When I came of draft age the Vietnam War was over, and this country has not had a drafted armed services since then. Growing up though I knew many from my neighborhood, who were forced into the service by the draft, or by the alternative threat of going to prison. Today although we have a volunteer armed services, many were inspired by patriotism after 9-11 and also many are forced into service as their only way out of poverty due to a lack of job opportunities elsewhere. And it seems for better or worse, there have been many opportunities for people in the armed services.
And although there are many many people who have had good long careers in the armed services, and for whom the armed services offered training and discipline that has helped many, we also know there is a high price to pay for far too many others. The price of human lives and the price of human souls, and the lost potentials of what could have been. That price is just too high for me. We have to ask ourselves, after millennium upon millennium of warfare, why do I believe things can change? The question is what price are we willing to pay to end war. Only when we are willing to change can the world change.
We are all going to die someday. The question is how are we going to live, and in what manner will we face our death.Many years ago when I was taking a class on death, I was asked to write my own obituary. It is a very powerful exercise to do. I encourage you to do that someday. I started mine, Jay Wolin, at the age of 120 passed away peacefully. I went on to write Jay who was a notable philanthropist, left his vast wealth to his local Unitarian Universalist Congregation. What can I say, I was younger, I wanted to be aspirational. But then I had to stop and think, all joking aside, is that really how I wanted to be remembered, and that is what makes it such a powerful exercise, because then the next question is, how do I want to live my life so that my obituary will read the way I want it to read. I had to ask myself, do I want to spend my life making money and how would I do it, or do I want to spend my life doing something else that would leave a different legacy. And it was just such an instance that led to a light shining on heroes for peace through the vehicle known as the Nobel Peace Prize.
The Nobel Peace Prize was started from a trust created at the death of Alfred Nobel. Nobel is best known for the creation of dynamite. He created dynamite as a way to improve the stability of explosives he was developing after Nobel’s younger brother was killed by an explosion at Nobel’s munition factory. Nobel held over 30 patents which were mostly related to explosive materials and related products. These patents and his munitions companies made him a very wealthy man. Therein lies one of challenges, which is our desire for profits over people. What is the price we are willing to pay for peace? When another brother of Alfred Nobel died, a French newspaper erroneously published an obituary for Alfred. The paper condemned him for his invention of dynamite The obituary stated, “The merchant of death is dead. Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday” There are many who believe that this obituary had an affect on his decision to create the Nobel Peace Prize. When we look in the mirror, and look back on our lives, and are forced to look deep within ourselves, we have to face ourselves and the consequences of our acts. And although Nobel throughout his life gave money to peace organizations, and even wrote that he thought having such a destructive weapon could end war once and for all, I have to say that rings hollow for me. I believe he used the wealth he accumulated as way to balance the scale in his soul for all the destruction that was on his conscience. There was a heavy price to pay for the weight of his conscience.
Nobel’s criteria for the Peace Prize is that it go to “the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” Now we know there have been some famous and even infamous Nobel prize winners. Famous winners included Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, the Dali Lama, Elie Weisel, (although surprisingly not Mahatma Ghandi). Some infamous winners also included Heads of State, Anwar Sadat of Egypt, Menachem Begin of Israel, and South African apartheid leader Willem de Clerk. Although there are others I might question, what these heads of state showed was a willingness to risk, risk to their lives, risk to their prestige, risk their power, all with the hope of avoiding ongoing and excessive bloodshed. To pay the price for peace.
Of course I had to see just how many of the Nobel Peace Prize winners were Unitarian. We had two confirmed Unitarians, one connected Unitarian, (Jane Addams) and the only organization that received the Nobel Peace Prize three times, the Red Cross was founded by Unitarian Clara Barton. One of the two confirmed Unitarians was Scientist Linus Pauling who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work against nuclear weapons. Unitarian Albert Schweitzer won the Nobel Prize for his life work helping others, but in its presentation to him they noted his concept of “Reverence for life” and quoted the following passage from his autobiography about a revelation he had while in Africa:“At sunset of the third day, near the village, we moved along an island set in the middle of the wide river. On a sandback to our left, four hippopotamuses and their young plodded along in our same direction. Just then, in my great tiredness and discouragement, the phrase "Reverence for Life" struck me like a flash. As far as I knew, it was a phrase I had never heard nor ever read. I realized at once that it carried within itself the solution to the problem that had been torturing me.. Only by means of reverence for all life can we establish a spiritual and humane relationship with both people and all living creatures within our reach. Only in this fashion can we avoid harming others, and, within the limits of our capacity, go to their aid whenever they need us.” All life, not just human life, but all life. What a high bar to hold ourselves to. If we say we revere life, how can we wantonly destroy innocent life?
When I think about the heroes spoken of above, I realize they could not have persevered, they could not have had the chance to transform, they could not have had the chance pursue peace and initiate change without many many other people, all of them heroes, maybe not by giving speeches, but by having hope that such a way of living could be. Everyday people who overcame fear, and accepted the risk and consequences of doing what is right. Everyday people willing to sacrifice, willing to put themselves out on the front lines and marching, and protesting and going to local council meetings, and doing all the things necessary to shift attention and attitudes of the larger general public. Often unheralded, like the character Rose Valland in the Book Monuments Men. This tells the story about the allies trying to recover stolen art by the Nazis in WWI (There was recently a movie about the book, which was in my personal opinion a little slow), any way Rose did what she could to help record and track the artwork the Nazi’s were stealing which eventually led to the recovery of thousands of pieces of art. Rose said, “Destiny is not one push, but a thousand small moments that through insight and hard work you line up in the right direction, like the magnet does the metal shavings.” And so it must be for us. It is not just enough to say we want world peace. We have to do the hard work that will lead to it. Every act we take can be an act of peace or an act of War. How we treat each person we meet on the street, even how we treat ourselves. It starts with ourselves. Thousands of small moments, when in the crux of a disagreement we can choose to act with peace or with war. For peace must be in our heart no matter what else may be happening around us. As philosopher Baruch Spinoza wrote “peace is not a mere absence of war, but is a virtue that springs from force of character: a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.”
And this attitude of peace has been and continues to be at the heart of our religion. In 1798, Universalist Benjamin Rush, Signor of the Declaration of Independence, Secretary of the Treasury under President Adams, Jefferson and Madison, advocate of improved medical care and education for all, advocate for prison reform, issued a call for a Government Department of Peace stating :
“It is much lamented that no person has taken notice of the total silence upon the subject of an office of the utmost importance to the welfare of the United States, that is an office for promoting and preserving perpetual peace in our country…The War-Office of the United States was established in the time of peace, it is equally reasonable that a Peace-Office should be established in the time of war.”
Much of Rush’s though process was based on a Christian virtue of loving one enemies, and his Universalist views of God’s love for all people led him to believe in hope for all of humanity being able to live together in peace here on earth. He talks of the hope to inspire the veneration of human life and a horror of shedding blood. He felt that “to subdue that passion for war, a familiarity with the instruments of death, as well as all military shows, should be avoided” He was definitely one of this country’s founding parents who was for gun control.
And our religion still calls us to work for peace as our sixth principle calls us to affirm the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; In 2010 at General Assembly Unitarian Universalist Congregations approved a Statement of Conscience called “Creating Peace” which in part states:
“We advocate a culture of peace through a transformation of public policies, religious consciousness, and individual lifestyles. At the heart of this transformation is the readiness to honor the truths of multiple voices from a theology of covenant grounded in love.” How do we change a culture that has a passion for war into a culture of peace. It starts with each one of us in all our actions. It comes with the realization that it is in our Country’s best interests to pursue peace. How many people have to die before we our thirst for blood is done. How many of our children have to die, how many others children have to die, before we realize a better way to resolve conflicts.
Not only has war harmed us in economic terms, which many could rationalize, War harms the soul of this country and its citizens. It leaves us in constant fear. And when we start from a place of fear, we lose our perspective of what is right. How could we as a country, as a people not take care of our veterans, making them wait 100s of days to get care, and lieing about it. That is unconscionable. But when we live in fear, we fear for our jobs, we fear for our homes, we fear for our health. Let us instead live with love. Let us create a world we care for each other, where we do what’s right, even if it costs us something. Because it is the right thing to do. We know humanity is capable of moral depth. It is not easy, but we have seen in it in action in our lifetimes. And my hope is that with the ever bourgeoning worldwide communications systems, more people will see heroes for peace, Nobel heroes and every day heroes, and the idea of peace as a way of being will be seen as possible. Let us be willing to pay the price. Let us heal our brokenness, Let us live with love in our hearts and in our actions. What will be our legacy?
Reverend Jay Wolin's Blog