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How Shall We Live Together (9)

In 1979, the year I graduated from high school, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and Jimmy Carter, our president at the time, responded by requiring men of a certain age to register with Selective Service in the event the United States reinstituted the draft. I had been hanging out with the Quakers for a few years by then, so considered myself a Quaker, and knew that Quakers were opposed to war and the preparation for it. I asked my friends if they were going to register with Selective Service and they said they were going to. “If you don’t,” they told me, “you’ll go to jail.”

I hated the thought of going to jail, suspecting my friends lacked the gumption to break me out, but also hated the thought of killing someone. While pacifism seemed wildly naïve and optimistic to me, I was beginning to suspect that if we humans didn’t learn to resolve our differences peaceably we were sunk. Still, I didn’t want to go to jail. So I went to the Danville post office and registered, but across the face of the registration card I wrote, in big letters, “I am a Quaker and refuse to participate in war.”

There were two men working the post office window that day, both of whom, I would later learn, were veterans of World War II. One of them, Don Keller, had returned from the war, married a Quaker, and had become one himself. The other man was most assuredly not a Quaker and told me I had to fill out a new form, that it was against the law to deface the form, so ordered me to fill it out again and do it right this time, by golly, unless I wanted to go to jail. (It now occurs to me that I spent much of my youth being threatened with jail.)  I was standing at the post office, agonizing about what to do, when Don Keller said, “Do what you must.”  I told the other man that I wasn’t changing the form, and then left, expecting to find the sheriff on my doorstep when I arrived home. He wasn’t, but I knew it was just a matter of time before they pitched me in the hoosegow, so I moved to Plainfield the next day and didn’t leave a forwarding address.

But I’ll never forget that feeling of being torn, and how much those two men represented my internal struggle—part of me wanting to fight for a nation I loved, another part of me unable to bear the thought of killing someone else forced to fight for a country he loved. I suppose my final choice was a compromise. I let the government know I had turned 18 and was eligible for a draft, should it come to that, but that if the United States was depending upon me for victory on the battlefield, it had better look elsewhere.

I suspect that tension is where most of us live. Only the most depraved among us would welcome the opportunity to kill others. Most of us could happily spend our lives at peace with our fellow humans, and we expect our leaders, our nation, to govern so wisely that we would never be at war.

We’ve been thinking about the qualities of healthy nations, about how we should live together. We’ve said in healthy nations, those who can help those can’t, while holding accountable those who won’t. Healthy nations give careful thought to their alliances, commitments, and promises, and once made, honor them. They give their word, then keep their word. Healthy nations are not defined by their borders, but by their character. Healthy nations devote their energy to uniting people around noble ideals. Healthy nations live fully in the present and prepare wisely for the future. And last week we said healthy nations make it possible for its citizens to pursue happiness, so they might have the best lives possible.

Today, I want to add another virtue to our list.  Healthy nations nurture peace. They elect leaders whose egos are not so fragile, whose character and morality are so absent, they pose a danger to global harmony, exploiting the might of a nation to undergird their frail self-esteem. But I am not an absolute pacifist. There are occasions when evil is so profound it must be challenged with appropriate force. I believe such moments are rare, and that the threat of evil has often been exaggerated by depraved leaders seeking political power and personal gain. But when genuine evil is challenged, we must never lose sight of the other’s value to God. We must resist always the temptation of indiscriminate and disproportionate violence, knowing the objects of our violence were themselves caught up in cultures and structures of evil they had no hand in creating.

Their wish, like ours, was to live peaceably with their loved ones, watching their children and grandchildren grow up happy and free. They are just as much the victims of hatred as we are, and we must never forget that, seeking not only the best lives for ourselves, but the best lives for them.

Healthy nations realize that cultivating cultures of peace begins at home, so establish customs that honor the dignity of human life. When they imprison people, they do so with the hopes of restoring them to civil society, not punishing them without end. They encourage the nonviolent treatment of children. They reject altogether the persistent and tragic customs of corporal and capital punishment. Can you imagine anything more barbaric than beating a child with a piece of wood or strap of leather? Or binding a man to a chair and burning him to death with massive amounts of electricity? And just this week we have been reminded again of the violence done to girls and women and how casually, how nonchalantly, so many still dismiss that as the natural order of things, castigating the women who dare mention, after decades of anguish, the abuse they’ve suffered.

If we would be at peace with the world, we must first be at peace with one another.

In the fourth chapter of the book of James, the roots of violence are laid bare. “You want what you don’t have, so you scheme and kill to get it. You are jealous of what others have, but you can’t get it, so you fight and wage war to take it away from them.”

Violence invariably has its seeds in entitlement. I deserve this land. I deserve this wealth. I deserve this privilege. I deserve this honor. I deserve this power. Then, having convinced ourselves these advantages are our rightful due, we stop at nothing to get them and keep them.

Healthy nations nurture peace. They work to create a society where justice, equality, and dignity are not the entitlement of the privileged few, but the right of the common many, no matter their tribe or nation, thereby fulfilling the great command of Jesus, to love their neighbor as they love themselves.

When I was 18, filling out my selective service card and Don Keller said to me, Do what you must, perhaps he meant all of that. I’m not sure. I do know I have recalled that moment many times since and value its lesson more each passing year—that in healthy nations we do not do what we want, we do what we must, for in those moments of must are found justice, equality, dignity, and peace.