War and Peace

a sermon by the Reverend Paul Oakley
10:30 AM, Sunday, January 12, 2020



Last week the New York-based standup comic Alex Giampapa posted a little joke about the position America finds itself in. He wrote:


America just needs a mom to be like, “A new war? You got new war money? You never even finished the last two. We have plenty of war at home.”[1]


Within the last week and a half, America and the Middle East – and, indeed, the world – have been in a precarious position, on the brink of war after President Trump ordered the assassination of Iran’s national hero Major General Qasem Soleimani. It was an unprecedented step, ordering assassination of a leader of a sovereign nation with whom we were not formally at war.


It may well be that covert operatives have carried out assassinations of figures of global or regional importance. Our pop culture is rife with 007, and Nikita, Jason Bourne, and more – covert operatives using amazing gadgetry or impossibly complex training to act as super beings, achieving impossible feats, doing in secret the evils on the back of which, in one perspective, the security and prosperity of the larger culture rests. Who knows how much these books and movies dramatize and glamorize and exaggerate something real in the way the world works and how much they are the imaginative creation conspiracy theorists and people who recognize there is money to be made in movie franchises.


Our relationship with Iran has been strained at its very best moments since the overthrow of America’s puppet, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the taking of 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days. Indeed, these events were instrumental in unseating an American President, resulting in Jimmy Carter’s defeat by Ronald Reagan in 1980. And while the work for the hostages’ release – both a failed rescue attempt and successful negotiation for their release – was done by the Carter Administration, Ronald Reagan was widely given credit for their release. The hostage crisis ended with the signing of the Algiers Accords in Algeria on 19 January 1981. But the hostages were formally released to United States custody the following day, just minutes after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the new American president.


America today is divided over whether the assassination of an Iranian military leader and national hero was a legal move or a strategically wise move. And in fact, there are undoubtedly different opinions in this room today. I have a very strong opinion that it was both illegal and unwise. And you may disagree partially or totally. Your interpretation of the facts and necessities does not have to agree with mine. I was 100% opposed to the first Gulf War. I was and remain opposed to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But perhaps some of you found them regrettable but necessary. Or maybe you believed the assertion of the George W. Bush Administration that the invasion of Afghanistan was the only way to protect ourselves against future terrorist attacks and that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that he was ready to use against the United States or US “interests.”


We do not have to agree on such issues in this congregation. It is, in fact, our core grounding that disagreement even on very important issues is okay. It is part of our baseline understanding of the Freedom of the Pulpit and Freedom of the Pew. On even the most important issues, the minister is free to speak a truth the congregation does not agree with and the members of the congregation are equally free to see truth differently. It is essential to hold these paired freedoms in equal regard.


Back in July, when I preached on these freedoms, I spoke of their paired success and failure in the ministry of John Haynes Holmes at the Church of the Messiah in New York City. War was at the center of it. Holmes was a pacifist and preached pacifism to his congregation in 1917. The patriotic fervor around US engagement in World War I ran high, and the leaders of American Unitarianism roundly condemned Holmes’ pacifism and marginalized him within the denomination. But his congregation? Though the majority did not share his pacifism, they overwhelmingly supported his preaching to them from that perspective. Rest assured, you are not asked to agree with me, even though these issues are of huge concern to all of us.


So in this faith that so highly values the individual conscience, are there any Unitarian Universalist norms around issues of War and Peace? Do we have any shared guidance? Or are we all on our own, trying to figure it out from scratch every time we or our adversaries are aggressors against each other or defend against each other? Are we without shared grounding when we assassinate a foreign leader or were to have one of our own leaders assassinated by foreign powers?


There is in fact a common baseline expressed in a statement of conscience on peacemaking hammered out and democratically approved by the delegates of Unitarian Universalist congregations at the 2010 General Assembly of our association. Among its enumerated points are these:[2]


  1. We advocate a culture of peace through a transformation of public policies, religious consciousness, and individual lifestyles…
  2. We all agree that our initial response to conflict should be the use of nonviolent methods. Yet, we bear witness to the right of individuals and nations to defend themselves, and acknowledge our responsibility to be in solidarity with others in countering aggression…
  3. We repudiate aggressive and preventive wars, the disproportionate use of force, covert wars, and targeting that includes a high risk to civilians… We repudiate unilateral interventions and extended military occupations as dangerous new forms of imperialism…
  4. For Unitarian Universalists, the exercise of individual conscience is holy work. Conscientious discernment leads us to engage in the creation of peace in different ways. We affirm a range of individual choices, including military service and conscientious objection… as fully compatible with Unitarian Universalism…


It is a careful, balanced statement that does not require us to march in lock step with each other, yet it grounds in love and in our principles the aim of avoiding war by transforming our approach to living on a planet shared with those who have different perspectives and even different values from ours.


There are religious bodies known as the historic Peace Churches, which take an officially pacifist position. Among these are the Quakers, the Mennonites, and the Church of the Brethren. Our congregations are often able to take cooperative action in solidarity with them because of the overlap in values and love of peace. These principles grew out of the history of religious wars in Europe. Our denominational history on matters of peace and war is different, and the statement of conscience summarizes that history like this:


As early as 1790, Universalists gathered in Philadelphia declared, “Although a defensive war may be considered lawful, yet we believe there is a time coming, when the light and universal love of the gospel shall put an end to all wars.” The Massachusetts Peace Society, founded by Unitarians Noah Worcester and William Ellery Channing during the War of 1812, helped launch the first peace movement to include both those repudiating all violence and those supporting defensive wars, to welcome members of all religious persuasions, and to affirm that nonviolence is humanly possible as well as divinely commanded…[3]


At our best, we are a denomination that seeks the transformation of all human potential into a force for good. Transformation of society, not just surviving its worst, but making things better for tomorrow than we have known before. It is not a utopian dream. We approach it knowing that for every advance, each evidence of growth, new challenges arise, often unforeseen challenges. No, we are not utopians. Our dream of an age when everything is made right is a dream of journey toward, of growing closer rather than of achieving, once and for all, the perfection of society.


In echo of the Jewish medieval rationalist philosopher Moses Maimonides, I have said – metaphorically, perhaps, but without irony – that I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the messiah. But the non-linear progressive development toward ultimate justice is one that requires our perpetual engagement. New situations bring new challenges, new injustices to overcome. The messiah is always coming in our actions to bring more justice, in our commitment to oppose new injustices.


In 1968, just seven years into the consolidation of the Unitarian and Universalist denominations into a single body, and only a couple of months after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the General Assembly of our association voted to support of the Poor People’s Campaign of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Dr. King’s final, uncompleted heart and brain child. Fifty years later in 2018, this effort was revived and rebooted by the Rev. William Barber II and Liz Theoharis. The overarching goal of this movement is changing the world for the betterment of poor people of all identities. The movement centers on a moral agenda in the form of a slew of demands in five areas:


  • Systemic Racism – and especially in voting rights
  • Poverty and Inequality
  • Ecological Devastation
  • The War Economy and Militarism
  • National Morality


The Poor People’s Campaign holds all five of these as loci of the inequity that predominates in our current, immoral system. And because of our focus today, I will only look at the war economy and militarism now. The Poor People’s Campaign opposes:


  • Military aggression and war mongering;
  • The privatization of our military budget and the increase in military spending;
  • The widespread availability of assault rifles and other weapons;
  • The militarization of our borders and of police forces throughout the country; and
  • The use of the immigration system to criminalize people whose sole aim is to raise their families in security and with reasonable opportunities.


All of these are areas of national immorality that promote inequity and harm poor people and all of us. On the eve of the Rev. Barber’s public reboot of Poor People’s Campaign, the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray announced the association’s support and full participation in the Poor People’s Campaign. And now we are in a moment, here at this Fellowship, when the possibility of participation in this vision of a world of equity, not overrun by militarism, not overpowered by an economy that, through military spending and privatization enrich the rich and harm poor people at home and worldwide.


You may reasonably feel that there is little that you, as a thoughtful, moral individual can do to steer this obstinate nation away from its current course that has exploded personal wealth of a few through manipulation of a great military engine. But voices joined together in concerted action can always do more than the same number of individuals acting alone. And so we come to the moment of opportunity to make your anti-militarism and your support of those in greatest need into meaningful action.


At 6:30 PM on Friday, January 24, 2020, under the leadership of our own AJ and Adrienne Young, the launch of the Shenandoah Valley branch of the Poor People’s Campaign will take place RIGHT HERE. This is an opportunity for you to join in meaningful action for the transformation of our nation into a better version of itself.


I believe with perfect faith in the coming of messiah, that great symbol of a world in the process of being made right, being transformed into something better than it is or has been. A time coming, as our Universalist ancestors said, when the light and universal love of the good news of freedom shall put an end to all wars. It is our effort that can bring meaningful peace.



Please join your voices together with mine in the ancient familiar prayer for peace: Dona nobis pacem, through our action grant us peace.



Amen and Blessed Be.


[1] https://www.facebook.com/alexgiampapa/posts/10157645318265256

[2] https://www.uua.org/action/statements/creating-peace

[3] https://www.uua.org/action/statements/creating-peace