This is the text of the sermon delivered at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist. You can listen to the podcast if you prefer to hear a sermon rather than read it.
On this Memorial Day, as even those who abhor war pause to recognize those who’ve died in service to their country, we offer these as opening words. They are adapted from Stephen Mitchell’s translation of chapter 31 of the Tao te Ching.
In a relatively recent movie that explores the potential dangers involved in too single-minded a pursuit of security no matter the cost, there’s a scene in which two battle-weary soldiers are talking. They’ve both seen too much … been through too much. They’re both questioning it all. And one says to the other, “Isn’t that the mission? Isn’t that the ‘why we fight’? So we get to go home?”
Okay, so this was Iron Man talking to Captain America in the newest Avengers movie, but it sounds about right, doesn’t it? My dad didn’t talk much about his service in World War II – he was a radar technician in the Navy – but he did say that the guys on the ships, and in the air, and on the ground weren’t thinking all that much about the big picture of the war. It wasn’t geopolitics that had their attention, it was trying to survive … trying to survive this firefight or that long bout of boredom.
Yes. Absolutely. No question. The men and women who served in World War II wanted to defeat the Axis powers – they believed that they were the good guys and that they were trying to stop the bad guys – but mostly they just wanted to be able to go home. They wanted everyone to be able to go home. Not everyone could, of course. Not everyone did. That’s why we have Memorial Day.
“The War to End All Wars,” that’s what World War I was called. President Woodrow Wilson is often credited with the phrase but it’s really H.G. Wells we have to thank. A collection of articles he’d written in the Times of London was titled, The War That Will End War, and later he used a shortened version, calling the campaign “the war to end war.” British Prime Minister David Lloyd George is reputed to have been a little more pessimistic, saying, “This war, like the next war, is the war to end war.”
Sounds a little oxymoronic when you say it that way, doesn’t it? But don’t you think that that’s somewhere in the minds of most of the people who are doing the fighting? (And the dying?) This war will bring peace in our time. This war will put a stop to all those unconscionable atrocities. This war will ensure that our nation is safe. (And maybe all nations?) This war … and then I can go home. Then I can go home and we all can go home. And we’ll never have to do this again.
Maybe that’s one of the ways faith, our theme for the month, gets into our conversation this morning. The soldiers’ faith that the war they’re fighting has meaning. That the danger they are putting themselves into is worth it. The faith that if they were to die in this battle, in this war, they would not be dying in vain.
And there’s the faith too, I suppose, that those around them have their back. Faith in their comrades, faith in their training, faith in the skill of their leaders, faith that they will somehow get out of it all alive. Faith that they’ll ultimately get to go home.
Which is certainly the faith on the home front. Anyone who has seen a loved one go into war knows that they can’t let themselves think too much about the dangers she or he will be facing. It would be too much, unbearable. So they hold on to the faith that they will see their daughter, mother, sister, son, brother, father, friend again. Faith in the face of war.
I think we can agree that at least among the people who are actually called on to fight our wars, nobody – or, at least, next to nobody – really likes war, really wants war. Even those who concede a need for war are, in the final analysis, hoping for peace.
You’ve no doubt heard the phrase, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares.” It’s found in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Book of Isaiah, in a passage where the prophet is describing a future in which the people of the world all come to God’s holy mountain to seek out the guidance and leadership of the God of Jacob:
“And [God] will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”
Let’s “unpack” that a bit. First, notice that a reason for the change that’s being described here is that God is now in the driver’s seat. God, a higher authority, will be settling disputes among peoples. No more petty squabbling and limited self-interest. Nations won’t any longer be trying to save face, or protect strategic oil reserves, or show the world how tough they are. Instead, God will be judging between nations and will be settling disputes among peoples.
Now, for those of us who don’t find the word “God” all that relevant or meaningful, remember that our Universalist ancestors would remind us that God is Love – “God” is just another word for “Love.” So Isaiah could have been saying that it’ll be Love that is judging between the nations, and Love that will be settling disputes. Love will be in the driver’s seat. And as Jimi Hendrix told us, “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.”
But there’s something else going on here, too. As Adam and I were bouncing ideas around we noticed what seemed to us to be an important word – they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. It doesn’t say that their swords and spears will magically disappear or somehow be transmogrified into plows and pruning hooks. No, the passage says that the people will beat them into their new form. I looked at nearly twenty different translations, and the verb to beat is used in all but six of them. Two use hammer – they shall hammer their swords into plowshares – which is much the same thing; one says that they will forge their swords into plowshares; and two simply say that the people will turn the one into the other.
Yet whether the people hammer, forge, or beat their swords to turn them into plowshares it is clear that it is not going to be an easy process. It’s going to be work. Hard work. Call up in your mind the image of a blacksmith – the forge hot and smoky, the hammer heavy, and the metal hardly malleable. Listen to the clanging of the hammer and anvil, the sound of the bellows as they blow air into the fire, the crackle as the coals are heated, and the shhhhhhhh as the hot metal is put into the cold water to harden it. Feel the heat and the ache in your arms and back; smell the smoke and the sweat. They shall beat their swords into plowshares. It’s not going to be easy.
Adam caught still one more nuance – they shall beat their swords into plowshares. This vision isn’t of a world in which people have put down their swords and taken up their plows. They haven’t created a cache of weapons “just in case” even though they’re now focused on their farming tools. This is the end of all wars because the people will have beaten their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. There are no more weapons. They’re gone. No longer needed.
Adam shared with me a lyric from a song in the musical Rent: "The opposite of 'war' isn't 'peace', it's 'creation'." Listen to that again: The opposite of war isn’t peace … it’s creation. The absence of war isn't enough in itself. It's simply a foundation upon which to build other things. New things. Life-giving things in the place of life-taking things. Creation in place of destruction. The swords have been re-forged, beaten, into new forms, and these new forms are tools of creation.
But that’s not what we see happening around us, is it? It seems, instead, that we are turning our plowshares into swords. And we’ve been doing so for more than a while. It was over 60 years ago that Dwight D. Eisenhower gave a speech, only three months into his Presidency, that has come to be known by the name “A Chance for Peace.” It includes these now nearly immortal words:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this [and remember that this was in 1953]: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
And yet we continue to turn our plowshares into swords. And we keep on studying war.
There’s one cost, though, that Eisenhower left out. The most important, really. Humanity’s hunger for the tools of destruction costs not just the sweat of laborers, the genius of scientists, the hopes of children – it costs the lives of the women and men who are called on to use those tools as they fight our wars. Young women and young men, mostly, who should have had long lives ahead of them. “Virgins with rifles,” Sting calls them in his song Children’s Crusade. And far, far too many never come home.
Even many of those who do come home do so with such devastating physical and mental wounds that the person they were when they left is not the person who comes home. And you know that you only have to turn on your TV, radio, or computer for just a little while to learn about some new study revealing ever more inexcusable treatment – or, maybe better, non-treatment – of the women and men who have given so much – and had so much taken – in the service of our country.
However much you or I want to live in a world at peace, we live in a world at war. There’s a factoid that’s been making the rounds saying that the United States has been involved in war for 222 out of the 239 years since 1776. That means we’re at war 93% of the time, or that we’ve only been at peace for a total of 21 years since our founding. However much you or I want to live in a world at peace, we live in a world at war.
Yet we needn’t give up hope. We can choose to renew our faith; renew our efforts. In the 8th century BCE a Jewish prophet gave us a vision the fulfillment of which can fuel our aspirations:
“The people will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”
On this Memorial Day let us remember those who were never able to get back home, and pray for the day when no one will evermore have to. And let us fire up the forge – we’ve got some beating to do.
Closing Words: The Young DeadSoldiers, by Archibald MacLeash