I am preaching at Pine Plains United Methodist Church in Pine Plains, NY. Here are my thoughts for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost.
Every year, for this particular Sunday, I have tried to write about the idea or concept of freedom. But over the past couple of years, I have begun to wonder if we have forgotten what the true cost of freedom is. We have come to equate the need for war with the need for freedom; we have come to think that we must expend the lives of our young in order to insure our freedom.
Last year, several comments were posted to my blog when I posted my thoughts about war and freedom. (1) The focus of these comments was that war was inevitable and that we needed to meet violence with violence. Perhaps war is inevitable but it is only so when we allow it to happen.
I do not believe military force is necessarily the proper solution to the problems of the world today. When Jesus stood before the people in the synagogue in Nazareth and pronounced the Good News, he had no army and no plans for an army. His message was a transforming message, meant to change the way people viewed and related to other people. The message of the Gospel was certainly not meant to be the domination of one individual over another by physical force. Many of those who rejoiced when they first heard Christ’s words quickly left when they found out He would not lead an army of soldiers to establish the new Kingdom.. They were unwilling to pay the cost for the freedom that Jesus was offering. Paul tells us that Jesus Christ came to set us free and that we should not submit to the yoke of slavery. (2) Yet, in the confinement of slavery, we seem to think that we are free. But it is only an illusion of freedom.
But it seems that, as a society, we have forgotten what the true cost of freedom is. This week we will hear speakers on both sides of the political aisle speak of the sacrifice of the young men and women who have died in the past year to preserve and protect our freedom.
We are in a quasi-state of war, but we are not fighting those who attacked us. We have used that attack as the excuse that we must go to war in order to prevent others from attacking us. And despite what our leaders may say, our young are not being killed in a war against terrorism but by both sides of a civil war. It is clear that there are those in this country (and that includes members of the various religious communities) who feel that war is the only solution to the problems that we face each day, at home and abroad.
I do not think so; our country’s decision to go to war required that we surrender our freedoms, not enhance them. The political freedom that this country has so long stood for has been given away in order to justify war. It becomes very difficult to accept the idea that we must fight in order to preserve our freedoms and remain safe. It angers me that politicians will use the occasion of this week to call for more war and will use the death of so many young men and women as the basis for this call.
Now, before I go on, like so many in this country I grieve at the loss of any one who has died while serving this country. My family was fortunate in that our grandfather, who served this country in World War I and retired as a Colonel in the United States Army, died at home during peace time. We are fortunate because if he had not been retired medically by the Army in 1943, he would have been in command of one of the regiments that landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944.
I am also the son of an Air Force Major, who began his service in World War II. He died in his sleep during a period of relative peace in this world but his service was during the most turbulent period of peace imaginable.
Throughout his service in the Air Force, we lived on bases that were home to both units of the Air Training Command and of the Strategic Air Command. Kids I went to school with during the 1950’s and 1960’s were the sons and daughters of the pilots and crews of the B-52’s that served as the air arm of our nuclear deterrent. We did not discuss their father’s work back then but I do know that later on families were told that in the advent of a nuclear attack the bases that housed the B-52 crews and their families as well as the Titan II and Minuteman missile crews and their families were prime targets for their Soviet equivalents and would have, in the event of a nuclear attack, been the scene of total destruction and devastation.
It was with some degree of dark humor that the keeping of the peace during the height of the Cold War was symbolized by the term Mutually Assured Destruction or its acronym MAD. This quaint little term expressed the idea that each side had the ability and more than enough capability to completely destroy their opposition. There is no better acronym in the history of mankind than the one coined for mankind’s destruction of itself.
From my grandfather’s diary and my father’s comments, I came to read and hear about the horrors of war. Yet, in our news broadcasts today, we see very little of the horrors of war; to do so would only aid the enemy in their cause.
We have attempted to remove the personal aspect from war so that it is easier to go to war. Civilian deaths are called collateral damage; we know that civilians are being killed but we have no idea how many civilians have been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan since we invaded those countries. Our own military dead come home without fanfare and often in the middle of the night, noticed only by their families. Our wounded sons and daughters come home to a medical system that is over-taxed and under-prepared to deal with the nature of their physical and mental wounds. And after only a minimum of care, they are quickly forgotten, left on their own to find their way in an unknowing and uncaring world while politicians on both sides of the aisle will speak of their sacrifices, the losses of their limbs and lives, so that we may enjoy freedom.
Like so many families today, when my grandfather and my father were buried, my family received American flags with the thanks and appreciation of a grateful nation for their service. Honor guards will convey these same words to the families, to the parents, to the children of those who die this week but will their deaths, will the price that these young soldiers paid really be for our freedom?
No politician will speak about removing war from today’s vocabulary. No one, be they politician or minister, soldier or civilian, will speak of finding ways to remove the causes of war so that we, the parents and older generation, can stop burying our children. The Greek historian Herodotus quoted Croesus, the King of Lydia as saying “no one is as foolish as to prefer war to peace where fathers bury their sons instead of sons burying their fathers.” (3) Rather than remembering what General Robert E. Lee said about the horrors of war, “It is fortunate that war is so terrible, because we could grow quite fond of it,” we seek it out as the solution to our problems.
We are like James and John, the “Sons of Thunder”, in today’s Gospel reading (4) who want to send the wrath of God upon those who disagree with us. Because we see war as the solution, we chose to forget the horrors of war. We do not pursue peace with the same vigor that we do war.
It is not like others have not spoken out against war in the past. President Dwight Eisenhower said,
If men can develop weapons that are so terrifying as to make the thought of global war include almost a sentence for suicide, you would think that man’s intelligence and his comprehension… would include also his ability to find a peaceful solution.
General of the Army Omar Bradley said,
We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing that we know about living.
The recent Time article about the legacy of President John F. Kennedy pointed out that he understood the horrors of both conventional and nuclear warfare. The radioactive fallout from the nuclear tests that both the Soviet Union and the United States were conducting in the 1960’s was landing on grass and becoming part of the food chain. This frightened President Kennedy and led him to seek a different solution to the arms race and global conflict.
While many people during those times called for war of any kind, President Kennedy sought peace. In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on 25 September 1961, he said, “Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind.”
In a speech on 10 June, 1963 at American University in Washington, D. C.(a United Methodist school, by the way), he expanded upon that idea by stating,
I have, therefore, chosen this time and place to discuss a topic on which ignorance too often abounds and the truth too rarely perceived. And that is the most important topic on earth: peace. What kind of peace do I mean and what kind of a peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, and the kind that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope, and build a better life for their children not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time but peace in all time.
I speak of peace because of the new face of war. Total war makes no sense in an age where great powers can maintain large and relatively invulnerable nuclear forces and refuse to surrender without resort to those forces. It makes no sense in an age where a single nuclear weapon contains almost ten times the explosive force delivered by all the allied air forces in the Second World War.
It makes no sense in an age when the deadly poisons produced by a nuclear exchange would be carried by wind and water and soil and seed to the far corners of the globe and to generations yet unborn.
Today the expenditure of billions of dollars every year on weapons acquired for the purpose of making sure we never need them is essential to the keeping of peace. But surely the acquisition of such idle stockpiles which can only destroy and never create is not the only, much less the most efficient, means of assuring peace. I speak of peace, therefore, as the necessary, rational end of rational men. I realize the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war, and frequently the words of the pursuers fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task. (5)
It is interesting that those who are familiar with the horrors of war in all of its forms are among those who argue against war. Yet, the prophetic words spoken at the height of the Cold War seem to have been quickly forgotten.
Despite all that we know, we still see war as the arbiter of peace and justice. There are those today who see war as the only answer and are quite willing to utilize nuclear weapons in the pursuit of their goals. But even one nuclear weapon dropped somewhere on the other side of the world will have consequences here in the United States. The fallout from a nuclear weapon will ultimately make its way to this country and will impact us in so many unimaginable ways. I can remember weather forecasts of the early 1960’s giving the amount of strontium-90 that was in the air. This radioactive isotope takes the place of calcium in the food chain; those who ingest this isotope develop bone cancer. And since the most common source of calcium in our diet is milk, the ones most affected by this will be the children of the world. It was this knowledge that led President Kennedy to seek the beginning of the end of nuclear testing. Are we so willing to engage in warfare that we will not only bury our oldest children but began to bury our youngest as well?
War is, if you will, an equal opportunity destructive force. It does not differentiate between a soldier and a civilian, an adult and a child. It creates poverty, misery, destruction and unemployment. And all that can come from this creation is more war
Paul’s words to the Galatians that were part of today’s Old Testament reading (6) become very prophetic. Paul wrote that we are called to freedom but this freedom is not to be the opportunity for self-indulgence. Rather than devouring each other, we are called to take care of each other. Interesting words when we hear others proclaim that only war will set us free.
Are not “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissentions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing and things like these” (7) the very things that lead to disagreement and ultimately to war?
If we are to remove war from the vocabulary of society, then it must begin with us. We must be willing to take the steps that will bring peace into this world. John Kennedy pointed out that “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.
Paul counsels the Galatians, and he counsels us today, to lead a life of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (8)
Black Elk, a traditional holy man and visionary of the Oglala Sioux, said
The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit, and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.
Thomas Aquinas said,
Peace is the work of justice indirectly, in so far as justice removes the obstacles to peace; but it is the work of charity (love) directly, since charity, according to its very notion, causes peace.
What cost are we willing to pay in order to insure that freedom through peace, not war, is accomplished in our lifetime?
Contrast the actions of the young man who wished to follow Christ with the actions of Elisha as he sought to inherit the spiritual nature of Elijah’s ministry. The young man was unwilling to give up his present life in order to follow Christ while Elisha was willing to see God is all His Glory and Power. This was at a time when it was believed that to see God in this manner would only insure your immediate and horrible death. Elisha was willing to go against the beliefs of society so that he could continue the ministry begun by Elijah. But the young man was not willing to do the same. He was unwilling to pay the cost.
If we are to find the cost of freedom, we must be willing to look for it in other places. If we are willing to pay the cost of freedom, we must be willing to do the things that bring peace and not continue to bring war. In proclaiming the Gospel message, Jesus spoke of healing the sick, feeding the hungry, bringing freedom to the oppressed. If there is to be peace in this world, should not the Gospel message not only be proclaimed but carried out?
Are you able to bear the burden that comes from freedom? Are you able to find freedom through Christ? Are you able to do the work that Christ asks you to do? If you are able, then you can find the cost of freedom. If you cannot, then you will never know true freedom and its cost will be beyond your reach.
(1) “Study War No More”
(2) Galatians 5: 1
(3) From Herodotus’ “The Persian Wars”
(4) Luke 9: 51 – 62
(5) John F. Kennedy’s speech to the graduates of American University of 10 June 1963
(6) Galatians 5: 1, 13 – 25
(7) Galatians 5: 21
(8) Galatians 5: 22