A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 17, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Matthew Matthew 5:38-47 and 26:47-53
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Classic anti-war poster.

One of my earliest memories is from when I was seven. It was Mother’s Day, 1968.[1]   The war in Vietnam was raging. The anti-war movement was growing stronger. And my family decided to join an anti-war march to the Hanscom Field Air Force Base outside of Boston.

7-year-olds don’t understand geopolitics. 7-year-olds see the world very concretely. For 7-year-olds, something is either fun or boring, right or wrong. Peace was good, so war was bad, in my 7-year-old’s mind, so the war in Vietnam was wrong. I didn’t understand the intricacies of the legacy of colonialism. I didn’t understand the anxieties about communism or the politics of redbaiting. My parents opposed the war if Vietnam for nuanced reasons. I opposed the war because war was wrong.

I don’t come from a family of pacifists. My father served in the Air Force during the Korean War. My father’s father worked on various weapons projects, including early attempts at bomb guidance systems during World War II. My mother’s father ran a company that made important military airplane engine parts during World War II. I’m not a descendant of Conscientious Objectors. Yet that 7-year-old’s conclusion that war is wrong is a conclusion I carried into adulthood.

In December, 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.[2] In response, President Jimmy Carter decided the U.S. Olympic Team would boycott the 1980 games. And he decided to re-institute draft registration. His message was clear: The United States would make sure it had a way to raise a massive army (through a draft) if Soviet aggression expanded.

During the week of July 21, 1980, men born in 1960 were ordered to go to their local Post Office and register for the draft. The following week, men born in 1961 were ordered to the Post Office to register. In January 1981, men born in 1962 were ordered to register. And starting that same January, men born in 1963 and later were ordered to register for the draft within 30 days of their 18th birthdays.

As a 1961 baby, during the summer of 1980, I had to decide what I would do. For some people, the decision was easy; they simply registered for the draft. But I had carried from my early childhood a belief that war is wrong and it seemed to me that draft registration was aiding and abetting the war machine. Would I register for the draft? Would I make some kind of protest when I registered? Would I refuse to register and face the possibility of arrest and up to 5 years in a federal prison?

Because of the return of draft registration, I had to re-examine my childhood beliefs. I was 19 and a 7-year-old’s “peace is good so war is bad” belief system was too simplistic. I had to wrestle with questions of the morality of war in different situations.

War with the Soviet Union, the most immanent threat, could too easily devolve into thermonuclear war and the end of civilization as we know it, so I concluded that war with the Soviet Union was immoral.

Hostages were being held in Iran, so we could go to war there. As I considered that possibility, I concluded that this was a hostage crisis and we respond to hostage crises with the police, not the army. In a hostage crisis, we negotiate, not shoot and bomb. Such a war, I concluded, would be immoral.

There was always the possibility of a military adventure in Latin America. I figured it would most likely be in Nicaragua or El Salvador, wars to stop communism. What was the morality of invading a country to overthrow the government? Immoral, I concluded. [By the way, within a decade, we had two military invasions in Latin America: Granada and Panama, neither of which do I consider moral.]

I tried to imagine a war that we could be involved in that would be moral and I couldn’t imagine one.

And more basic to me than the geopolitical mind experiments I was having was the question of me in uniform. Could I carry a gun and shoot another person who my country had labeled “enemy”? The answer was, “no.”

I explored the possibility of a non-combatant role in the military, a possibility under Selective Service regulations should a draft start. My answer here, too, was, “no.” To wear the uniform, I concluded, even as a non-combatant would be to support the mission of the military, which, in a time of war, was to execute that war, and that was immoral.

You see, I kept coming back to Jesus, to his life, his words, his actions, his death and resurrection. And two scriptures in particular challenged me, the two scriptures we heard today. If Jesus really meant it when he said we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, then I couldn’t kill them or support the killing of them. I took Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount about turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile and giving up your clothing as a call to pacifism. Later I learned that they are actually a call to non-violent activism for the sake of justice – still a call to non-violence.

“The Capture of Christ with the Malchus Episode” by Dirck van Baburen

I thought about Jesus’ arrest, an unjust act carried out so he could be killed. In Matthew’s telling of the story, one of the disciples draws a sword and acts to defend Jesus. “Put away your sword,” Jesus tells his disciples. Disarm. What Jesus denied his disciples to do even to defend him, our government sends our military to do in war. I could only read these words as a condemnation of war. So I came to understand that I am a conscientious objector.

It’s been 34 years since the summer of 1980, and if you asked me three weeks ago, I would have told you that I still believe war is immoral. Period.

And then news of the activities of ISIL (also know as ISIS and “the Islamic State”) came to my awareness, and I have found myself struggling with questions about the morality of war, questions I thought I had answered decades ago.

The Arabic letter Nun

The actions of ISIL came to my attention thanks to social media. For me, it started with the hashtag #WeAreN.[3] People were tweeting and posting things about the atrocities in Iraq tagged #WeAreN.[4] Then I started seeing people posting the Arabic letter that is on your bulletin covers, the letter Nun. Nun is the first letter of Nazarene, or Christian. #WeAreN. It is the letter ISIL has been painting on Christian homes and businesses and then that property is targeted. As I learned more about this, I thought of pictures from Nazi German when the Star of David and the word “Jude” was painted on shop windows to aid in the persecution of the Jews.

Christians aren’t the only group being persecuted by ISIL, just the first I heard about. ISIL is persecuting any group that does not conform to their religious ideals.[5] That means that Yazidis, Shi’a Muslims, Christians, and maybe even Sunni Muslims who aren’t sufficiently fundamentalist are being persecuted.

And by “persecuted,” I mean ethnically cleansed. Christians and Yazidis who stayed in Mosel when ISIL took control of the city have been killed. For the first time since the beginning of Christianity, there are no Christians in Mosel. None. Zero.[6] I don’t have to process it. I don’t have to do a mind experiment. It is clear to me that ethnic cleansing is immoral. Whether it’s Tutsis and Hutus killing each other, or the Khmer Rouge killing Cambodians, or Croats and Serbs killing each other, or ISIL killing Yazidis and Christians, ethnic cleansing is immoral.

So I found myself wondering: How do we stop this latest, violent round of ethnic cleansing? As I learned more about the horror of ISIL’s ethnic cleansing, I wanted to stomp them, to crush them. I was angry and I wanted revenge, destruction. I’m not proud of that emotional response, but I had it.

Then I pushed my fantasy a little further from me. I fantasized about a united Arab army coming into Iraq and Syria and stomping ISIL. And I wanted an Arab response because I wanted it to be a Muslim response – a Muslim response rejecting the theology that ISIL uses to justify their ethnic cleansing.

My fantasies are rooted in the myth of redemptive violence. I’ve talked about this myth before, about its power in our culture, in our collective unconscious. The myth says, “Violence can save us.”

We’ve seen the myth of redemptive violence at work this week in Ferguson, Missouri. A legacy of violence against African-Americans contributed to the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer. Outraged by his killing, people demonstrated. Some demonstrators got violent, buying into the myth that violence could save them from the threat they perceived. Threatened by the violence of this segment of the demonstrators, the police responded with more violence, believing that their violence could save them and the city from the violence of the demonstrators.

Capt. Ron Johnson walking with residents of Ferguson, MO.

The thing that has had any impact on calming things down have been Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, now in charge of the police in Ferguson, walking in the street in a regular uniform, talking to people and hugging them,[7] and the work of religious leaders in opening dialog and working as mediators.[8] In other words, refusing to buy in to the myth of redemptive violence.

Things are still very tense in Ferguson. Demonstrations, some of which turn violent, continue. The Governor has responded by declaring a state of emergency and instituting a curfew. More force. More violence. All because we believe the myth that violence can save us.

And it is a myth (rather than a bald-faced lie) because there is a kernel of truth in it. Violence can, in some situations, save us – for the moment. Shooting a mass murderer will stop that mass murderer. That violence will save us for the moment from that mass murderer’s violence. But violence does not have the power to save in the ultimate sense of salvation. That is why Jesus tells his disciple to put away the sword. Violence will not save; it will only perpetuate the violence. Those who live the sword shall die by the sword.

Martin Luther King, Jr., was preaching the gospel when he said, “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”[9]

Last Sunday, Pope Francis told pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square, “The news coming from Iraq leaves us incredulous and appalled,” as he cataloged the brutal “violence of every kind” that has driven tens of thousands and perhaps hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, and left hundreds and probably thousands dead and dying. “All this seriously offends God and seriously offends humanity,” he said. “You cannot bring hatred in the name of God. You cannot make war in the name of God!”[10]

“Yet even as Francis called on the international community to find ‘an efficient political solution that can stop these crimes,’ the Vatican also tried to make peace with the idea that U.S. military strikes that began last week were necessary and working.

“‘This is something that had to be done, otherwise (the Islamic State) could not be stopped,’ … the Vatican’s ambassador … to Iraq, told Vatican Radio.”[11]

I am left wondering what the moral difference is between a declared war and the bombing that my country is doing. If there is a moral difference, it is a very fine line.

Yesterday, the LA Times reported[12] on expanded U.S. bombing missions and yet another massacre of Yazidis at the hands of ISIL. The U.S. air missions are providing cover for Iraqi soldiers and Kurdish pro-government peshmerga fighters who are trying to regain control of Iraq’s largest hydroelectric dam. President Obama’s administration is trying to color the action as “supportive of both the humanitarian mission and of the need to protect U.S. personnel …”[13]

Meanwhile, on Friday, ISIL forces killed scores of Yazidi men and took hundreds of women and children captive in the village of Kocho. And, according to the LA Times report, the Iraqi and Kurdish governments see themselves as being engaged in a war with ISIL. If we are not at war with ISIL, it’s awfully close to war.

And this is sad to me because I am quite certain that war will not solve the ISIL crisis. In fact, I’m quite certain that war is, at least in part, responsible for creating the ISIL crisis. I think Jim Wallis’ analysis is right: “Regrettably, this ongoing crisis [in Iraq] is the result of failed military strategies from the previous decade. American and international churches warned the United States and its allies that the likely outcome of war in Iraq would be increased terrorism and violence. Ultimately, there is no U.S. military solution that can solve Iraq’s long-term conflicts or address challenges roiling that nation. The path to stability and lasting peace involves the hard work of building a strong civil society, re-affirming robust and inclusive democratic institutions, protecting the human rights of everyone, and promoting fair and peaceful processes for resolving disputes.”[14]

So, if war is not the answer, if more killing is not the answer, what is the answer to the questions, “How should we morally respond to the ethnic cleansing being perpetrated by ISIL?” Some who agree with me that war will not solve the problem will still say that our current military response is a necessary evil to stop the immediate crisis.

Perhaps. But I’m not certain.

I cannot help but wonder, if Jesus was serious about putting away the sword, if Jesus was serious about loving our enemies and praying for the people who persecute us, then there must be another non-violent way to transform these “enemies” into friends.


[1] I have attempted to research this, to find out if this march that I remember, was in fact in 1968. That is my memory and my father thinks it was then, too.

[2] “Soviet war in Afghanistan,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_invasion_of_afghanistan (accessed 14 August 2014).

[3] A hashtag is a device used on Twitter and Facebook by participants to categorize their posts.

[4] See Jonathan Merritt, “#WeAreN: What the media misses about Iraqi Christian persecution,” Religious News Service, http://jonathanmerritt.religionnews.com/2014/07/25/wearen-media-misses-iraqi-christian-persecution/ (posted 25 July; accessed 16 August 2014) for more information about the start of this campaign and what it is failing to do.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Cathy Otten, “Last remaining Christians flee Iraq’s Mosul,” Aljazeera, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/07/last-remaining-christians-flee-iraq-mosul-201472118235739663.html (posted 22 July 2014; accessed 16 August 2014).

[7] “New Ferguson Police Commander Ron Johnson Walks With Protestors,” Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/14/ron-johnson-ferguson_n_5680351.html (posted 14 August 2014; accessed 16 August 2014).

[8] Yasmine Hafiz, “Ferguson Police Reportedly Shot Pastor Renita Lamkin With Rubber Bullet During Protest,” Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/14/ferguson-pastor-shot-police-rubber-bullet_n_5678973.html (posted 14 August 2014; accessed 16 August 2014).

[9] Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted on Wikipedia (and other sources), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Violence_begets_violence (accessed 16 August 2014).

[10] Pope Francis, quoted in Josephine McKenna & David Gibson, “Pope Francis’ Iraq Peace Message Meets The Reality Of War As U.S. Begins Airstrikes,” Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/11/pope-francis-iraq-peace_n_5669666.html (posted 11 August 2014; accessed 16 August 2014).

[11] Josephine McKenna & David Gibson, “Pope Francis’ Iraq Peace Message Meets The Reality Of War As U.S. Begins Airstrikes,” Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/11/pope-francis-iraq-peace_n_5669666.html (posted 11 August 2014; accessed 16 August 2014).

[12] Shashank Bengali, David S. Cloud, Patrick J. McDonnell, “Iraq massacre reported as U.S. strikes target militants at Mosul dam,” Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com/world/middleeast/la-fg-iraq-airstrikes-20140816-story.html#page=1 (posted and accessed 16 August 2014

[13] An unnamed U.S. “official,” quoted in the LA Times article.

[14] Jim Wallis, “Statement from Jim Wallis in Response to Violence in Iraq,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/press/statement-jim-wallis-response-violence-iraq (posted on 13 August, 2014; accessed on 14 August 2014).