Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

It’s Time We Studied War

The few weeks around Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day tend to be heavy preaching for me. In several of the services this year, I was reminded of one of our standard hymns during this time, declaring that we will “Study War No More”.

What struck me is that, though it is not the intent of the hymn, the last thing in the world we on the political and religious left need to do is to “study war no more”. Not understanding war is the root of many of our failures in the pursuit of peace.

I can’t claim that this thought is mine, I credit it to Seanan Holland. As the two of us were engaged in conversation with the members of the UUA CSAI Core Team on Peacemaking, it came to each of us that we had a better, deeper, and more nuanced understanding of war than anyone else we had engaged in that discussion. This made us laugh, because either of us will admit that our own understanding is not as complex or nuanced as it should be. We are bound in that understanding by our own “warrior” training and identities, even if it now manifests as future Chaplains.

It is a somewhat radical idea, but I believe we Unitarian Universalists need to study war, and study it deeply. We need to dig deep into human society and culture, to gain an understanding of all of the parts of our society that are supported by war, that are created by war. We need to dig deep into the human soul, and find what it is within us that calls us to practice war over and over throughout human history. We need to understand what role war plays in our inner worlds as well as our outer worlds. We need to identify all the ways that our society and culture, our systems and institutions, our personal behaviors and inner turmoil mimics war.

Those who practice war cannot do this study alone… they are too close to it. They can only see their part, and can only see it through the lens of what they are asked or called upon to do. I do not just mean soldiers when I say “those who practice war”… I mean anyone who views their engagement with others through the cultural lens of war. The CEO who views the battle to take over another company as war. The divorce lawyer who loves to destroy the opposite side. The basketball player who enters each game with the intensity of purpose called for on the battlefield. The Peace Activist whose dedication to “peace” subsumes all other priorities.

When you look closely enough, we all “practice” war in one way or another… even if it is how we relate in our own hearts. Thich Nhat Hanh once said that “We may think of peace as the absence of war, that if the great powers would reduce their weapons arsenals, we could have peace. But if we look deeply into the weapons, we will see our own minds – our own prejudices, fears, and ignorance.”

War is not just fought by soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan… much of human culture and our inner realities are built around the concept of war, and political and religious liberals have gone too long and suffered too many “defeats” because of our lack of understanding of war.

You see, we can’t even talk about the peace movement without thinking in terms of the way war has shaped society. This is not just me… I know a lot of ardent peace activists… and though they may not identify it as such, they are “warriors” in a different kind of war. Much of modern peace activism is a manifestation of the impulse to direct and violent conflict that rests deeply within human culture, human society, and the human soul.

We are held hostage by that impulse because we do not understand it. I believe that understanding needs to begin outside the academy, outside the military, and outside our modern activist movements. It is my hope that a new and deeper understanding of war can begin to form among us, among religious liberals… as many of the profound ideas that have shaped society in new ways in the last five centuries have done. It cannot just be Seanan and I that begin to re-understand war, because he and I have limitations based upon our own experiences as a soldier and a Marine.

I believe that beginning that new understanding of the meaning of war is the responsibility of Religious Liberals, beginning with the Liberal Ministry. Throughout our history we tend to be at least a few decades ahead of the major social changes in American society. Just as many Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist ministers were ahead of society in preaching and teaching about abolition, about woman’s equality, about racism and racial oppression, about environmental justice, about reproductive rights and marriage equality… I believe it is time for the members of liberal faiths and of the liberal ministry to begin to think, feel, and speak deeply about the meaning of war and its place in our inner and outer landscapes.

We have to change many of the preconceptions about war, including our own, if we are ever even going to vision the meaning of peace, and have any hope of “creating peace”. I promise that Seanan and I will continue that work, but we need you all to come with us… in pulpits and in activist meetings, in classrooms and in study rooms, in sermons and in essays. If we ever truly want peace, then we need to deepen our understanding of war. We must study war right now, if we ever really hope to “study war no more”.

Yours in Faith,


4 Thoughts on “It’s Time We Studied War

  1. You’re right. A wars today are very unlike wars of past centuries. Much of the anti-war movement is stuck in thought and language from WW1. Also, Goldhagen’s new book on things worse than War talks about Genocidal and Eliminationist violence. Sometimes abetted by wars but very different, and as you would gather from Goldhagen, something far worse.

    I’ll be at Meadville Lombard today and tomorrow working on PeaceMaking and these are points I hope to suggest. UU’s need to study War to get to Justice and Peace.

  2. I agree that we all need to think more deeply about war, its causes, and its roots in the human psyche. A good place to start would be to read Homer’s The Illiad. What is arguably one of the founding literary texts of Western Civilization characterizes war as it has always been and still is today – driven mainly by personal passions, lusts, fears, and selfishness.

    I don’t agree with Mr. Baar that wars of today are fundamentally different. While we have cloaked them in the veneer of “just war” (as our President did the other day), I believe they are still essentially as Homer described them in his epic poem over two thousand years ago.

    If the length of Homer’s epic is too daunting, I recommend Chris Hedges’ “War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning.” Hedges, a student of James Luther Adams, experience war in its awfulness first hand and seemed to arrive at a vision of it much like Homer’s. Some things are timeless.

  3. Joan Broadfield on Sunday December 13, 2009 at 7:12 +0000 said:

    Thanks for your thoughtful words. I have noticed how many Quaker peace activists come from serving in the military. Even so, there is ‘study’ and there is ‘study’. To study war no more means, to me, to live, as George Fox said, in the ‘virtue of that life that takes away the occasion for war’. In that way, we would do well to study war no more. But to do that, we need to know what that Way is, which means, as you suggest, to ‘study war’. Another person who studies war in a way is Lisa Schirch, a Mennonite who directs an interesting organization about security: I think of security as the biggest reasons we keep falling into war. It’s called 3D and I commend it to your attention. Again, thanks so much for this!!!

  4. What a delight to see that someone in the Unitarian ministry is thinking this way. Maybe Unitarians will come to recognize gray.

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