Aristophanes was a comic playwright well known in ancient Athens. One of his plays, “Lysistrata,” was written and probably first performed just a tad more than 400 years before Jesus was born. Lysistrata is the name of his lead character. As the risqué play opens, she has called a meeting of all women in Greece to discuss a plan to end the Peloponnesian War, the infamous war between Athens and Sparta and ultimately Sparta’s allies. As she waits, she bemoans the weakness of women. It isn’t necessary, she thinks, and she intends to prove it by having the women of Greece join her in what she believes is a sure fire plan to end the war and restore peace.
Lysistrata’s plan is this: the women will refuse to have sex with their husbands until a peace treaty is signed. Women from from the various city-states assemble as requested, and Lysistrata calls on them to swear an oath that they will withhold sex from their husbands until peace is signed, sealed, delivered. She is very persuasive arguing in particular that war is a special concern of women because of the tremendous sacrifices women have made in order to accommodate war. They are the ones who have lost husbands and/or sons on the fields of battle. As you may not have time to read a Greek play this afternoon, I will tell you that it worked!
What I do not wish to do today is to present yet another well-intentioned though impractical message on the importance of world peace. I do not want to preach to the choir as it were since most members of our congregation absolutely favor world peace. But there is no world peace today despite the leanings and the pleadings of bleeding hearts.
I recently stumbled across an article, “What Every Person Should Know About War,” that originally appeared in the New York Times almost ten years ago. Its author, Chris Hedges, claimed that in all of human history there have been about 270 years of world peace. That is, in approximately 3400 years–the time span during which we can document human communal activity–there have only been some 270 of those years when there were no recorded battles being waged somewhere. That’s something like eight percent of the total. It is reasonable to assume that before histories were generally being recorded with some consistency the same patterns prevailed.
Doing all I can to promote optimism today, I need to add to your fact list some data about war dead. It is said that in the twentieth century alone,108 million people were killed in wars. In the ninety-two percent war time of those 3400 years, estimates of war dead point toward the one billion mark.
There have been regional peace times of significant lengths. For example during the Edo period in Japan there were about 255 years when that country was not engaged in any war. The rulers enforced a strict internal order, practiced absolutely isolationist international policies, promoted the arts, and of all things insisted on the protection of the environment.
Another 200+ year period of regional peace may be the best known. It’s called Pax Romana; it was the peace time envisioned by Caesar Augustus who was the Roman Emperor during a large part of Jesus’ lifetime. One wonders if per chance Jesus ever heard a speech on the subject by Augustus or someone in service to him. If not from Augustus, one wonders who or what influenced Jesus to envision absolute peace. The Hebrew Scriptures he would have read do indeed picture God Godself as a promoter of peace. From the earliest of the three great prophets who shared the name, Isaiah:
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 God’s 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. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!
Rabbi Tanhuma bar abba, in the late fourth century, offered this homiletic summary of core ancient Hebrew theology: “All that is written in the Torah was written for the sake of peace.” Who knew?
Sadly, there are many mores portrayals of God as a warrior god such as this one from the book of Exodus:
Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord:
“I will sing to the Lord, for the Lord has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider God has thrown into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and my might
and has become my salvation;
this is my God whom I will praise,
my father’s God whom I will exalt.
The Lord is a warrior;
the Lord is the divine name.”
OK, so that misunderstanding of deity by people in the ancient world is one thing, but what about those of us who know better than to read about such perceptions as if they are anything more than human projections? What’s our excuse for not making peace our relentless hope?
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
“Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the children of God.” That is one statements of several in the teachings of Jesus that we designate as the Beatitudes, the word “beatitudes” coming from a Latin word for blessing. Obviously, in the Beatitudes that I have just read, Jesus teaches that blessed are or happy are those who are behaving in a certain way or who are caught in a certain plight.
What I notice about the Beatitudes as a whole is that all the people receiving blessings according to Jesus’ teaching here are strugglers or minority groups–not ethnic minorities. They are people experiencing difficulties in life sometimes because of choices they’ve made and sometimes through no choice of their own: the poor or the poor in spirit, the bereaved, those who are persecuted for righteousness’s sake, those who are reviled because of their devotion to the teachings of Jesus, and those who are in the minority because of their ethics based on how Jesus lived: the meek, those who give their all trying to see that justice (righteousness) prevails in all situations, the merciful, and the peacemakers.
The good news is, peacemaking is on the list. The bad news is, peacemaking is on the list. What I mean by this is that Jesus didn’t envision a time when peacemaking would be unnecessary despite is remarkable familiarity with the teachings of his forebears.
Another subtle point Jesus is making by having peacemakers on this list is that peacemakers in any given group are likely to be in the minority. That is precisely one of the reasons that there may always be the need for peacemakers though in the best of all possible worlds, peacemakers would put themselves out of business.
Until peace prevails all over the face of the earth, as First Isaiah describes the divine goal for humanity, with weapons manufacturers forced to revamp their factories to mass produce agricultural implements instead of death tools so the citizens of the world may be fed rather than executed, there will be a need for peacemakers and more of them than most people have wanted to imagine.
Crandall Kline, writing just before Y2K, insisted that world peace is within our grasp as a human family. In defense of his position, he is pragmatic and not esoteric.
The first thing we have to do if we can establish a prioritized list is to convince the killers to stop killing. Most killers are male. Most are adults. Most are killing because they have been commanded to kill by the political leaders of their respective countries. They comprise no more than two percent of the total human population at any given point in time. Ninety-eight percent non-killers. Two percent killers. The odds of having their way are clearly on the side of the non-killers.
According to Kline, peacemakers must absolutely be committed to nonviolence at every level. If nonviolence is always or typically reactionary rather than anticipatory, we have problems. Peacemakers can’t wait until a war is underway to call for peace.
Kline, whose 1999 book it titled Peace Within Our Grasp, reminds us that peacemakers need to live lives of activism; they consistently call for world peace in writing to newspapers and government entities. This is my idea, though Kline’s hopeful suggestions inspired me: what if–in countries where leaders are voted in or out, on the anniversary of every elected leader’s election–we wrote a personal handwritten note to that leader saying, “I believe in world peace, and I vote for peacemakers”? Kline says that a society willing to live by the standards of peace rather than war will have an “active intelligencia” supporting governmental movement toward peace. Quoting him now:
World peace is not a utopian dream–it is within our grasp. Wars are caused by conflicting ideas on what is acceptable national behaviour. The urge to exert national will and protect perceived rights, however irrational…is a powerful emotion. Wars begin in the minds of people. For world peace, the upper brain must be in control.
Most of you will recall that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2011 was awarded not to one person, but jointly to three peacemaking women: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia; Leymah Gbowee, Liberian peace activist and author of the book, Mighty Be Our Powers; and Tawakkol Karman, Yemeni peace activist and journalist. The Nobel organization explained that these influential women were selected because of their “non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”
William Ross Wallace:
Woman, how divine your mission
Here upon our natal sod!
Keep, oh, keep the young heart open
Always to the breath of God!
All true trophies of the ages
Are from mother-love impearled;
For the hand that rocks the cradle
Is the hand that rules the world.
Professor Stephen Walt teaches courses about international affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He writes in such a way that I want to hear him lecture! Here’s a sample:
The United States started out as 13 small and vulnerable colonies clinging to the east coast of North America. Over the next century, those original 13 states expanded all the way across the continent, subjugating or exterminating the native population and wresting Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California from Mexico. It fought a bitter civil war, acquired a modest set of overseas colonies, and came late to both world wars. But since becoming a great power around 1900, it has fought nearly a dozen genuine wars and engaged in countless military interventions. Yet Americans think of themselves as a peace-loving people, and we certainly don’t regard our country as a “warrior nation” or “garrison state.” Teddy Roosevelt was probably the last U.S. president who seemed to view war as an activity to be welcomed (he once remarked that “A just war is in the long run far better for a person’s soul than the most prosperous peace.”), and subsequent presidents always portray themselves as going to war with great reluctance, and only as a last resort.
Some say our country is addicted to war. Professor Walt, I gather, agrees. He has listed five reasons our leaders are always ready it seems to have us engaged in war. It’s not a pretty list, but here it is. Why are US American leaders generally more than willing to have us engage in war?
1) Because we can. Because, regardless of national debt or rising numbers of hungry and homeless people in our country, getting the funds–even when that means borrowing against the future–to send our young women and men into conflicts where many of them will kill and a significant number killed. (I say, any number above zero is too high.)
2) Because no super power is at present our avowed enemy.
3) Because we have an all volunteer military these days. If we drafted our young people and sent them into armed conflicts against their own better judgements we likely would see less congressional apathy about the effects of war.
4) Because of foreign policy philosophies that say we must always DO something. Professor Walt believes, and I quote, “Foreign-policy thinking in Washington is dominated either by neoconservatives (who openly proclaim the need to export ‘liberty’ and never met a war they didn’t like) or by ‘liberal interventionists’ who are just as enthusiastic about using military power to solve problems, provided they can engineer some sort of multilateral cover for it. Liberal interventionists sometimes concede that the United States can’t solve every problem (at least not at the same time), but they still think that the United States is the ‘indispensable’ nation; and they want us to solve as many of the world’s problems as we possibly can.”
5) Because Congress has checked out. Though the Constitution clearly states that congressional approval is needed in order to send our troops into war, presidents for a while have sent troops first and then kinda sorta sought congressional approval after the fact.
The United States Institute for Peace says that our country has been engaged in war the majority or all of its history because we suffer from “conflict syndrome.”
Conflict syndrome consists of a set of attitudes, assumptions, and beliefs that become embedded over decades of bitter conflict and are difficult to unlearn even if some kind of peace agreement–or exploratory truce–has been signed. The individual elements of the syndrome are familiar, but, taken as a whole, they exert a powerful influence on most peace processes and inform the choices each side makes. Thus, distrusting the opposite side’s motives by default, cheating for fear of being cheated, making only tentative concessions that can easily be revoked, and asking the other side to prove its good faith by making large initial concessions, among other things, generate a peace process that can easily become a “race to the bottom.” This implies that the stop-and-go, on-and-off, crisis-driven peace processes…should not be taken as aberrations: they are the norm that should be anticipated and planned for.
We need help. We have a poor record of trying to heal ourselves. If the hand that rocks the cradle really does rule the world, maybe Aristophanes and the Nobel selection committee are on to something. Happy Mothers’ Day.