I look forward to Christmas partly because I get to hear Handel’s Messiah a lot; it’s one of my favorite pieces of classical music. In it we hear what is written in the Hebrew scriptures about the child that will be born; Jesus the Messiah is hailed by many titles: “wonderful, Counselor” and, in Isaiah ch 9:6: “…his name shall be called…The Prince of Peace.” And so we hear Christmas described as the season of peace – we aspire to this, rather than it being a reality…and maybe this Christmas season it seems further away than ever.
Congregational Study/Action Issues (CSAIs) are issues selected at our General Assembly by Unitarian Universalist member congregations for four years of study, reflection and action. The 2006-2010 Study/Action Issue for the Unitarian Universalist Association asked this question:
"Should the Unitarian Universalist Association reject the use of any and all kinds of violence and war to resolve disputes between peoples and nations and adopt a principle of seeking just peace through nonviolent means?"
This Study/Action Issue was proposed as an effort to develop an alternative to both just war theory and pacifism. Unitarian Universalist ethicist Sharon Welch suggests that "a third way" exists that includes "joint efforts to prevent war, stop genocide, and repair the damage caused by armed conflict." She calls this third way peacemaking, and identifies 3 components:
Peacekeeping — early intervention to stop genocide and prevent large scale war.
Peacemaking —bringing hostile parties to agreement, negotiating equitable and sustainable peace agreements that include attention to the pressing need for post conflict restoration and reconciliation.
Peacebuilding – the creation of long term structures for redressing injustice and resolving ongoing conflict as well as addressing the root causes of armed conflict, economic exploitation, and political marginalization. (Rev. Lt. Seanan Holland, Gail Forsyth-Vail, Rev. Dr. Monica L. Cummings, The Military Ministry Toolkit for Congregations, UUA, 2014)
Just war means that waging war is justified in some instances, and in the Greco-Roman world Aristotle outlined acceptable categories of warfare. Early Christianity developed its own version of this theory, and we see in the time of the Crusades the divinely justified war with Christ as a warrior-hero. Pacifism is a political or religious stance rejecting all forms of violence against people, and we can also trace this back to early Christianity to theologians such as Origen.
At times during the history of this country, Unitarian and Universalist sentiment has supported just war, and also at times, has advocated for peace. Modern pacifism in this country dates back to the abolitionist movement, in which of course many Unitarians and Universalists played key roles.
Most Unitarians opposed the War of 1812. The Re. Edmund Hamilton Sears wrote the Christmas carol “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” as a peace hymn in response to the Mexican American War. But Unitarians overwhelmingly supported the Union cause during the Civil War, in which 30 ministers served as chaplains. The poet Julia Ward Howe wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic as an anthem for the Union Army.
A decade later, however, appalled by the slaughter of the Franco-Prussian War, she issued a proclamation calling to establish Mother’s Day in the name of peace: “Say firmly: Our husbands shall not come to us reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy, and patience.” (MMT)
Many Unitarians supported World War I as making the world safe for democracy, and also World War II; as we know the UU Service Committee saved many people from Nazi persecution, and Unitarians collected war relief funds. The Church of the Larger Fellowship began during World War II, as a way for Unitarian Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines to stay connected to their faith while they were serving overseas. (David Pyle, http://uumm.blogspot.com/2007/01/what-does-it-mean-to-be-uu-who-serves.html)
The country split over the Vietnam War and so did UU congregations. Many clergy, as well as many people in the pews, strongly opposed the war on moral grounds and took public stances against the war. Some questioned the morality of war itself and moved toward or into a pacifist position. Others in the pews did not agree, believing that the Vietnam War was a justified use of United States military; many of them simply left Unitarian Universalism. (MMT)
Within the recent past, three Unitarian Universalists have served as U.S. secretary of defense—Elliott Richardson in the Nixon administration, and William J. Perry and William S. Cohen in the Clinton years. (MMT)
And most recently, attitudes to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been more nuanced. Religious leaders and people in the pews expressed support, opposition, or ambivalence about them, while expressing agreement on all sides that we must support those who are serving in the military and fighting in the wars. (MMT)
What is more, our understanding of the intersection of culture and experience, class and privilege, gender, race and ethnicity has problematized wholesale condemnation of those who fight our wars. During the Civil War, men with money could pay a substitute to fight for them. During the Vietnam War, those with connections could avoid combat by securing positions in the National Guard, or, like Dick Cheney, avoid service altogether with college and graduate school deferments. (MMT)
In 1973 the military became an all-volunteer force, and that began a change in the kinds of people who joined and why they joined. Why do people choose to enlist? Besides family history with the military, and one’s personal opinions about it, other factors might be race and ethnicity, age, gender, and class. Just this week all combat jobs have been opened to women, so will that mean that more females will enlist? The GI Bill made military service worth it for those who wanted to go into higher education and get a degree. And many people join because they can get out of the disadvantaged environments they come from, they can improve their lives.
The demographics from 2011 show us that almost one third of active duty members identity themselves as a minority; the majority (over 80%) of officers have a Batchelor’s degree or higher. Just over 5% of enlisted members have a Batchelors degree. Nearly one-half of Active Duty enlisted personnel are 25 years old or younger. Georgia has one of the highest active duty populations, and of course we know that Ft Gordon is growing in numbers. (MMT) And that brings me to ask:
If we were to have a discussion about military service and our congregation, how would it go? How does our congregation approach and welcome military personnel and veterans?
Although I believe that our congregation is one that does welcome our military, the lived experience of UU families in some of our congregations suggests that we are falling short of being welcoming places for all. In particular, families have reported treatment that seems to be unfairly based on stereotypes of people in the military and their families.
There are also other issues for the military families that we don’t think about. Most active duty personnel return home without serious injury, but at least 15% of those who have spent time in war zones have post traumatic stress disorder (MMT). Most of us are never confronted with having to shoot or be shot at, kill or be killed.
Such an experience is bound to have repercussions in one's spiritual life, understanding of oneself, and the limits of what one can endure. Ironically, in fact, that makes UUs who have served in a war zone much more likely to have given much more thought and reflection on deep issues of faith than some of our members who have never come face to face with imminent death or serious injury.
An active duty member who attended a UU Leadership School a couple of years ago casually mentioned during a conversation with one member that he was a Marine. She then introduced him as a Marine the whole day until he felt he had to tell everyone later that night. He asked people not to think of him as a Marine during the week, but only as Greg. Later during social time, a gay man told him that it was fascinating that as a military person, Greg had to "come out," and deal with other people's responses, whereas the gay man was fully accepted without question. (Welcoming Veterans and Military Families in Our Congregations and Communities, http://www.uua.org/international/action/conflict/iraq/32678.shtml)
Despite the Principles we affirm that we respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and that we promote freedom of conscience, “Members of the military have sometimes felt they must hide a crucial piece of their identity and life experience for fear that it will not be well received or accepted by Unitarian Universalists. “ (MMT) Maybe we should be seeking to learn from the experience of these military veteran UUs in our congregations, while at the same time realizing that many of these veterans still carry spiritual and physical wounds from their time in military service. To me the challenge is to learn to better minister to these veterans as part of our mission to build the Beloved Community. (Pyle, http://uumm.blogspot.com/2007/01/what-does-it-mean-to-be-uu-who-serves.html)
Going back to Sharon Welch’s Third Way, can we view military action through a ‘peacemaking lens’? Let me offer two quotes from the UUA Statement of Conscience document that came out of that CSAI issue “Creating Peace”.
The first quote is this:
For Unitarian Universalists, the exercise of individual conscience is holy work. Conscientious discernment leads us to engage in the creation of peace in different ways. We affirm a range of individual choices, including military service and conscientious objection (whether to all wars or particular wars), as fully compatible with Unitarian Universalism. For those among us who make a formal commitment to military service, we will honor their commitment, welcome them home, and offer pastoral support. For those among us who make a formal commitment as conscientious objectors, we will… honor their commitment, and offer pastoral support. (MMT)
This even-handed respect for individual choice was also important to those who founded our congregation back in the 1950s; they were mostly people who worked as nuclear engineers at the Savannah River Plant. They went through the period of American history when Ban the Bomb demonstrators were opposing the work of the nuclear industry, with the bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 fresh in the country’s memory.
Don Hostetler told me that he used to think a lot about his choice of career as a nuclear engineer. He remembers a time back in 1982, at a UU meeting in Charlotte, when he was enjoying the home hospitality of local church members. When they found that he worked at the Bomb Plant someone asked, How do you justify that?
It made him think so much, that later in the year he gave a sermon entitled: “How Do You Justify That?” By a strange coincidence, present in the congregation were some Buddhist peace marchers who were joining groups picketing outside the fence at the Savannah River Plant.
So during the week he said, he was inside the fence.
On Sunday, he was with many who were gathering outside the fence.
Don says, “I learned something interesting. Those inside the fence loved their children and believed what they are doing is in their children’s best interest. Those outside the fence loved their children and believed what they are doing is in their children’s best interest.”
And the second quote from the Statement of Conscience:
Our faith calls us to create peace, yet we confess that we have not done all we could to prevent the spread of armed conflict throughout the world. At times we have lacked the courage to speak and act against violence and injustice; at times we have lacked the creativity to speak and act in constructive ways; at times we have condemned the violence of others without acknowledging our own complicity in violence… This Statement of Conscience challenges individual Unitarian Universalists, as well as our congregations and Association, to engage with more depth, persistence, and creativity in the complex task of creating peace. (MMT)
I draw your attention to the sentence: “…at times we have condemned the violence of others without acknowledging our own complicity in violence”. It’s been pointed out to me that (interview with a minister, name withheld)
“ If anyone in America goes to globalrichlist.com and enters their household income, they'll realize they're among the global 1%. No escaping it. That inequity we enjoy, which affords us historically unprecedented safety, comfort, and wealth, is held in place by violence, of many kinds, at all levels.
If we're going to live in unjust excess, we need to be honest about how it's sustained—for example, how African countries are kept poor and robbed by the IMF. All institutions are complicit in this violation, including universities, funded to research how to maintain empire (whether it's called economics or business studies).
But as part of sustaining the injustice we enjoy, we ask some people to more explicitly commit violence in our name--soldiers and cops. So, whether or not we believe they're "defending our freedom" or upholding empire, they serve, kill, and die in our name. We fail to see how our lives are complicit with the violence of empire, any more than most white people see their white privilege, or men theirs.”
Those who protest against the military-industrial complex might be surprised to know that many active service members and veterans are also against the way it has perpetuated a society where politicians make bad legislation and skew our domestic spending on ‘pork-barrel’ projects that even the military leaders have not asked for!
Dave Thut, writing in Quest for Meaning, says,
“There is not a strong Unitarian Universalist military tradition to be sure. But we do have a strong tradition of—and faith in—the democratic process. In this country, we need people to carry out orders. We must have no illusion about the fact that those orders are, in fact, ours. We should not allow ourselves to hide behind a “not in my name” ethos that assumes that we are individually without culpability in what the society we live in asks of its military. While the soldier’s duty is to follow our orders (and they will do so), our job is…to “build a land where sisters and brothers anointed by God create peace.” …and one way to do this is to elect leaders who make war rare.
(“Duty and Service,” http://www.questformeaning.org/quest-article/duty-service/)
We can aspire to that but we still are dealing with military members who are deployed to, and who return from, war. It’s worth hearing what UU Military Chaplain Rev. Cynthia Kane says:
“Returning from… war are people—especially young people—with a crisis of faith, hurting and wounded to the core. For many of the service members, all they thought they believed about God and goodness is destroyed; they are looking for a way to make sense of their experiences and their lives.
The question for UU congregations is this: will we be the communities that can open our arms to these hurting people? Can we model how to move beyond assumptions about military members and their reasons for serving, and reach out to souls searching for another way of thinking, another way of being in the world?”
Then she answers her own question: “I believe we can. I believe we have the sensitivity and open-mindedness – especially to people with differing views and practices. After all, is this not the essence of Unitarian Universalism? Freedom, reason, and tolerance…I believe we have the awareness of our own struggles and our own biases.”
“Most of all,” she concludes, “I believe we have the understanding that we who have made the choice to serve in the military have done so for our own particular reasons. Though initially my call to Navy chaplaincy did not make sense to me, it does now. Since conflict and fighting have been a part of human history since the beginning of time, then for me to do the work of peace is more than just practicing peace, I must understand the making of war.”
Whatever we decide about our personal attitudes toward war and peace, as Unitarian Universalists we can be guided by our belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and in the need for compassion in human relations. Marya Mannes writes, “All wars derive from lack of empathy: the incapacity of one to understand and accept the likeness or difference of another”. Those Unitarian Universalists who disagree on issues of war and peace should at least agree that our faith supports all of those who serve, who have served, and their families, otherwise they too are displaying the very lack of empathy that causes war and all forms of violence.
Paul Rasor, one of the theologians who put forward supporting arguments for the Third Way, warned against political correctness, saying “The ostracism suffered by those who held minority positions during World War I and the Vietnam War reflects an unfortunate streak of illiberal self-righteousness that runs deep”.
He hoped that by drawing on the commonalities between the just war and pacifist traditions and by emphasizing our Unitarian Universalist theological principles, he might show that it is possible to formulate a position that can be endorsed by pacifists and just war advocates alike, but he admitted, “a question that haunts me is whether our members who serve in the military would feel less welcome if my proposal were adopted as a denominational stance. I truly hope not.”
COURTNEY E. MARTIN, reflecting in her column for On Being this week on the Planned Parenthood shooting in her hometown of a Colorado Springs, writes: “What horror we manifest when we cloak ourselves in abstract morality. What cruelty. My home has taught me many things, but first and foremost, I think, it’s this: there is grave danger in becoming invested in a simple moral story about anything or anyone. The next step is dehumanization. And the step after that is, in fact, a full stop — violence.”
What simple moral stories have we been telling ourselves about other people, other peoples, in order to justify violence? What work do each of us need to do to open our hearts, really open our hearts, to our first principle, and respect the worth and dignity of each person, no matter who they are, what their job is, what their skin color is, what their faith tradition is?
In this season of peace we must not allow the continuation of war, and the all-too-common acts of violence in our cities, numb our passion for peace, or make us cynical about humankind. Remember Margaret Mead’s famous quote: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
Unitarian theologian William Ellery Channing declared that “peace without can come only with peace within”. And that is what I wish for each and every one of us here today…to go in peace, believe in peace, create peace.
Rev. Dr. Gaye Ortiz