Facing War, Seeking Peace
May 05, 2002
Come, O children, listen to me;
I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
Which of you desires life,
and covets many days to enjoy good?
Keep your tongue from evil,
And your lips from speaking deceit.
Depart from evil, and do good;
Seek peace, and pursue it.
Reading from Swedenborg
It is not by divine providence that wars occur, for they involve murder, plunder, violence, cruelty, and other terrible evils that are diametrically opposed to Christian charity. Yet they must be permitted because the life's love of humanity, since the time of the very earliest people meant by Adam and his wife, has become such that it wants to rule over others and eventually over all, and also to possess the wealth of the world and eventually all wealth. These two loves cannot be kept in chains, for it is according to divine providence that everyone is allowed to act in freedom according to reason; and unless evil is permitted we cannot be led away from it by the Lord, and therefore cannot be reformed and saved. For unless evils were allowed to break out, we would not see them, and therefore would not admit to them, and so we could not be moved to resist them. Therefore evils cannot be repressed by any act of providence. If they were, they would remain shut in, and like a disease such as cancer and gangrene, would spread and consume everything vital in us. (Divine Providence #251)
My theme today is that it is good for people to seek peace, even when they are facing and participating in war. Peace is not merely an absence of destructive conflict, but an enlivening condition that supports service to one another, nurtures growth, and involves a deep kind of happiness.
Picture a group of children working together on a project. Each has an important part. Each contributes to the others, and to the project. Each child's contributions are valued by the others. The children have formed a bond with one another that will continue after the project is finished. There is peace among them.
Now picture a very different situation: two children are playing in a yard. Both want to play with the same toy. One child grabs the toy away from the other. The other child hits the first child, who drops the toy and hits back. Both children, now in pain and crying, leave the yard and go to their homes. This situation is very different from the peaceful one. Yet it is also different from war, in that the children withdraw and do not continue or escalate their violence against each other.
More like war is violence between gangs when it escalates. Each time something is done to the members of one of the gangs, it retaliates. Escalation on one side is met with further escalation on the other. Someone is killed from one group, then someone from the other. The situation becomes more warlike if, instead of finally lessening the violence, the groups continue and intensify it.
Still more like war, if they are not actual war, are situations of hateful violence. Two examples are what has gone on for many years in the Middle East, and the violence in Northern Ireland. In such situations, violence continues to be met with more violence.
We may think that war is very different from all of these situations because it occurs between nations and groups of nations. Yet the actions of nations resemble the actions of smaller groups, and of individuals. Also, the reality of war is changing. The terrible attacks of September 11, 2001 have led to a response by the United States government involving a war against terrorism and terrorist groups. Even while facing and participating in a warlike situation, we can continue to seek and turn toward peace.
Swedenborgian theology offers some important teachings for the ethics of war. For example: war is never acceptable in attack, but sometimes acceptable in defense. According to Swedenborg, "It is allowable to defend one's country and fellow citizens against invading enemies, . . . but not to make oneself an enemy without cause" (Divine Providence #252.2). Coming to the aid of others who are under attack could also be seen as involving a war of defense similar to a war of self-defense.
A war of defense can be engaged in as a last resort, when nonviolent alternatives have been exhausted or are not available. Such participation can act only protectively and defensively, never in attack against others. People in such situations can still seek peace, using no more violence than necessary, and looking for peace to emerge when the war is over.
By seeking peace in the daily situations we face where there may be violence but there is no war, we can contribute to building connections that are peaceful and resistant to war. Suppose we are with a child who is angry and resentful of the attention another child is getting, and wants to hit the other child. We could help the child find outlets for the anger without hitting, and later voice questions about the amount of attention the other was getting.
It is natural to feel hurt if we are wronged, and to wish to attack in return if we are attacked. Seeking an alternative, working with feelings of hurt and anger without attacking back, is part of seeking peace. This helps to reverse cycles of violence.
Swedenborg describes in great detail the processes of people cooperating with God and with other people in rebirth or regeneration. These processes are both individual and communal: they involve living a life of charity in relation to other people. Inflicting violence in war and in other forms can be seen as something from which we are to turn away through these processes of rebirth.
Seeking peace and turning from violence can take place not only in individuals, but in relationships, families, communities, nations, and the world. There can be various forms of cooperation on all these levels. In a good community, individuals serve one another and the community. On a large scale, we can imagine a world community in which countries serve one another.
Just as there are many stages in the rebirth process, so there would be many stages in a movement toward greater international cooperation and the development of a world community. Perhaps some milder forms of self-interest could help in motivating a movement toward greater global cooperation: the children who withdrew after hitting each other could begin to share because they do not want to be hurt. In describing the rebirth process, Swedenborg speaks of God "healing the loves of a person's will by fears at first, but later by love" (Divine Providence #283). Movements toward peace, imperfect and limited as they may be at times, can still increase the extent of community and cooperation.
In our own lives we can take steps to help peace enter more fully into our circles of connection with others. Each situation provides an opportunity to seek peace. We can continually look to God for help in finding avenues toward peace. May God be with these efforts, as small as they sometimes seem to be. Amen.
O God of every person and of all the nations, we pray that you will help us to turn away from war. Bring peace into our hearts as individuals, and into our relationships, our communities, our nation, and our world. Inspire us to overcome the forces of war, and to replace them with an active, constructive peace. Amen.
Rev. Ted Klein