War and Peace

A Veteran's Day Sermon
by the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, November 9, 1997


Exodus 15:1-18 The Lord is a man of war
Matthew 10:34-39 I have not come to bring peace, but a sword
Arcana Coelestia #8273 The meaning of "The Lord is a man of war"

The Lord is a man of war. (Exodus 15:3)

I must apologize to Leo Tolstoi for stealing his title, "War and Peace." I doubt I can approach his eloquence with words . . . and I have no intention of approaching the number of pages he used to explore these issues. However, as Veterans Day approaches, it seems fitting to consider the event that causes us to have veterans--namely, war.

As with my Columbus Day sermon, the readings today were intentionally provocative. In today's climate, the words of our text could be considered some of the most troublesome in the Bible: "The Lord is a man of war." These days, most people would not consider this a compliment to the Lord. Many people altogether reject any God who would condone war--and also reject large parts of the Old Testament, and some parts of the New, because they portray a warlike God.

Military people themselves often dislike and even speak out against war, as General Douglas MacArthur did in an address to Congress on April 19, 1951. He said, "I know war as few other men now living know it, and nothing to me is more revolting. I have long advocated its complete abolition, as its very destructiveness on both friend and foe has rendered it useless as a method of settling international disputes."

However, the war question is not all one sided. While few people, when really pressed, would say that war is a good thing, we still do fight wars, and we still have veterans of those wars. And neither the Bible nor the teachings of our church lend themselves to a blanket anti-war stance.

Swedenborg actually discusses how military commanders, officers, and soldiers must think and act in order to live charitably and find their way to heaven. He does not say they must stop being military commanders, officers, and soldiers, as the pacifists among us would have wished. Instead, he presents a "just war" theory along classical lines: that the only just war is a defensive war, and then it is justified only to the extent needed in order to protect one's country. This is stated most clearly in his discussion of kindness (or "charity") in military commanders:

If an army commander looks to the Lord, avoids evils as sins, and acts sincerely, justly, and faithfully in the affairs of his generalship and command, he is doing good and useful things, which are the good things of kindness. Since he constantly thinks about them, applies himself to them, and does them, he becomes kindness. . . . He does not love war, but peace. Even in war he always loves peace. He does not go to war except for the protection of his country, and therefore is not an aggressor, but a defender.

However, once a war has begun, if aggression is needed for defense he becomes an aggressor as well. In battle he is brave and courageous (if he was not born with a different personality); after battle he is mild and merciful. In battle he wishes to be a lion, but after battle, a lamb. In his inner self he does not glory in the defeat of his enemy and the honor of victory, but in the deliverance of his country and his people from the invasion of an enemy and the destruction and ruin they would inflict. (The Doctrine of Charity #164)

Simply put, in the mind of a good army commander, officer, or soldier, war is not something to be desired or gloried in, but rather is a necessary evil when one's country is under attack. And once the battle is over, a good military person looks on former opponents, not as enemies to be hated, but as neighbors according to their good qualities. There is no reprisal or revenge; only a desire to end hostilities and work toward friendly relations.

Clearly, if all people--both military and non-military--had this attitude, there would be no wars. If everyone believed that war is only for defense, there would be nobody to defend against because nobody would be attacking. Unfortunately, not everyone thinks that way. And none of us is entirely free from the roots of war.

Why do we have wars at all? Where does war come from?

My grandfather, the late Rev. Louis A. Dole, sheds light on this in a classic sermon that I printed in the March, 1997 issue of Our Daily Bread:

War has been a conspicuous part of human history, particularly in the history of so-called Christian nations. The wars mentioned in the Bible describe the battles of right against wrong, of good against evil, which have to be fought in the human heart and mind. Men have always easily been led to fight against other men, but we should recognize that it is the unwillingness to fight against evils in our own hearts which is the real cause of these wars in the outward world. Wars must take place within or without, and if men refuse to fight against and overcome pride, ambition, the love of power, the love of conquest, and the desire to rule over rather than to serve the neighbor, these loves will continue to break out in open hostilities and wars. ("Love the Lord Thy God," Our Daily Bread, March 1997)

Now this is a fascinating thought: "Wars must take place within or without." If we refuse to fight the inner war--the war against pride, ambition, love of power and conquest, and the desire to rule over others--then our pride and our desire for power over others will break out into outward wars, complete with soldiers and guns, death and destruction.

This is why, beyond all the constructive and necessary peace initiatives that Christians and people of other faiths engage in, the church has an essential role to play in ending war and bringing about peace. For it is the church that tells us where the roots of war lie. The roots of war are not in the manufacture and sale of guns and bombs, but in the pride and greed that prompts us to use such weapons to threaten and kill those who get in the way of our selfish purposes.

The real battlefield is within. And this is where "the Lord is a man of war" in a good sense. Swedenborg tells us that the Lord never desires human beings to hate or kill one another, despite statements in the Bible that give that impression. Those statements, says Swedenborg, are only true of the Lord if we consider the enemy to be, not other human beings, but the evil motives and false ideas within our own minds and hearts. This is the true enemy. Unless we fight against and conquer this enemy, we will be conquered by it, and our lives will be devoted to harming instead of loving our neighbors.

In this sense, the Lord did indeed come, not to bring peace, but a sword. If we were left to ourselves, we would probably not trouble ourselves with those pesky flaws in our personalities that cause us to be hard to get along with, and even downright ornery and hurtful at times. We would prefer to call a truce with these inner enemies, and keep drifting along as we always have, with a false sense of peace.

But the Lord has other plans for us. The Lord is not willing to maintain peace with inner enemies that are attacking the "country" of our soul in order to destroy everything good within us. When we have inner enemies to overcome--and all of us do have inner enemies to overcome--the Lord does not bring peace to our lives, but a sword of discomfort with ourselves and conflict in our minds and hearts. That conflict is over the course that we will take with our lives--whether we will allow our inner enemies of pride or greed or laziness or depression to overcome us, or whether we will, through the Lord's power, struggle to overcome these destructive forces and replace them with love, compassion, understanding, and a desire to serve our fellow human beings.

Yes, when we follow the Lord, the Lord does bring a sword into our lives. Being Christian is not meant to be comfortable. It is meant to be a continual challenge; a challenge to change and grow, to always be learning more, always be understanding more, always be loving more. Our faith continually challenges us to put out the effort and engage in the struggle to break past the inner and outer barriers that keep us from living fully in the model of Christ's love.

If we will make that effort and engage in that struggle, we will indeed have our wars and our battles, and sometimes we will emerge from them wounded and in need of healing. The healing will come. The Lord has arranged that we will not always be struggling. When the battle is over and we have prevailed over some wrong desire or attitude through the strength that the Lord gives us, we will experience the peace that follows war, the calm that follows the storm. When we have engaged in our six days of work, the Lord provides that we will have the seventh day of rest--a time of peace and unity in our mind and heart, and in our relationships with each other. These times give us a little taste of heaven, and give us the rest we need in order to face our next battle . . . and win it.

"O Lord, in your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed; you guided them by your strength to your holy abode." (Exodus 15:13)






Music: The Homecoming