Saturday, December 18, 2010

Peace Is Still Possible


So this week we get new national information about a changing of horses in midstream in regard to how Americans should consider the possibility of a nuclear attack on our nation by terrorists. Instead of putting all the pressure on those who are supposed to protect us and keep such horrors from happening to us IF THEY CAN, there’s now a fall back to a way of individual and familial preparedness. Instead of saying, “We will do everything in our power to prevent 9/11-type attacks on the US,” our defense and homeland security people are releasing statements more like this: “We’re not giving up our vigilance one iota, but we have to be honest and say that terrorists are both persistent and hate-filled toward the West for various reasons. There could be--there WILL BE--other attacks. We will be able to prevent most, but we will not be able to prevent all, terrorist attacks; therefore, it’s more honest to tell the American people to understand how to be prepared in the event such a horror befell us.”

The new plan hearkens back years ago to the building of bomb shelters and the purchase of water and food and toileting supplies so a family or a group of friends could survive for an extended period--until the nuclear fallout stopped raining down on our homes. There are also certain religious groups who cling to various conspiracy theories and who, today, have shelters and long-term food and other supplies.

I read about this change of philosophy, just now trickling down to commoners, in William J. Broad’s December 15 article in the online version of the New York Times. This was his opening paragraph:

Suppose the unthinkable happened, and terrorists struck New York or another big city with a nuclear bomb. What should people there do? The government has a surprising new message: Do not flee. Get inside any stable building and don’t come out till officials say it’s safe.

Broad explains that this “advice”--surprising or shocking to many of us--is based on some newish scientific and militaristic experimentation revealing that a nuclear attack is much more survivable for those who immediately shield themselves from the instantaneous radiation, highly lethal, that comes with the explosion itself. So the deal is to get into some stable building or shelter and stay put until officials get word to you that it’s safe to come out. Broad reports that if the best you can do is a car, go for it since that alone could reduce casualties from the lethal radiation by fifty percent, and if you have a basement you can get to, even better. Therefore, if the explosion doesn’t get you, chances of survival are much better than previously thought.

Talking about it is a political tightrope since if the President or a member of his cabinet begin discussing it, hawkish politicians are going to turn on them, and the rank and file Americans are simply going to be more frightened about the prospects than they already are. Even so, there’s a behind the scenes movement to educate emergency preparedness officials who will then have to find ways to pass along what they have learned to the pockets of people for whom they are responsible.

A gent by the name of W. Craig Fugate is administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and he told the reporter that we Americans simply have to get past the mental block that says the very idea of nuclear attack is so terrible to think about that we just can’t, or we won’t. Fugate says that’s a defeatist attitude that should be replaced by knowledge of how best to protect ourselves if some terrorists accomplish what many of them would love to have the opportunity to do.

Brian Martin is Professor of Social Sciences at the University of Wollongong in Australia. Going all the way back to 1982, he published a mind-bending article in the Bulletin of Peace Proposals titled “How the Peace Movement Should be Preparing for Nuclear War.” Isn’t a peace movement preparing for war oxymoronic? Well, you decide. This is what Martin had to say nearly 30 years ago:

Unless nuclear weapons are totally eliminated, it is a virtual certainty that nuclear war will occur eventually. The likelihood of war in any given year may be small, but the cumulative effect of small probabilities can approach certainty. The likelihood is definitely not zero. For example, it is known that US policy-makers have seriously considered using nuclear weapons unilaterally on a number of occasions....Second is the spread of the capability to make nuclear weapons to more and more countries, fostered by the expansion of the nuclear power industry. It seems likely that this nuclear proliferation will be aided at some stage by laser enrichment of uranium, a technique, which will dramatically reduce the obstacles to obtaining nuclear weapons. The question in such circumstances is not if nuclear war will occur, but when, what kind, and on what scale.

The risk of nuclear war could be removed if all nuclear weapons were eliminated--total nuclear disarmament. How could this happen? I have argued elsewhere that convincing decision-makers or mobilizing public opinion to influence decision-makers is insufficient, and that what is required is grassroots initiatives mobilizing large numbers of people in activities that challenge or transform warlinked institutions and that create new institutions.

The chance that the people struggling for fundamental institutional change will succeed worldwide in 20, 50 or 100 years is much less than certainty. Indeed, any realistic assessment of the strength of the present peace movement, in terms of its ability to fundamentally affect arms races and their institutional bases, would have to admit its extreme weakness. The peace movement seems highly unlikely to bring about nuclear disarmament within the next few years, and hence it should be prepared for the possibility of nuclear war. Whether a nuclear war is limited or global, available evidence suggests that a large fraction of the world's population may be unaffected physically. A long term strategy for peace must provide the basis for transforming the war system both before and after nuclear war or nuclear wars, and at the same time minimize the chance of nuclear war occurring in the first place.

So, if you want to be uplifted by a Sunday morning sermon, Silverside is definitely the place to come!

Where does this newish twist leave us? Sounds like a surrender to war or at least that a nuclear attack is an absolute given, an absolute fact, of human experience. No way to get rid of it; peace fails. All we can do is prepare for a nuclear incident, brace for it, accept it as a necessary aspect of human life and experience and give up the Pollyanna peacemaking.

Jump much further back than thirty years ago and to an entirely different set of cultures than we are dealing with today. Jesus of Nazareth, one of untold numbers of non-Romans, under the thumb of mighty Rome, had no bargaining chips whatsoever for use in peace negotiations if Rome would even have given him the time of day, which they would not have done. We have to say that Rome was much better than most superpowers who took over control of whole nations of people; once Rome was clearly in control, it wasn’t eager at all to reengage in battle with its conquests. As long as the subservient peoples did what Rome demanded there was peace. Peace would only be shattered if the non-Romans over whom they ruled tried to flex their own muscles in such a way as to give the impression that there might be some kind of an uprising against Rome; then the Roman troops would appear and overkill, if you will, such as when, sick and tired of various doomed-to-fail Jewish uprisings, Rome massacred much of the Jewish population in and around Jerusalem in the year 70. Then, to top things off, Rome destroyed the Jews’ most prized possession, the great Jerusalem Temple.

Forty-plus years before that happened, Jesus is still preaching and is on good enough terms with Rome. Instead of stoking the fires of hatred directed toward Rome, Jesus said sermonically, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.”


As far as I know, Jesus never encouraged violence of any kind--acts of war, even on a small scale, included. He was in a position to do so, but he consistently chose against it. The argument can certainly be made that he just had plenty of common sense and knew that any Jewish effort to fight Rome would result in the Jews getting squashed like flies. Rome was simply too large and too powerful and too highly armed for the Jews to have a chance at a win--though there were a few Jewish efforts across the years that made a dent but no more than a dent.

When Jesus contemplated how his ministry might evolve as he wrestled with that issue in the wilderness, temptation said to him, “You can be an exceptionally powerful man. The masses love someone who speaks well and someone who preaches nationalism. Add to that your ability to heal the sick; people see that as proof that you have the inside track with God. If you use your gifts for building up your power base, you will undoubtedly be more than successful, and if you take your leads from me instead of from God, you can end up ruling the world with more than enough troops to defeat Rome.”

Who could turn down a deal like that? Jesus could. He said to temptation, “The Lord, your God, shall you worship and God alone shall you serve.” Jesus’ ministry would not be a power trip; it would not be all about him at all. “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the children of God,” he would later preach. If that statement is true, and in Jesus’ mind, in Jesus’ reality, it certainly was true, then would it have to also be true that warmongers will not be called God’s children? Actually, no. The warmongers as well as the peacemakers are all children of God--though, obviously, the peacemakers have a greater understanding of God as Jesus himself understood God.

I have struggled with this two-sided coin--peace and war--all of my adult life, and I was raised in a context of nationalism as the true religion of the United States like most of the rest of you were. I came to the conclusion a couple of years ago, as most of you know, that God has nothing to do with war. God does not send one group to attack another group. God does not take one group’s side over the opposing group. War is strictly a human phenomenon, even though parts of Hebrew scripture, which Christians adopted as a part of their Bible, have God not only advocating war, but also getting involved in the fighting so that the side God is on is sure to kill the most people and thus win the war. I don’t think there’s anything in the teachings of Jesus that would lead us to think that he in any way thought of God as a warrior who ruled over humans who were supposed to fight God-directed wars.

So, Mr. First Isaiah was sort of tossing the present and the future back and forth in his consciousness, and he came up with something quite hopeful for his people when he said:

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Later, some Christians--never all Christians--thought this applied well to Jesus and described his personal attributes along with his mission as if he were, indeed, the messiah. Again, some Christians thought Jesus was the messiah; others didn’t. I don’t know of any point in Christian history when all Christian worldwide believed that Jesus was the messiah, the amazing individual, promised by the prophets, who would come into the world to fix all of Israel’s problems--not, incidentally, all the problems of the world.

The tricky thing is that in order for anyone to be the messiah and succeed at the mission the prophets envisioned for him, that person would had to have been militaristic, a great warrior. Jesus was certainly not that, and one of the problems with making Jesus the messiah is that “messiah” has to be redefined to fit, to suit, Jesus; so to name Jesus the messiah means that we have to say what the prophets anticipated in a messiah was, at least slightly, flawed--maybe, majorly flawed. Therefore, in order to make Jesus messiah, the prophets were in error, and a new definition of messiah had to be established that goes along with what Jesus was obviously about.

This beautiful passage from First Isaiah throws a few curve balls to those who want to make Jesus the subject of this prophecy. First, like all biblical prophecy, the temporal focus is not thousands of years into the future from when the prophets preached; they expected their prophecies to be fulfilled in the short term, generally within their own lifetimes.

Second, this excerpt from what we now call Isaiah chapter 9 reads, “For a child has been born for us; a son given to us. Authority rests on his shoulders.” Now, verb tenses can be tricky in translation, but on the surface, at least, this verse seems to say that the child about whom these majestic titles apply had already been born before Isaiah prophesied, and for some reason, by some standard, authority was already resting on this person’s shoulders. Again, on the surface at least, there is nothing futuristic about this part of what Isaiah prophesies.

What we have on our hands here is not a story about a baby, but poetry recited at the coronation of a king. The “son” given is the son of a nation, and as soon as the coronation begins authority already rests upon his shoulders. Before the crown is placed on his head, he is already responsible for the well-being of a nation. I can’t imagine.

I had one of my preaching classes listen to the sermon Dr. Sharon Watkins delivered to newly inaugurated President Barack Obama and a packed National Cathedral a couple of years ago. She is a gifted preacher, and she presently heads the Disciples of Christ denomination. Early in her sermon, she talked briefly about what our nation needs in a leader, and then she said, “Tag, Mr. President! You’re it!”

In any case, this king to whom Isaiah referred isn’t coming at some time in the future. This king was already there when Isaiah first uttered these words--possibly at the coronation itself. King Ahaz died during Isaiah’s ministry, and Ahaz’s son, Hezekiah, the heir to the throne, was elevated to king. In all probability, these poetic accolades were intended to describe what the prophet hoped the young king could become, titles he could rightfully claim during his reign.

British Hebrew scripture scholar, Ronald Clements, has made the fascinating suggestion that the majestic titles that most of us know more because of Handel than from reading the Bible were developed because of a practice the Hebrews borrowed from the Egyptians who created these over the top ways of describing their pharaohs when they were enthroned. In Hezekiah’s case: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Wow.

  • “Wonderful Counselor” would describe a sovereign who was a wise and effective guide for the people over whom she or he ruled.
  • “Mighty God.” Why in the world would a people committed by now to monotheism call anyone other than God “God”? The very thought would be blasphemous. Translation. Translation. Translation. Professor Clements says a more accurate translation of this title from Hebrew into English would be “Divine Warrior.” The people believed that if they were right with God they would win the battles in which they engaged, and part of winning involved having a leader with the ability to devise and implement effective war strategies.
  • “Everlasting Father” is akin to, “Long live the Queen,” or “God save the Queen,” in England today. Clements says we should translate it as “Father For Ever.” It was a hope for longevity to Hezekiah’s reign, and certainly many ancient people saw their king as their nation’s father figure.
  • “Prince of Peace.” Stunningly, this title is never applied to Jesus by any writer of Christian scripture. It is perhaps inferred as appropriate by those who took Jesus to have been the messiah, but the title appears no where in the New Testament. At least the warfare expected wasn’t taken to have been an end in itself; if there had to be war, it should lead to peace, and, indeed, the ancient Hebrew vision of where the world would end up when all people finally saw the wisdom and the necessity of God’s ways was at a place of permanent peace.


The biblical “Prince of Peace” was King Hezekiah who barely if at all lived up to this coronation throne-name. Still, we know that Jesus was about peace throughout his life, and as I said earlier he blessed peacemakers in his most remembered sermons. For those of us who are gripped by Jesus’ moral teachings and by his exemplary life, there is an undeniable impetus to be peacemakers. There is also another reason to be a peacemaker whether or not Jesus and his teachings mean anything to you; it’s called “common sense.” After that, we could also list humanitarianism.

Is peace still possible? I say, “Yes, it is,” and I’m not a person whose attitudes are untouched by a measure of skepticism. Even so, I believe that peace is a possibility IF enough people care enough about it to make it happen. Peace isn’t just going to happen because a handful of people of good will desire it.

Alex Lickerman is a medical doctor who happens to be a Buddhist. He took on this topic in, of all places, the magazine, Psychology Today. His article was published in February of this year under the title, “How World Peace Is Possible.” The article was subtitled: “Just Because Something Is Hard Doesn’t Mean It’s Impossible.”

Early in his article, Dr. Lickerman made the following point, which is critical to any movement that may be made toward peace:

Countries don't go to war. The leaders of countries go to war. They marshal their reasons, stir up the public, dehumanize the enemy, and send out their forces. The number of people actually responsible for the decision to go to war can usually fit comfortably inside a single large-sized room. Leaders, of course, only occasionally represent the best of what humanity has to offer....

So, how can it happen? Dr. Lickerman, claiming to be no Pollyanna, offers this solution:

To achieve world peace—to create a world in which war ceases to break out—seems impossible because of the sheer number of people who haven't yet mastered themselves, who haven't tamed their ambition to raise themselves up at the expense of others, and who haven't learned to start from today onward, letting past wrongs committed by both sides remain in the past. In short, it seems an impossible dream because we're in desperately short supply of human beings who are experts at living.

Only a few years ago did I stumble upon Mark Twain’s “War Prayer.” It is a sobering short-short story. Written before women served in combat for the United States, a town is about to send many of its young men off to war. Many of them with their families gather for worship on the Sunday before deployment. The pastor prays for these fighters--for their safety and for victory for the nation and the American flag.

Just as the prayer was finished, a stranger, an old man, walked up the aisle toward the pastor and continued right on up to the platform. In his deep voice, he asked the pastor for permission to address the congregation, and the pastor was too startled to say, “No!” The stranger said to the congregation that some prayers, such as the one they had all heard their pastor pray moments before, have two parts--the part that is uttered as well as heard AND the part that is unuttered but voiced in one’s heart. Then he said that he wanted to speak the prayer that hadn’t been spoken by pastor or people, but nonetheless prayed in silence while the public prayer was being prayed aloud. Here is what the stranger said was prayed in the hearts of pastor and people:

O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle -- be Thou near them! With them--in spirit--we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it--for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

I believe not only that world peace is possible, but necessary--absolutely necessary. The vision of world peace has been in the hearts of many through the ages, including many people around the world today. Even the ancient Hebrews, many of whom believed their God was a God of war, managed to envision--again through Mr. First Isaiah--a world that finally sees peace as the only way:

In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that God may teach us divine ways and that we may walk in God’s paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. God shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

The Native American most noted for his profound insights into spirituality was Black Elk. Concerning peace, this is what he had to say:

The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit, and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.

That’s a vitally important insight, maybe not so very far from the simple song that moves many of us, “Let There Be Peace on Earth, and Let It Begin in Me.”

  • William Gladstone: “We look forward to the time when the Power of Love will replace the Love of Power. Then will our world know the blessings of peace.”
  • Benjamin Franklin: “There never was a good war or bad peace.”
  • The Buddha: “Better than a thousand hollow words is one word that brings peace.”
  • Kofi Annan: “There is no trust more sacred than the one the world holds with children. There is no duty more important than ensuring that their rights are respected, that their welfare is protected, that their lives are free from fear and want and that they grow up in peace.”
  • The Russell-Einstein Manifesto of 1955: “Here then is the problem we present to you stark and dreadful and inescapable: Shall we put an end to the human race; or shall [hu]mankind renounce war?”
  • Eleanor Roosevelt: “It isn't enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn't enough to believe in it. One must work at it.”
  • Albert Camus: “Peace is the only battle worth waging.”
  • Dwight D. Eisenhower: “I like to believe that people in the long run are going to do more to promote peace than our governments. Indeed, I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it.”
  • Kathe Kollwitz: “Each war is answered by another war, until everything is destroyed...That is why I’m so wholeheartedly for a radical end to the madness...Pacifism simply is not a matter of calm looking on; it is work, hard work...those lovely small apples out there...everything could be so beautiful if it were not for the insanity of day, a new idea will arise and there will be an end of all wars...People will have to work hard for that new state of things, but they will achieve it.”


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