Not to Bring Peace, But a Sword, by Rev. William Sloane Coffin

Every prophet has realized that nobody loves you for being the enemy
of their illusions. Every prophet has realized that most of us want
peace at any price as long as the peace is ours and somebody else pays
the price…

By the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin, February 16, 1992.

text, audio and video available at 30 Good Minutes  

 

Let's start by recognizing that there is a
fundamental, unacceptability about unpleasant truth. We all shield
ourselves against its wounding accuracy. Not only do we do this as
individuals, but we do this as a people, as a nation. Twenty-seven
hundred years ago, as some of you may remember, not because you were
there, but because you read the Bible, the priest Amaziah said of the
prophet Amos, "…the land is not able to bear all his words."

 

Every prophet has realized that nobody loves you for being the enemy
of their illusions. Every prophet has realized that most of us want
peace at any price as long as the peace is ours and somebody else pays
the price. That is why the prophet Jeremiah said, "'Peace, peace,'
they say, when there is no peace," and why Jesus said, "Do not
suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to
bring peace, but a sword."    (Matthew 10:34 NIV)

 

The Soviet Union is in bad shape today, as we all know. It proves
that the hardest moment for a bad government is when it tries to mend
its ways. At least let's give credit to the Soviet leadership for having
faced unacceptable, unpleasant truth.

 

It was almost in prophetic fashion that Gorbachev and other leaders
said that without repentance there is no salvation, without judgment
there is no hope. If there is a way to the better, it lies in taking a
full look at the worst. Let's give them credit for doing everything they
could to try and bury once and for all the evils of Stalinism for the
sake of a saner, safer future for everybody.

 

I wonder if we Americans don't also have something that we should
contribute, as it were, to the burial grounds of the world, something
that would make the world a safer place. I think there is something in
us. It is an attitude more than an idea. It lives less in the American
mind than under the American skin. That is the notion that we are not
only the most powerful nation in the world, which we certainly are, but
that we are also the most virtuous. I think this pride is our bane and I
think it is so deep-seated that it is going to take the sword of
Christ's truth to do the surgical operation.

 

Let's recognize that there is good reason for this. I think this
self-satisfaction may go all the way back to 1630, when on board the
Arabella making its way towards what was going to be the Massachusetts
Bay Colony, John Winthrop said in a now famous sermon, "We shall be
as a city set upon a hill."

 

As moral aspiration for his Puritan hearers as for us, that image
from the Sermon on the Mount was beautiful and appropriate, but think
about it for a moment. It is fraught with dangerous implications.
"We shall be as a city set upon a hill," implies that other
folk will look up to us, perhaps with an attention so admiring and so
rooted that eventually the world will be populated by frustrated,
potential Americans.

 

That this has been the way most of us Americans have looked at
ourselves and the world is borne out by brief testimony that I want to
bring you from four famous outstanding Americans.

In the middle of the last century, Herman Melville-most of you are
probably still trying to finish Moby Dick, this was not Moby
Dick
, it was in a book called White-Jacket-wrote,
"Long enough have we Americans been skeptics as regards ourselves,
doubting whether or not the political messiah had come, but he has come
in us if we would but give utterance to his promptings." So wrote,
arguably, the greatest American novelist.

 

Moving ahead fifty years, at the turn of the century, Senator Albert
J. Beveridge informed his colleagues in Washington, "God has marked
the American people to lead in the redemption of the world. This is the
divine mission of America."

 

In the middle of the war in Viet Nam, when tossing his hat into the
presidential ring, Bobbie Kennedy said, "At stake is not only the
leadership of a party and a country, at stake is our claim to the moral
leadership of the world." Aids reading the speech ahead of time,
begged him to take that sentence out. It was the very language that got
us into the war in Viet Nam in the first place, but their pleadings went
in vain.

 

Fourthly, lastly, let me recall the words of President Reagan in his
Second Inaugural in 1984. He said, "Peace is our highest
aspiration. The record is clear, Americans resort to force only when
they must. We have never been aggressors."

 

That would certainly come as news to Native Americans. It would come
as news to Blacks; it would come as news to Filipinos, to Cubans, to
Nicaraguans, where our Marines landed fourteen times in their history.
All of which is to say that no nation, ours or any other, is well served
by illusions of righteousness. All nations make decisions based on
self-interest and then defend them in the name of morality.

 

It was good advice for us in our personal relations and for us as a
nation in our international relations when St. Augustine said,
"Never fight evil as if it were something that arose totally
outside of yourself," a reflection of St. Paul's words, "All
have sinned and fallen short…"

 

Not some, not a majority, not they, that evil empire, but all have
sinned and fallen short. In other words, if we are not one in love with
other nations in the world, at least we are one with them in sin which
is no mean bond because it precludes the possibility of separation
through judgment. That is the meaning of the scriptural injunction,
"Judge not, that ye be not judged."

 

Children are innocent and their innocence is beautiful, but adults
should not be innocents. They should know that in the stream of human
life it is not innocence but holiness that is our only option.

Nobody can doubt that the world would be a safer and saner place if
somehow we Americans got over our self-righteousness in our foreign
relations.

 

One more final thing, it is our pride-swollen faces that have closed

up our eyes here at home to an almost unimaginable neglect of the poor,
the bloat of the military, the size of the deficit, the sorrow of the
aged and infirm among us. There are lots of implications to this and I
find this tough text, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring
peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword," is a
wonderfully honest statement about the need for the sword of truth,
Christ's sword of truth, that heals the wounds it inflicts.

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