Swords into Ploughshares: A World Peace Day Sermon

The following is the text of the sermon I gave today at St Paul’s Cathedral, Dunedin, as part of World Peace Day Sunday:

May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

I would like to extend my thanks to Dean Trevor James for asking me to give the sermon this morning. It is really a tremendous honour for me to speak to you in such a wonderful place – our beautiful cathedral – and on such a special occasion when we gather to re-commit ourselves to the sacred task – and I believe it is a sacred task, one that is deeply rooted in our faith – of building peace in a violent and suffering world.

The International Day of Peace, or, World Peace Day was first established by the United Nations in 1981. The UN declared that “Peace Day should be devoted to commemorating and strengthening the ideals of peace both within and among all nations.” At the same time, the International Day of Peace is also a Day of Ceasefire – a day for making peace in both personal relationships, and the larger conflicts of our time. On Ceasefire Day, the world calls for, and prays for, the guns to fall silent everywhere, at least for one day. This year, the theme of Ceasefire Day is a question: Who Will You Make Peace With?

As a consequence, yesterday, millions of people around the world, including some of us here who spent the day in the Octagon, gathered together to wait in silence, pray, meditate, learn, sing, dance, light a candle and in a myriad of creative ways, commit themselves anew to the task of making peace a reality in the world. And today, together with people of faith around the world, we also gather in this cathedral to pray, to seek inspiration and strength, and to ask for God’s blessing on our individual and collective efforts to follow in Christ’s footsteps as peacemakers. 

Before I go any further, let me confess: I am no theologian, and I have never undertaken any formal biblical or religious studies. I do come from a family tradition of clergy. If I had gone into the ministry, as my family once hoped for, I would have been a fifth generation minister. However, it was not be. I found another, though not dissimilar, vocation. The point is, I have no particular qualifications to speak to you today. This means that I can only speak from the heart about what I personally believe and how I, as a practicing Christian, read the bible, and in particular, how I understand the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.

I must also declare that I am a pacifist. I am a pacifist for three main reasons – because I am scholar, because I am human being, and because I am a Christian.

As a scholar, I have studied war and political violence for more than twenty years now, and I have come to three general conclusions about war. First, every argument advanced by scholars or legal experts or politicians for the necessity and legitimacy of war in general, or indeed for any specific war of the last sixty years at least, upon careful examination, lacks proper foundation in both reason and evidence.

Second, the weight of evidence – historical and contemporary – clearly demonstrates that war is incapable of establishing lasting, genuine peace. The primary effect of war throughout history is to create the conditions for further episodes of violent conflict and future wars. This is not to say that war does not sometimes lead to temporary peace. But it is to accept along with Gandhi that, “I oppose all violence because the good it does is always temporary but the harm it does is permanent”.

Third, my studies have led me to the conclusion that there are far more effective means of resolving conflict and creating the conditions of lasting peace than using military force and violence – if only we have the vision to see them and the courage to try them. There are, in other words, proven alternatives to war. War is never the sole remaining option, nor the optimal choice, in any given situation.

Apart from my scholarly reasons, I am also a pacifist because I am a human being who has seen war first hand and experienced a small taste of its horror. I was born and raised as the son of a missionary in the southern part of Zambia, not more than 20 miles from the border with what was then Rhodesia. During the Rhodesian war –what is now called the Zimbabwean war of independence – the fighting spilled across into Zambia, and I experienced first-hand the fear of proximity to military battle, and the absolute terror of being manhandled by a soldier off a bus at a military roadblock to be taken to what I believed was my likely execution. At that moment, I experienced the moral abyss of war: in war, there is no law, no rules, no protection, just arbitrary violence.

During this war when I was growing up, I also spoke at length to soldiers who at the age of 19 or 20 were psychologically scarred by what they had seen and done in combat. As many of you will also have experienced, veterans come home from war with deep moral and psychological injuries, which are then often passed on from generation to generation.

In any case, these experiences confirmed to me that war is probably humanity’s greatest evil, and its greatest tragedy. In fact, war is the time and place where the human capacity for sin and evil finds its greatest expression. There has never been a war where hate, fear, malice, cruelty, rape, lack of control, torture and murder have not been present – and where once ordinary and decent human beings have remained unaffected or uncorrupted by these evils. To put it another way, I know of no single person in history who has experienced war firsthand who has ever found it to be uplifting, or enriching, or ennobling, or life-affirming. War, which is the organized killing of fellow human beings, is utterly destructive and disfiguring to the human body and spirit. There is nothing redeeming or good in war. This is why I reject war in all its forms. This is one reason why I am a pacifist.

Sadly, in our society, the true horrors of war and its inherently craven nature, are too often obscured. In our movies and television shows, our news and our memorials, we more often prefer to hide the awful reality of the human suffering and death that results from war. Instead, we focus on its heroism and nobility, sacrifice and nation-affirming character.

However, perhaps the most important reason – and what I want to focus on today – is that I am a pacifist because I am also a Christian, and I believe that my faith demands a radical commitment to principled nonviolence, anti-militarism and peacemaking. This flows directly from my firm belief that the starting point for any Christian on any ethical issue is the example and teaching of Jesus. So, what does Jesus say about peace, and violence, and war? Among many verses, I’m sure we are all familiar with the following:

·         “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matt. 5: 9)

·         “You have heard that it was said, ‘eye for eye and tooth for tooth’. But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also… You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy’. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those that persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”  (Matt. 5: 38-39, 43-45)

·         “But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who ill-treat you… Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6: 25)

·          “Put up your sword. All who take the sword die by the sword.” (Matt. 26: 52)

The only way I can read these verses is as an uncompromising opposition to revenge and retribution, violence and war, and as heralding a new ethic of love for enemies, and a radical non-violent response to injustice and oppression. And as I read about the life and teaching of Jesus in the New Testament, I am left with the following questions:

Would the Jesus we read about in the Gospels ever, under any circumstances, stick a bayonet into another human being?

Would he drop a bomb on village full of people?

Would he shoot someone in the face, or run someone over in a tank? 

The answer is unequivocally, No. As Reinhold Neibuhr put it, “The ethic of Christ is uncompromisingly pacifist.” Moreover, it is clear that this is both a personal and a communal ethic; the listeners of Jesus would have interpreted it as applying both to individuals and the people as a community.

Later in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul re-affirms this radical new ethic proclaimed by Jesus. He says, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil… If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends… Do not be overcome with evil; but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 11: 17-21). Paul also admonishes Christians to “Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace” (Eph. 6: 14-15). And then, he reminds us that as we follow in the footsteps of Jesus, the fruit of the Spirit – “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal. 5:22) – will be produced in us. These are all the values which are the direct opposite of war and violence, and they come from Christ’s indwelling in our lives. 

In the Old Testament, we are told about the Peaceable Kingdom which is foretold and inaugurated by the incarnation of Jesus, who is according to the Prophets, “the Prince of Peace”. In God’s Kingdom, peace prevails as its primary characteristic, as the following verses clearly state:

 ·         “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat… they will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11: 6, 9)

·         “In that day I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the creatures that move along the ground. Bow and sword and battle I will abolish from the land, so that all may lie down in safety.” (Hosea 2: 18)

·         “He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” (Micah 4: 3)

·         “I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle-bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations.” (Zech. 9: 10)

As before, I find that I can only understand these verses as saying that God’s Kingdom, which is both foretold and inaugurated in Christ, is characterized by peace, justice and love for enemies. And that there is no place for war in God’s Kingdom: “Bow and sword and battle I will abolish from the land”. In fact, there is not even a place for training for war: “nor will they train for war anymore”. In God’s Kingdom, the instruments of death and killing are transformed into instruments of life and human well-being: “They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.”

This reading of the Bible, and the ethical position it entails – the position of principled nonviolence, of refusing to participate in any form in war, in working tirelessly to establish God’s Kingdom of peace on earth – is in fact the oldest tradition in Christianity, and one which continues today in the historic peace churches, such as the Quakers. For the first few centuries after the life of Jesus, Christians did not join the military, nor did they engage in violent resistance to oppression and persecution. I believe that this is the original Christian tradition. Origen (185-254), one of the great figures of the early church, wrote: “For we no longer take sword against a nation, nor do we learn any more to make war, having become sons of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our leader.”

But what about that other Christian tradition – the tradition of Christians serving in the military, of Chaplains attached to the armed forces, of bibles being distributed to soldiers, of military services held in churches, of congregations praying for the success of their nation in war? This tradition began with the conversion of the Roman ruler, Constantine, in the third century, and his declaration of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, and the subsequent fusion of religious and temporal power in the institutions of the state. In order to justify the use of military force by the now Christian state, and the participation of Christians in the army, theologians of the day were compelled to develop the Doctrine of Just War. This doctrine has guided many Christians, especially the official state churches of many countries, ever since.

Briefly, Just War Doctrine states that a number of conditions need to be satisfied for a war to be considered just, and for Christians to therefore support it and participate in it:

·         The war must be for a just cause;

·         The war must be declared by a lawful authority;

·         It must be fought for a right intention;

·         It must be a last resort after peaceful alternatives have been tried;

·         It must have a reasonable chance of success;

·         The force used must be proportionate;

·         Innocent civilians should not be harmed.

Just War theologians argued that if these strict conditions were fulfilled, Christians could fight in the war with a clear conscience. Importantly, the original Just War Doctrine was rooted in the understanding that war was inherently evil; it could never be considered good nor heroic.

However, in my view, Just War Doctrine is wrong on a number of grounds. First, as most ethicists and political philosophers now accept, it is incoherent and inconsistent as a guide for moral behavior in war. This is because among its many inconsistencies which I cannot go into here, it separates means and ends, it separates intentions and actions, and it creates two separate moral spheres – war where killing is permissible, and peace where it is not.

More seriously, Just War Doctrine elevates the political community – the nation-state – above the rights and morality of individual human beings, and makes killing other human beings in the name of the state a duty. This creates the absurd, and I would argue anti-Christian, situation where fellow Christians may be compelled to kill each other in the name of different nation-states who are at war. At the very least, it involves children of God killing other children of God in the name of political institutions – which, I might add, were not created by God, but most often created by war, dispossession, and the forceful incorporation of peoples into a new unit.

Importantly, I would argue that no war in the last one hundred years at least can confidently be said to have adhered properly to Just War precepts, for the simple reason that there is no war I know of where all other nonviolent options have been properly tried first. What I mean by this is simply that vast resources are poured into preparing for war, training for war, and making war. No similar level of resources – financial or human – have been devoted to training for, preparing for, or attempting peaceful methods of conflict resolution. Compare military budgets with diplomatic budgets. Compare how many people are trained to fight in the military with how many people are trained in nonviolence and conflict resolution. Compare how many scientists are working on weapons development with how many are working on peaceful solutions. We cannot say that war is the last resort until we have put at least as much effort into finding nonviolent solutions as we have into preparing for, and making, war.   

Finally, and perhaps most importantly for us here today, I believe that Just War Doctrine is wrong is because it clearly contradicts the life and teaching of Jesus, and the values of his Peaceful Kingdom. The violence, the harm, the injury, the hatred, the brutality of war contradicts everything about the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.

In the end, my Christian pacifism is renewed each time I pray the Lord’s Prayer, particularly the line “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Each time I pray this, I ask myself this:

·         Is it God’s will that more than 100 million human beings have been murdered in wars in the past century? 

·         Is it God’s will that hundreds of millions of people are driven from their homes, forced to flee and live in appalling conditions because of war?

·         Is it God’s will that tens of thousands of women and girls are raped and sexually violated in war every year?

·         And is it God’s will that men and women study and train and discipline themselves to kill and maim their fellow human beings in combat?

·         Is it God’s will that scientists and strategists work tirelessly, year after year, to devise ever more destructive ways to kill, and maim and destroy other human beings?

·         Is it God’s will that people spend their days working in factories to make cluster munitions and other horrible weapons that will spread around the world and be used to tear apart the bodies of their fellow human beings?

·         Is it God’s will that uncountable trillions of dollars have been spent, and continue to be spent, on maintaining military forces while millions of children are under-fed, families are un-housed, entire generations of young people are un-educated, and millions lack in basic medication?

·         Is it God’s will that veterans come back from war with physical and emotional wounds which diminish and distort their lives, and poison their relationships, for decades after?

·         Is it God’s will that we as a society seem to revel in war and killing as entertainment, turn it into video games for our children, and mythologise soldiers and warriors – who are the professionals of killing in our society – as heroic?

The question I ask myself is this: how can I pray the Lord’s prayer in all sincerity, week after week, year after year – thy will be done on earth – if I then support war which is clearly against God’s will?  I cannot pray for God’s will to be done on earth and then work against God’s will by supporting war. If I do, then my prayer is not sincere and I am a hypocrite.

Peace is at the core of God’s kingdom. Jesus, the Prince of Peace, came down from heaven to give us his peace. His peace has both an individual dimension and a collective dimension. At the level of the individual, he offers through his redemptive grace the chance to make peace with God and peace with ourselves. At the collective level, his life, death and resurrection inaugurates and brings into existence a new Kingdom of peace, love, and justice.

As Christians, I believe we are called equally to both kinds of peace. We are called to make peace with our God, and make peace in the world with our fellow human beings. Too often, we have focused on the one – inner peace – and neglected the other – Kingdom peace on earth. This is because too often, we have been afraid to follow the radical example of Jesus; we have been too afraid to speak out against the dominant values of our friends, our families, our society; perhaps we have been too afraid of losing respect and influence from the powerful in this world.

So, sisters and brothers, children of God, what should we do? Both of my parents are ministers and they taught me that a sermon always ought to end with some practical suggestions for how we might respond. I believe we follow a practical faith of real relevance to the world; without actions, our faith is meaningless. Individually, I take from this reading of Jesus the challenge to continue educating myself – to learn more about the biblical basis of Christian pacifism; to learn more about the true nature of war, and the practicalities and potentialities of peace.

I am also challenged to ensure that I am at peace with God and my neighbor – that peace and peacefulness characterizes all my relationships with others, and with the earth that sustains me.

Lastly, I am challenged about my commitment to making peace in the world, to being a blessed peacemaker and working for Christ’s kingdom of peace on earth here and now. In this respect, I try to look for ways of contributing to peace organisations and peace groups, to actions and forms of activism that promote peace and oppose war and militarism. There are peace organisations in our own church, such as the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship, as well as many others in our city, our nation and the wider world.

And what about collectively? How should we respond as a community of faith to Jesus’s life and teaching? I believe that as a church, the Anglican Church, particularly as the main Christian church which has a long tradition and close historical relationship with the New Zealand state, I wonder if we need to ask some potentially difficult and painful questions.

·         Do we compromise our faith in the name of maintaining political favour by officially supporting war and militarism – by providing religious sanction to the nation’s military, to its wars and interventions, to its patriotic myths?

·         How can we honour those who serve in the armed services while also following Jesus’ call to radical pacifism and the Kingdom imperative to end war and the preparation for war?

·         Do we deny our Lord when we fail as an institution to speak out against all forms of war and militarism, and when we fail to denounce the violence and destruction of some of our nation’s policies?

·         Is it time for the Anglican Church in this nation, and for St Paul’s Cathedral in our city, to make a radical commitment to being peacemakers, and to take a more consistent, principled and open stand against war and all forms of militarism – to speak out against military spending, for example, particularly while so many children live in poverty in this country?

·         In a practical sense, is it time to devote significant financial and human resources to the study and practice of nonviolence – to educating and training Christian peacemakers who can offer peaceful alternatives to military forces and violent intervention?

My hope and my prayer is that all of us here today, and St Paul’s Cathedral and the entire community of faith in Dunedin, will grow in God’s peace, will try harder to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, and will be blessed peacemakers; and that our homes, our churches and our city will bring about God’s peace on earth as it is in heaven. This will be an extremely difficult task. It will require dedicated and tireless struggle. Fortunately, Jesus promises help; he gives us his peace as a source of strength: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (John 14: 27).

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.   

About richardjacksonterrorismblog

I am currently the Deputy Director of the National Peace and Conflict Studies Centre at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Prior to this, I was Professor of International Politics at Aberystwyth University in Wales, UK. I study and teach on issues of terrorism, political violence, conflict resolution and war. I have published several books on these topics, including: Terrorism: A Critical Introduction (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2011; co-authored with Lee Jarvis, Jeroen Gunning and Marie Breen Smyth); Contemporary State Terrorism: Theory and Cases (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010; edited by Richard Jackson, Eamon Murphy and Scott Poynting); Critical Terrorism Studies: A New Research Agenda (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009; edited by Richard Jackson, Marie Breen Smyth and Jeroen Gunning); Conflict Resolution in the Twenty-first Century: Principles, Methods and Approaches (Ann Arbor MI: Michigan University Press, 2009; co-authored with Jacob Bercovitch); and Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counterterrorism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005). I am also the editor-in-chief of the academic journal, Critical Studies on Terrorism.
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7 Responses to Swords into Ploughshares: A World Peace Day Sermon

  1. Pingback: Swords into Ploughshares: A World Peace Day Sermon … - Christian IBD

  2. Elizabeth Albiston says:

    Powerful and personally challenging. I have been a fence dweller for too long on this issue. It’s a fearful yet most likely a freeing step to cross the threshold and embrace a pacifist perspective on resolving issues. God grant me courage to take this step. To renounce all forms of verbal violence, to turn from thought of revenge toward extending love and peace. Forgive me for the many times I have provoked anger and help me to always recall the truism that “a soft answer turns away wrath”. Amen.

  3. Michael Snow says:

    Wonderful sermon. Many Christians are unfamiliar with Charles Spurgeon’s words on warfare and Christians: http://spurgeonwarquotes.wordpress.com/

  4. Kath Wells - mum! says:

    Well done Richard… as great message. Only the ‘Prince of Peace’ can change hearts and minds to a life-style of peace-making. May his Kingdom come…..

  5. Martin Purvis says:

    Eloquent and moving. You might perhaps like Kathy Kelly’s short piece on this topic: http://www.zcommunications.org/this-way-by-kathy-kelly.html.

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