FOR WHOM DO THE BELLS TOLL? A Call to Prophetic Nonviolence

FOR WHOM DO THE BELLS TOLL? A Call to Prophetic Nonviolence

A Sermon by
James Ishmael Ford

25 May 2008
First Unitarian Society
West Newton, Massachusetts


No man is an island,
Entire of itself.

Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manner of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.

Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

John Donne

Since March of 2003 when the Iraq war officially began, more than four thousand young Americans have been killed and another thirty thousand wounded. According to Senator Harry Reid’s office, just shy of ninety thousand Iraqi’s have died and up to four and a half million have become refugees inside or outside their country. This is Memorial Day weekend. Within this sanctuary we need to ask ourselves some questions. Why war? Why this war? When should we unleash those dogs of war? When should we not? And what about those who fight and die and are maimed in our name? What are our obligations to them?

To answer these questions now and in the future I feel it critical to consider the deeper currents that drive our decisions, and how we might best bring clear judgment to any possible military engagement. I feel we need to start by looking at our human hearts and what it is that motivates us to acts of war. I will recount a story an old friend told me which points to some hard truths about us. Then I will share a description of the grand arc of life on this planet and our place within the evolutionary current. I will then push that with a startling, I feel, assertion about what wisdom really is. After which, I’ll bring in the thinking of a Unitarian Universalist theologian, who, I feel ties these various truths together in a fairly coherent way of nonviolent engagement. Then, within this context, informed by these perspectives, I’ll make just a few comments on this specific war.

First, my old friend, the Zen priest Dosho Port. Last summer he was at the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of the Lake Superior National Forest in Minnesota. He was camping with his kids, aged ten and thirteen. Dosho writes how “One night I awoke to what sounded like a bear near the campsite. Incredible adrenaline surged through me, and all I could think about was that I had to protect my kids. Fight to the death, even, of me or the bear.” I can identify with that moment in the tent. There’s the sole grownup, the one with the responsibility, and danger presents. In fact, I had a similar experience once, perhaps many of us have. There are always situations that call for someone to step up to the plate, and here, in this moment, who that was, was easy to see.

In this specific case, as Dosho tells us, “The snap-crackle-pop gradually disappeared…” He then adds, he couldn’t really be sure whether it was a bear, at all. In fact, he suggests, who knows, “it may well have been a chipmunk.” So much hangs in that observation. But for our purposes, the issue is engaged; the question is asked. There is a perception of danger. And someone is called upon to face it. What about that? Who? When? Under what circumstances? And to what outcome?

Dosho notes as he reflected on this specific situation how “It strikes me now that this is the root of a lot of wars. Guys getting convinced that a bear is out there and it is our role to kill it.” Then he asks what I consider one of the most difficult questions. “I wonder if we are hardwired for this kind of response.” And then he draws what I consider the necessary conclusion, “If so, we’ve got to deal with it in that way – with deep respect.”

My friend the UU minister Fred Hammond describes what he sees as the grand narrative we might all share as religious liberals. It provides what I feel is a useful context, and bridges what Dosho noticed. “Through a variety of convergences of mysterious (origin) a series of evolutionary events occur causing simple… molecules to create with ever more complexity life on earth. Eventually, humanity evolved as the most complex creature… with an ability to control the environment, to develop complex societal clusters, and to self-determine its own destiny and evolution.

“Humanity is still very much in its infancy in its development as a species. (And significantly it) has not kept pace in its emotive, rational, and spiritual development in contrast with its explosive growth of technological adaptations. This has resulted in clashes within humanity and with its environment often with grave consequences.

“Humanity, therefore, needs to further develop its emotive, rational, and spiritual abilities to allow for the most freedom, the most justice, and the most equitable way for all of humanity and all of life to continue thriving on this planet.” Fred then adds a coda, the most important point of this narrative, of this story, I feel. “Humanity is currently the only creature on this planet capable of achieving this harmonic existence… for all of life.” We are, I believe, continuing to evolve. And we have, I believe, a heavy responsibility, if we hope to survive as a species, indeed, as part of the web of life on this planet.

Coming from deep inside this is the American Zen teacher and social justice activist Bernie Glassman’s observation about wisdom, called in Zen “enlightenment.” “(I)f your definition of enlightenment is that there’s no anti-Semitism in the state of enlightenment, you better change your definition… If your definition of enlightenment is that there’s no nationalism, or militarism, or bigotry in the state of enlightenment you better change your definition…

“For the state of enlightenment is maha, the circle with no inside and no outside, not even a circle, just the pulsating of life everywhere.” We are, Bernie tells us, caught up in that web of mutuality, the interdependent web of all existence, all existence. And nothing is truly alien to us, or who we are. We will be looking for bears; that’s our nature. And the bears belong here as well. We’re all in this together. I think we need to hold all three of these perspectives: we have in our hearts both the need to protect and the ability to kill, we are evolving biologically and societially, and we’re never apart from any part of it.

Today recalling Dosho’s, Fred’s and Bernie’s observations, today in the middle of our American Memorial Day weekend, I feel a deep need to reflect, not on bears, interesting metaphor for danger that they provide, but rather directly on war and peace and through that reflection to consider where we, you and I, as religious liberals, might best give our attention to this profound matter of human existence.

In my opinion a really good guide for this reflection is the Unitarian Universalist theologian Paul Rasor, author of the seminal study Faith Without Certainty: Liberal Theology in the Twenty-First Century. He also contributed an article to the UU World a while ago, which is an abridgment of a much larger reflection titled “Beyond Just War and Pacifism: Toward a Unitarian Universalist Theology of Prophetic Nonviolence.” This essay is my constant reference point.

If one is living in the world as it is and cares how we engage with one another, one is compelled to think about violence. Is it ever justified, and if so, under what circumstances and with what limits? And beyond our individual actions, what about the social nets to which we belong? While we may be, and I hope we are, evolving toward a world community; for now we live in a web of nation-states, often in conflict. In the last analysis I believe war will end when we as human beings belong to a single community, owning how our lives and fortunes are indeed one. Until that time we have real situations that involve violence and war. And we must make decisions based in that reality.

The question is how do we deal with these circumstances, the hard facts of our lives? We live in a world where war is a fact. How do we face this, informed by our religious intuition of a profound interdependence mitigated by the realities of nation-states and cultural/political/economic forces with contending values and goals? We have, thankfully, arrived at a time where most of us agree there needs to be some restrictions on war. Here I’m simply going to assert that war is an evil and the only question is how do we limit it, and to what degree? And so my points of concern for our brief time today are pacifism and just war theories, and from that reflection what stance might we find?

In his study Paul gives a thumbnail of the history of just war thinking. “While the idea of limited war appeared in many ancient cultures, the just war theory as we know it today emerged in the Catholic tradition during the fourth century CE in the wake of Christianity’s establishment as the official religion of the Roman Empire.” This last part, about the when of just war theory, has been proof for critics that it is simply one of the more egregious examples of a religion being co-opted by a state. I find this too facile, by half.

After all as Buddhist scholar Tessa Bartholomeusz in her essay “In Defense of Dharma: Just-War Ideology in Buddhist Sri Lanka” tellingly observes “religious thinking, be it Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist, that takes seriously the relationship of ethics, morality, and power, contains just-war thought.” Citing David Gushee, Paul Rasor parses out two kinds of just war theory, a “hard” one that without much effort pretty much justifies anything the state calls for, the state co-option of a deep reflection, and a “soft” or as Paul prefers, a vastly more “restrictive” model, which allows reluctantly for very limited engagement focused on self-defense.

The alternative, of course, to just war thought is pacifism. Pacifism is actually rather hard to define beyond being a philosophical or religious opposition to war. One scholar suggests there are at least twenty-nine different models of pacifism. Here I will just hold that number up as a placeholder for the complexity of the position.

I’ve looked into my own heart, I’ve reflected upon the predator’s incisors in my mouth and the predator’s forward looking eyes in my head, I’ve held in my heart all the violent thoughts that have ever coursed through my body, blood hot. And, with Dosho, I know that I am ready for that bear. Also I resonate deeply with Fred’s grand narrative and the hope for us to continue evolving. And, with Bernie, I know, body and soul, we are all one. And taking these truths all together I know my actions count, everything I do is a pebble thrown into a pool, with ripples, cascades of consequence.

To me the dilemma of a hard pacifism is that it assumes an outsider role, where its advocate abrogates a place at the table. While I think there is a place for the renunciant, a vowed monastic who stands outside society as a witness to our higher aspiration, most of us live within a net of obligation and responsibility. If we follow the householder way I feel we’re called to a way of mindful engagement, one that acknowledges our human propensity to look for bears, and the harsh reality of bears, but which also heartfully takes us toward our larger intuition of interdependence and its ethics of care and justice.

I feel a need to be a citizen, in today’s nation-state, and as we evolve, of the world. And that demands not standing aside, even when it means dirtying my hands, or worse. But, this needs to be done mindfully, gently as possible, with love for all. This path I suggest we need to follow might best be called the nonviolent way. It is as Paul suggests, a leap beyond both pacifism and just war thought. And, I find this so important; it is implicit in our traditions and history.

This way, Paul writes. Begins “with a fundamental commitment to nonviolence.” Let me repeat, the way of liberal religion, as I best understand it, has come to a place that calls for a fundamental commitment to nonviolence. This is only a small step from where we have stood over time. But, this conscious move allows us the greatest opportunity to be of use in this world. Historically, he tells us, “Unitarian Universalism has never been a peace church, but we have always affirmed peace as among our most basic values and for two centuries pacifists have found a home in our congregations. We have always been involved in work to create the kinds of just communities out of which peace emerges, and we have long supported the use of nonviolent methods of conflict resolution at all levels, including conflict among nations.

“This is the legacy we share with the traditions of nonviolence and pacifism. At the same time, Unitarian Universalism has always been an engaged religion, one that is involved in the world and that tries to make a difference in the world. An important dimension of this involvement is our tradition of speaking prophetically – of bringing reasoned judgment and critique to bear on the social conditions that generate injustice and violence.” This is the nonviolent way, and I think it really is our way.

This is Memorial Day weekend. And here we are in this sanctuary of truth of love. Our tradition demands voice be given to that love, to truth, to justice and hope. This is what I find as I sit with all this. I feel we need to honor those who step forward and take on the terrible responsibility of serving in our country’s armed forces. They put their lives on the line on behalf of the larger community. And, I think we need to hold our leaders accountable for how they use those young men and women. Our goal must be a world without war, which is a call to world community. And while we achingly slowly evolve toward that goal, and while on that way some acts of violence are to my mind unavoidable, we need to hold our governments to limited actions, clearly defensive, clearly to avoid greater harm.

And this is what I find within this reflection. Here we are embroiled in this horrific conflict in Iraq. We have been, I firmly believe; betrayed by our leaders. Our president, with the arrogance of a Renaissance prince, with a callous disregard for truth, for murky reasons probably best found in some sense of competition with his father, combined with a thinly disguised desire to control vast oil fields, all couched in high blown rhetoric, has overridden a vacillating and too often compliant congress and waged a terrible war. He got to hang an old family enemy, and killed ninety thousand Iraqis into the bargain. Soon he leaves office and a mess of nearly inconceivable magnitude for his successor.

This is Memorial Day weekend. Our faith calls us to witness against the travesty of this war and its betrayal of our deeper inheritance. Our faith calls us to demand an end to this conflict. And along the way we need to end such things as stop-loss, that back door draft enforced by an administration too gutless to call for a real draft, and at the same time to care for our veterans with the gratitude and generosity they deserve. Our faith calls us to speak this truth to power, to recall our fellow citizens to our better angels, to work for fully integrated world community, to that long dreamed of place where peace, justice and love truly prevails.

This is our work.

Nothing less.


"Materialist thinking has certain close points (asymptotes) with Buddhist doctrine. Hume may have been following ..."

The Buddhist David Hume & the ..."
"Reinforces, for me, that Sapience is a by-product of Sentience and not the reverse... and ..."

The Buddhist David Hume & the ..."
"Here's my translation of the three related verses from The Path chapter.277. Every formation is ..."

The Buddha’s Message in Brief: A ..."
"Thanks James. Here are some links to interviews with Roshi that were done on the ..."

Zen Master Daniel Terragno on Waking ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment