Let me start by saying how honored I am to be speaking with you today in this beautiful church, on this wondrous day on the subject of peace in this autumn forum on War and the Soul.
I am a big admirer of this and other organizations like it across the country that continue to shine a light for peace in what is often accepted as the gloomy realism of conflict and war.
Faithful people like you offer hope to all of us that peace with justice is possible. On those days when I am reporting and publishing that tests my belief in peace, I remember the work you are doing and it gives me courage.
This last week has been especially trying as tensions over a disrespectful and disgusting video ripped the already frayed bonds between peoples of different religions, cultures and nations. And yet, amidst all of the bad news, there were good stories of people standing up for peace and understanding. And that is the tradition and intention that I am here to celebrate and, with you, strengthen and encourage.
So again, thank you for having me here and I look forward to our time together to support and fortify one another.
As a way of introducing my topic for today I would like to spend some time with the Gospel lesson found in Mark 9 which tells the story of the young boy who continuously throws himself upon the fire or drowns himself in the water in a seemingly unstoppable will towards self-destruction. This lesson offers a suitable metaphor for the extraordinary suffering, desolation and ruin that are the outcome of violence and war.
Jesus says to the despondent father of the child: “All things can be done for those who believe.” To which the father, at wit’s end and in a total moment of honesty exclaims – “I believe, help me with my unbelief.” As you remember from the story, Jesus does rid the boy of the self-destructing spirit and when the disciples asked how he did it, Jesus responds that the deadly spirit can only come out through fasting and prayer.
The desire to believe, to believe in God and that God’s peace and God’s justice and God’s love might come to reign in our hearts and on earth is one of the reasons we gather as Christians. We believe, but we need help with our disbelief. Again, it is the reason that Lancaster Interchurch Peace Center is so important.
Jesus’ response is especially helpful to us as we consider how to be effective in creating a peaceful witness in the world today that continues to throw itself upon the fire of destruction.
One of the questions that I have been wrestling with in preparing for this talk is how one comes to a personal spiritual state of peace and adopts a perspective that peace might be placed in the center of our lives.
We know that peace education is not the normative education. Most people in the world grow up surrounded by violent images, and are bombarded by message about the spoils of the victor at all costs.
Young people live with violence in their schools, in their homes and neighborhoods and some called to participate in the call to war and violence at the national level.
William Sloan Coffin once reminded me of Plato’s words: “What’s honored in the country will be cultivated there.”
How can we as nation learn to honor peace and cultivate it in our personal lives and in our domestic and foreign policy?
At the risk of preaching to the choir, I believe that the church, the synagogue, the temple, the mosque, the meeting house are still the places where peace education has the best chance of taking root in the hearts, minds and souls of people. Religious groups and leaders not only have the opportunity, but the obligation to teach, honor and cultivate peace in their congregations.
Religious groups can do this effectively because ultimately religious traditions offer something that every individual is seeking – a meaning and reason for our existence that transcends our material wants and needs.
I spent 10 years of my career working with students at Columbia and Princeton Universities. My experience taught me that these young people crave the internal sense that they are put here on earth for some important purpose that they are meant to fulfill.
The author Chris Hedges wrote a book based on his years reporting on war for the New York Times with a convincing title: “War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning”.
The question that we must consider is how can peace give us even more meaning? The tug of war is so strong and insistent and consistently valorized. How can we be as durable and as convicted and as honorable answering to the call of peace?
Returning to the Gospel lesson of Mark offers us one important resource. In answer to the ‘unbelief’ of the father and the disciples, Jesus prescribes prayer and fasting.
Freeing ourselves and others from the spirit of destruction can only come from a deep spiritual practice. A continued belief in the possibility of peace requires work of the soul, or spirit, however we understand them.
Just to be clear, this kind of work explicitly includes atheists, agnostics, humanists and non-theists. One of the people’s whose peace and justice work I most admire was my cousin, Richard Rorty, who was a committed secular humanist philosopher. And I will add that being a religious person is no guarantee of a peaceful spirit, in fact the opposite often is true.
What I am positing is that being a person of peace takes work, and it is a work that to be effective must function at a person’s core rather than on the periphery so that it is strong enough to withstand the temptation of violence and hatred that come when we are hurt or feel misunderstood.
The discipline of prayer both focuses our minds on the tasks at hand and opens our hearts to inspiration for new ways of approaching them.
Prayer mitigates despair by grounding our hope in humble acceptance of God’s will in our lives and emboldens us by showing us both the possibilities and the limits of our personal and collective power. Prayer is the antidote to unbelief.
It is my personal experience that the people whom I have interviewed and respect the most for their work in peace are also deeply spiritually grounded, prayerful people. In the last year I have had the honor of interviewing Sister Joan Chittister, Shane Claiborn and Representative John Lewis, and each time I am struck by the spiritual center that is guiding their non-violent peace activism.
Friday was International Peace Day and on HuffingtonPost Religion we featured different religious peace groups as well as prayers of peace from different religions. Included in those are three Christian prayers that I would like to explore with you today in hopes that they might encourage our souls towards the goal of peace.
The first prayer I would to discuss was written by my great-grandfather, Walter Rauschenbusch.
Some of you may be acquainted with his thought and work as one of the best know representatives of the theological movement called The Social Gospel which sought to bring the reign of God, as understood through the justice and peace teachings of Jesus, to be done on earth as in heaven.
The prayer I would like to present for your consideration is fittingly titled: “A Prayer Against War” from the volume of Rauschenbusch’s prayers called Prayer of the Social Awakening published in 1910.
For those of you who might like to learn more about Rauschenbusch, this volume of prayers is one of the best introductions to his thought, which combined a deep piety with a call for social action in this world.
The prayer is quite long, but I am going to read it to you in full, in part because I believe there is a power in hearing a prayer together. I brought some copies of this prayer if any are interested in having them.
A PRAYER AGAINST WAR FROM WALTER RAUSCHENBUSCH
O Lord, since first the blood of Abel cried to thee from the ground that drank it, this earth of thine has been defiled with the blood of humanity shed by the hands of sisters and brothers, and the centuries sob with the ceaseless horror of war.
Ever the pride of kings and the covetousness of the strong has driven peaceful nations to slaughter. Ever the songs of the past and the pomp of armies have been used to inflame the passions of the people.
Our spirit cries out to thee in revolt against it, and we know that our righteous anger is answered by thy holy wrath. Break thou the spell of the enchantments that make the nations drunk with the lust of battle and draw them on as willing tools of death.
Grant us a quiet and steadfast mind when our own nation clamors for vengeance or aggression. Strengthen our sense of justice and our regard for the equal worth of other peoples and races. Grant to the rulers of nations faith in the possibilities of peace through justice, and grant to the common people a new and stern enthusiasm for the cause of peace.
Bless our soldiers and sailors for their swift obedience and their willingness to answer to the call of duty, but inspire them none the less with a hatred of war, and may they never for love of private glory or advancement provoke its coming. May our young men and women still rejoice to die for their country with the valor of their fathers and mothers, but teach our age nobler methods of matching our strength and more effective ways of giving our life for the flag.
O thou strong God of all the nations, draw all thy great family together with an increasing sense of our common blood and destiny, that peace may come on earth at last, and thy sun may shed its light rejoicing on a holy unity of all people. Amen.
This prayer makes plain many hopes in a consistently eloquent manner.
The prayer attempts to cure us of the sickness of animosity that can overcome individuals, communities and nations. When we pray this prayer we petition God to break us from the bonds of an emotional prison, which we can inhabit without realizing it. Prayer here becomes a way of liberation from mindless hatred and the idol of war.
Rauschenbusch’s prayer offers new eyes for those who wish to see that the well marketed call to war most often benefits the few at the expense of the many. As Rauschenbusch so clearly writes: Ever the pride of kings and the covetousness of the strong has driven peaceful nations to slaughter.
The context for this prayer is worth considering.
Rauschenbusch was a German living in America in the run up to WWI. He was deeply suspicious of that war and the beginnings of the military industrial complex.
While Rauschenbusch never fully declared himself a complete pacifist he certainly proclaimed anti-militarism.
Rauschenbusch was frustrated and grieved by America’s eventual entrance into World War I saying: “We thought we had begun to make some social progress and then this happened.” He felt a great sadness that his own country was pitted against the country of his origin and spoke out against the war.
While he detested German nationalism, he believed the English to be no better and held that Americans were being whipped into war fever by those more interested in profits than actual peace.
While he still was immensely popular as a speaker, his criticism of the war lost him many friends and colleagues, even among the liberal Christian community who saw America’s role in the conflict as carrying out God’s mandate for democracy in the world.
He finally was urged by a friend to write a clarifying, pro-America article. The friend was concerned that Rauschenbusch might follow the fate of some other Germans and be imprisoned for treason. As an aside, one of the reasons that all of his children, including my grandfather, took the “c”s out of the name was because of a desire to confirm the family’s American-ness.
Walter reiterated his firm commitment to America and concluded the article with a mention of the pride he felt that his own son Hilmar had joined the army and was fighting in Europe. Later he was to confide to his daughter Winifred that he regretted using his son as such an example and would have preferred that Hilmar had chosen to be a conscientious objector.
Rauschenbusch found some solace in a then new organization called Fellowship of Reconciliation, which continues on to this day. Rauschenbusch said in 1917 the year before he died: “I am more than ever a pacifist…it takes a higher brand of patriotism to stand against the war clamor than to bellow with the crowd.”
I did an event with the scholar John Dominick Crossan on the Social Gospel. Crossan took as one of his main refrains a phrase from the prayer from Rauschenbusch: Grant to the rulers of nations faith in the possibilities of peace through justice, and grant to the common people a new and stern enthusiasm for the cause of peace.
This stern enthusiasm is what I mean by a sense of purpose or meaning that might match and checkmate the deadly purpose that war and animosity can also bring. It is through prayer and other spiritual disciplines that this stern enthusiasm might be nurtured.
The second prayer I submit to you is a prayer that was written by Reinhold Niebuhr, a theologian, pastor, and both a critic and begrudging admirer of Rauschenbusch. The prayer came to be known as the Serenity Prayer and has gained fame through its use in the service of Alcoholics Anonymous.
However the original prayer in its entirety was written in the harrowing context of WW2. It is a wartime prayer.
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.
Now I realize that Niebuhr, favorite philosopher of Barack Obama, is not always lifted up as an exemplar of peace. His so-called ‘realism’ was often used as an excuse for an over extension of American foreign policy. But this prayer offers some important lessons that are worth wrestling with.
Elizabeth Sifton, wrote a memoir about her father in which she reminds us (quote): “The Serenity Prayer was composed in wartime, and it addresses the inconsolable pain, loss, and guilt that war inflicts upon the communities that wage it; it goes to the heart of the possibilities and impossibilities of collective action for collective betterment – that is to the heart of the possibilities for peace.”
Niebuhr famously helps us to parse conflict and war into two categories – the things we cannot change, and the things we should. Like any spiritual discipline, this prayer encourages us simultaneously to act; and to refrain from acting, it emboldens us and it chastens us, and invites a clear recognition of both the capabilities and limits of our earthly power.
One of the things that Niebuhr insisted we cannot change is that individuals, and especially groups, are sinful, and our actions are often guided by delusions wrought by arrogance, the promotion of our own interests and temptations of power.
We have no problem seeing this in other individuals and nations, but when we apply it to ourselves or to our own nation, it disturbs our pride and questions our sense of purpose and our self-perception as especially or uniquely good.
Niebuhr’s prayer requires a recognition of our own sin, and causes us to pause and reflect before we point the finger and call others evil.
The acknowledgement of sin interrogates purity on any one side of a conflict. As Niebuhr said (quote): “The Christian faith ought to persuade us that political controversies are always conflicts between sinners; and not between righteous men and sinners. It ought to mitigate the self-righteousness which is an inevitable part of all human conflicts.”
However the admission of our own sin should not be understood as a shackle that causes inaction or intransigence, rather as a tether to our Christian commitments that simultaneously calls for repentance and forgiveness while promoting justice and reconciliation.
The prayer of Niebuhr inspires restraint with action, humility with bravery, acceptance of that there will be conflict, with an insistent call for sacrifice for the peace transformation of our world.
“Nothing worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime,” Niebuhr wrote, “therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing that is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing that we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone, therefore we are saved by love.”
The third prayer I would like to lift up takes us further back in history and is by Julian of Norwich.
AND thus our good Lord answered to all the questions and doubts that I might make, saying full comfortably: I may make all thing well, I can make all thing well, I will make all thing well, and I shall make all thing well; and thou shalt see thyself that all manner of thing shall be well.
This refrain “All Things Shall Be Well” occurs over and over in the 14th century mystic’s one major work called the Revelations of Divine Love.
I offer it here as a reminder that part of what it means to be a Christian that we do our part to be Christ’s witnesses of peace and justice in this world, but that be done with a sense of confidence and peace that behind all things is a God whose power we can rely upon.
There is so much wrong in this world that our work for peace can tempt us to ball up our hands into fists of frustration when they are needed to be open and extended to the one next to us whom we would like to call friend.
Julian of Norwich had her Divine revelation during her own time of sickness, almost unto death. God hears her questions, doubts, sins and pains and ultimately Julian of Norwich rests with the testimony that God whispers to her: I Shall make all things well, and that all manner of things shall be well.
All of us who are trying to do our part for peace must be careful that we do not become bitter. Peace, again, must come from the inside and it, our soul’s peace, must constantly be fed by the peace of God. No matter how bad things get, let us listen for God’s confident whisper that all manner of thing shall be well.
These three prayers offer us spiritual strength and clarity in our efforts for peace. If prayed with regularity, they might help us build up strength and endurance so that even in the face of all the news that might cause us unbelief, that we might believe in the possibilities of peace in the world and within our lives.
I want to switch gears for the last few minutes to before our conversation to talk briefly about how the Internet can be an important tool in the work for peace. I’m going to go into this in much greater detail tomorrow but my guess is that most of you will not be going to that lecture.
I want to talk about the Internet specifically with you because my work these days is pretty much entirely online and my hope is you will all begin to consider how the online world of communication factors into your own work because the online world needs more people of peace.
You have heard that when a butterfly flaps a wing on one side of the world, it can be felt on the other. The technology of the Internet has made that truth plain.
Unfortunately, the Internet is a great way to get out hateful messages that stir up distrust and can lead to virtual, and eventual very real violence in the world.
One only needs to think of the power of a group of malicious ‘film makers’ who made a horrible video about Muhammad, translated it to Arabic and spread it around the Muslim world. Or Aryan nation activists who spread lies about Jews with such effectiveness that when one searches Jew in Google the second site that comes up filled with hatred and lies about the Jewish people.
With the Internet you don’t need the old media, or traditional authority structures, you can get to the people you want to fight with directly and immediately and horrible things can result.
When we talk about the Internet, we truly are talking about life and death. It is the most powerful and transformative innovation in the area of communication and personal interactions of our generation, and perhaps of any generation.
Yet, just as the Internet can be used to promote conflict, it is being used all over the world to promote peace.
My life’s work as a minister is to to promote peace and justice among people and Huffingtonpost Religion, which I launched three years ago is a place where we intentionally foster positive, pluralistic and productive conversations among religious communities.
Peace on the internet can take different forms and I just want to outline a couple to you because I think it is really important that we use this technology for the promotion of peace.
One example happened in Kenya after a recent contested election that devolved into violence along ethnic lines. This was happening away from any form of media but Kenyans of good will used something called Ushahidi Crowdmap, which allowed them to text reports of violence to a center location and share with the world a map of attacks across the country. Ushahidi means witness in Swahili and this witnessing to the violence helped raise awareness and stop the conflict.
Another recent example is two Facebook groups called Israel Loves Iran and Iran Loves Israel. In both of them the Internet is allowing them to circumvent rulers who would have them distrust and hate one another and instead talk directly to one another. One anonymous Iranian wrote: “I’m from Iran and love your idea and your efforts against war and for peace. I am really happy to get to know you and people like you, and hope to find more people like you. Here in Iran the situation is complicated and many people hate the governments and their bullshit.”
Another example is the response to the latest anti-Muslim film, compounded by a Newsweek cover provocatively titled “Muslim Rage” with an angry mob of Muslims to make the point. Newsweek encouraged the twitter world to keep the conversation going with the #MuslimRage. Well, instead of rising to the bait and exchange anger for anger, Muslims around the world used #MuslimRage to talk about mundane things. For example, falafel without garlic sauce? #muslim rage. Guy bumps me in Cairo subway, I say excuse me and he says nothing #muslm rage
Using humor and wit, Muslims and non-Muslims ignored provocation and literally from around the world found kindred spirits. Christianrage and Jewishrage where not far behind, sharing equally mundane and funny examples in solidarity with their Muslim sisters and brothers.
These are just small examples, but if we think of the role that twitter and Facebook played in the Arab spring to mobilize people to stand up against dictators, then we have to begin to think systematically about how the internet can be a powerful tool for peace.
The challenge I have for each of you is to educate yourselves and become involved with the discussion because there are plenty of people who are stoking the fire in the other direction.
So, in this brief talk I have gone from the prayer of Julian of Norwich to twitter. And I thank you so much for humoring me and I look forward to any of your comments and your wisdom about peace in the 21st century.