transformation of the weapons of war and destruction into resources for the advancement of the human civilization, and for the redirection of human energy and potential from that of war to the betterment of the global community.
– the strength to resist the use of violence to settle conflicts, protect national pride, and assert political ideologies, and the courage to pursue peace as the primary objective in a world torn by strife.
– the re-establishment of the Church as the vehicle through which peace is proclaimed and exemplified and by which persons are made into disciples of the Prince of Peace.
O Divine Creator, in whom all things are made new, enable our peacemaking to have value through our reconciliation with your Holy Spirit. Help us to universally share your love with a world desperately in the need of wholeness, and may we find joy and hope in our discipleship to the Prince of Peace, the crucified and risen Lord; in whose name we pray, Amen.
(End of peace statement)
I don’t think we’ve done much with that statement since it was adopted – not many folks have even talked about it in the time that I’ve been here. How many of you were even aware we had a Peace Statement?
But that statement is right about many things. The Christian Church began as a non-violent movement. During the first two or three centuries of the church, very few Christians served in the Roman Army. They were conscientious objectors, believing that Jesus’ teachings to “love your enemies” and to be peacemakers meant that they could not serve in the military and could not fight in war.
But when Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, all of a sudden just about everyone was a Christian, including political and military leaders, and they believed it was necessary for the empire to be able to raise an army and fight wars. About that time, Augustine of Hippo, the great bishop from North Africa and one of the most influential theologians in Christian history, declared that Christian could be soldiers. He believed that God had given “the sword” (the authority to use deadly force) to governments to maintain order. He also believed that if innocent people were in danger, and there was a good chance going to war would save them, it would be immoral not to protect them.
In the centuries since then, Christians wondered whether they could fight in any war, or whether there might be “unjust” wars that no nation had a right to fight. In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas, another of the greatest minds to influence the teachings of the church, developed what is often called “just war theory.” It is still used today in pretty much the same form that he developed.
Aquinas believed a “just war” would meet several criteria (all of them):
1. Legitimate authority (the war was declared by a recognized political authority)
According to our United States Constitution, congress has the power to declare war. But the last time war was officially declared by congress was during World War II (1941-42). Since then, congress has a approved and funded military actions, but has never officially declared war. One of the problems with war in the 21st century is that it often does not involve legitimate political authorities (nations), but instead sometimes involves loosely defined organizations with no recognized leader (like the Taliban or Al-Qaeda). And our nation has not been in an “official” war since the 1940s!
2. Right intention (for the sake of restoring peace, and for the same reasons the war was started)
The war with Iraq (2003-2012) was started for the purpose of finding and destroying weapons of mass destruction, but it ended up being fought to catch terrorists and to set up a democratic government in Iraq.
3. Just cause
The reason for fighting the war must be for a good and just purpose (self-defense, or to save people from harm), and not just for enrichment or revenge or even “in the nation’s interest.”
4. Last resort
All diplomatic efforts must be exhausted before going to war.
5. Reasonable chance of success
This is another area where war in the 21st century is very different. Many wars cannot be won by getting an army to surrender or by killing or capturing a powerful leader. And a war that seeks to completely destroy the enemy (terrorists, or “evil persons”) is impossible to win.
The war must be conducted in a way that, as much as possible, involves only combatants, and does not cause harm to innocent persons who are not involved. One of the most important developments in modern warfare is the use of drones – remotely controlled aircraft that can find targets and launch weapons with no danger to the operator. It sounds like a great idea, but I recently read an article that is concerned that drones may increase the risk to non-combatants.
Conducting the war must not use more violence than is absolutely necessary to accomplish the objectives.
Sadly, there are some wars that have been fought over the course of history that have probably been necessary. I know of few people who would argue that the United States should not have gotten involved in World War II. We were attacked by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, and the war in Europe revealed atrocities committed by the Nazis. But war has changed in many ways since then. Wars in the 21st century are often carried out by organizations with no recognized legitimate leader. They sometimes make it difficult to distinguish combatants from non-combatants. It is more difficult to define “victory.” As a result, some believe that 13th century “just war” theory no longer makes much sense in the 21st century.
But there are others who argue that just war theory is just as valid as ever – even for non-Christians. Without careful thinking about whether we should get involved in armed conflict, it is possible to make a bad situation even worse. As just one tragic example, the conflict in Syria between the regime of President Assad and various rebel groups has led to thousand of casualties, and there are voices in this country calling for the United States to get involved to get Assad out of power – especially now that recent news reports suggest that the Syrian government may have used chemical weapons against its own citizens. But the Obama administration has been trying to exhaust diplomatic efforts first, and there is some question whether there is a reasonable chance of success; it may be possible to remove President Assad from office, but what then? Who will take charge and govern the country, or would it be another country like Egypt where no one is able to rule effectively? Sometimes the cost of getting involved is higher than not.
And I don’t think we have ever truly comprehended the cost of war. We can count the number of dead and wounded. We can keep track of the massive amount of money it takes to equip and train a military force, and keep them supplied in times of combat. But I think we are only beginning to understand the long-term costs to the mental health of soldiers, and the toll on civilians caught up in war – particularly children. Maybe someday war will become obsolete.
We are the people who can pioneer a new way. The prophet Isaiah dreamed of a day when all nations would come to the place where God dwells in order to learn a new way to live and to resolve differences. Jesus taught us how to help make that so – to love God above all else (including nation, political party, race, money, land, etc.), and to love our neighbors as ourselves. And to love even our enemies. Let me be clear that love doesn’t mean letting someone hurt you or do whatever they want. But love means recognizing that even those who threaten us are people like us, and trying to understand them.
Our peace statement calls us, as disciples of Jesus, to commit to:
– peaceful resolution of conflicts
– transforming weapons of war into resources that better the global community
– resisting the use of violence to settle conflicts
If there is to be hope for our world, the Church should be one of the vehicles through which peace is proclaimed and exemplified.
The complexity of world-wide international politics and conflicts can make this all seem like a daunting task, if not a naïve pipe-dream. But I have always believed that Jesus was also right in saying that we begin by planting seeds. We cannot make peace with foreign terrorists if we don’t know how to make peace with our own families and church members. So, as disciples of Jesus Christ, let us work to resolve conflicts peacefully at home (I advise couples planning to marry that domestic violence is NEVER acceptable), and to practice prayer, and forgiveness, and an examination of our own selfish motivations.
And, when the leaders of our country talk about going to war, it is still a good practice to consider whether it is just and necessary, and to advise our elected leaders of our beliefs.
As the popular song says, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”
Let us pray: O Divine Creator, in whom all things are made new, enable our peacemaking to have value through our reconciliation with your Holy Spirit. Help us to universally share your love with a world desperately in the need of wholeness, and may we find joy and hope in our discipleship to the Prince of Peace, the crucified and risen Lord; in whose name we pray. Amen.
Robert J. von Trebra