On Christmas Eve, 1979, when I was 18, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, causing then-President Carter, to reinstate Selective Service Registration for men between the ages of 18 and 26. I was a Quaker, opposed to war and the preparations for it, so sent a letter to the White House, telling President Carter he couldn’t count on my support. I know it came as quite a blow to him that I was unwilling to put my 118 pounds of grit and muscle on the line, though he hid his disappointment well. I never heard from him. There’s nothing more deflating than making a principled stand only to have it ignored.
Over the next several decades, I marched against the proliferation of nuclear weapons, wrote letters to the editor condemning war, and preached many a rousing sermon on the sins of war, mostly to people who were too old to go. My certainty about pacifism began to fade in 1992 when the former country of Yugoslavia splintered along ethnic lines and Serbian nationalists began slaughtering Bosnian Muslims. I sent another letter to the White House demanding President Clinton send our military to end what had become the biggest European genocide since World War II. I hoped he wasn’t sitting in the White House thinking to himself, “I wish that Gulley guy would make up his mind about war.”
Nevertheless, I felt guilty, so when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, hoping to redeem myself, I put a “War Is Not The Answer” bumper sticker on my car. Again, I wrote the White House demanding President Bush pull our troops from Iraq immediately. This time, the White House responded, thanking me for my support.
In this sermon series, we’ve been reflecting on things we’re supposed to believe, but maybe shouldn’t. Our first Sunday together, we looked at the phrase, “The Bible is the Word of God” and the challenges that presents. Then we thought about the second coming of Jesus and admitted our doubts. The following Sunday we moved away from theology and wondered if America was actually the greatest nation on Earth. And last week, we examined how not seeing skin color, something we thought was a virtue, might actually contribute to racism.
Today, I want us to think about whether or not war is the answer. As you likely deduced from my opening remarks, pacifism has been a philosophical struggle for me, having noticed it’s easier to be a pacifist when people aren’t trying to kill you, those you love, and those who are powerless. It was Robert Ingersoll who said, “We are under no obligation to stand still and allow ourselves to be murdered by one who honestly thinks that it is his duty to take our lives.”
I agree with Robert Ingersoll. If Quakers believe all lives are precious, that all persons have that of God within them, then that surely includes my life and the lives of those I most deeply love. To stand idly by while those lives are destroyed is to deny their value and importance. How can I affirm the worth of the aggressor, without also affirming the worth of the aggrieved? Just as Quakerism asks us to treasure the lives of those persons who would harm us, surely it also asks us to treasure the lives of those harmed. Therefore I can no longer say with full certainty that war is not the answer, since some persons, often persons with much power, are unresponsive to calls for justice. Some persons, having fallen under the sway of evil, care only for themselves and their power, and would cheerfully exterminate anyone beyond their circle, who would, in the words of Ingersoll, “honestly think it their duty to take our lives.”
I can no longer unequivocally declare that war is not the answer.
I can say that war should never be the first answer, nor perhaps even the second or third answer. But sometimes evil is so egregious, so pervasive, sometimes evil has so thoroughly corrupted a nation, that people of conscience have no alternative but to stand against it with all their might.
I can say with confidence that insofar as it depends upon me I will live in peace and labor for the conditions that foster peace. But since Quakerism is a quest for truth, then in the interests of truth I concede that as evil as war is, unchecked and unchallenged cruelty are a more insidious evil.
In the interests of peace, I will give every person every right I claim for myself. I will happily raise a hand to help any good and noble endeavor, and will stand against injustice wherever and whenever I see it, believing the triumph of justice, not the absence of violence, is the only true peace.
Being a perfect pacifist in a morally imperfect world is profoundly difficult. I wish that were not so. I long for the day when humanity has matured beyond boundaries, borders and biases. I long for the day when leaders care more for people and less for privilege, for the day God rules in every heart, when the tears in our eyes are wiped away, when death is no more, when grieving and crying and pain are gone, when the fountain of justice flows generously and free.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the world were as benevolent as we thought it to be in our most innocent moments? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if nations were as pure as their noblest aspirations? Until that day, we live midway between idealism and realism, between the Jesus who said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” and the Jesus who said, “He who is without a sword, should sell his cloak and buy one.” Consequently, let us always be as good as we can be, as honest as we can be, as hope-filled as we can be, but also as clear-eyed as we can be. Keeping our hearts in the heavens, but our feet on the ground.