Posted by: Ascentury | Friday, 27 February 2009

“God is a man of war, and Cain his first saint”

Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; ∙that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.
Matthew 5:44-45

In 1846, at the outbreak of the Mexican-American War, the Unitarian preacher and Transcendentalist Theodore Parker preached “A Sermon of War”. It was the among many damning sermons he preached on war and slavery, and it ranges from mere bathos to moving exhortations throughout. Specifically, Parker was concerned with the morality of war, with the Mexican War as only a microcosm of horror.

Parker embraces the Transcendentalist conception of an infinite, immaterial God, and rejects the characterization in the Old Testament of Jehovah as a “man of war” (Exodus 15:3). Man is subject to war inasmuch as he is ignorant of the nature of God:

War is in utter violation of Christianity. If war be right then Christianity is wrong, false–a lie. But if Christianity be true–if Reason, Conscience, Religion, the highest faculties of man–are to be trusted, then war is the wrong, the falsehood, the lie. I maintain that war is a Sin; that it is national infidelity, a denial of Christianity and of God.

Parker begins the meat of his sermon by enumerating the costs of war. The first portion suffers from the same flaw as Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: it is consumed with an economic exposition that is largely irrelevant to its casual future readers. He says, not without some irony, that,

I am speaking in a city whose fairest, firmest, most costly buildings are warehouses and banks; a city whose most popular Idol is Mammon–the God of Gold; whose Trinity is a Trinity of Coin! I shall speak intelligibly, therefore, if I begin by considering war as a Waste of Property.

… Though we are descended from the Puritans, we have but one article in our creed we never flinch from following, and that is–to make money; honestly, if we can; if not, as we can!

The preacher soon moves on from the economics of warfare; indeed,

War is a sin; a corrupter of the public morals. It is a practical denial of Christianity; a violation of God’s eternal law of love.

The long central passage reminds me of Mark Twain’s War Prayer, as it dwells on the inhumanity of war and the inconsistency of a religion that would advocate it. Indeed, how can a man kill his brother? How dare he? Parker’s unilateral condemnation of warfare is all the more poignant, as the American Revolution was within living memory. Indeed,

I think lightly of what is called Treason against a government. That may be your duty to-day, or mine. Certainly it was our fathers’ duty, not long ago; and it is our boast and their title to honor. But Treason against the People, against Mankind, against God, is a great Sin, not lightly to be spoken of.

The preacher addresses the issue of the Revolution thus:

Yet great as are these … evils–there are times when the soberest men and the best men have welcomed it, coolly and in their better moments. … Sometimes there is a contest between a falsehood and a great truth; a war for freedom of mind, heart, and soul; yes, a war for a man’s body, his wife’s and children’s body, for what is dearer to men than life itself–for the inalienable Rights of Man, for the idea that all are born free and equal. … Most men think the gain, the triumph of a great Idea, is worth the price it costs, the price of blood. Still, without stopping to touch that question, if man may ever shed the blood of man, I think that even such wars as that wholly unchristian; that they may now be avoided, and the result won in a manlier, yes, a wholly Christian way.

This is the most difficult passage in the sermon. It smacks of an idealistic worldview, a too-easy black-and-white, and refuses to answer the question of what that wholly Christian way may be.

More than words are required, and Parker does not disappoint. He calls for meetings and protests against war; he calls upon pacifism; he calls on Christians. Parker even advocates a form of controlling the bellicose federal government that I was formerly unacquainted with in American political thought:

We can diminish the power of the National Government, so that the people alone shall have the power to declare war, by a direct vote–the Congress only to recommend it. We can take from the Government the means of war by raising only revenue enough for the nation’s actual wants, and raising that directly, so that each man knows what he pays, and when he pays it, and then he will take care that it is not paid to make him poor and keep him so.

Theodore Parker closes by suggesting several other methods of useful activity to oppose war.

War itself gives weight to words of peace. … Let us bear our testimony like men, not fearing to be called Traitors, Infidels; fearing only to BE such.

… It is far worse for a nation to loose [sic] all reverence for Right, for Truth, all respect for Man and God; to care more for the freedom of trade than the freedom of Men! … We reverence Force, and have forgot there is any Right beyond the vote of a Congress or a people; any good beside Dollars; any God but Majorities and Force.

Of course, one thing has changed since Theodore Parker’s day.

The 20th century happened.

In a century, we witnessed the rise of atrocities, from the horrors of the trenches to the Holocaust, from Stalin’s Gulag archipelago to the famines of Mao’s Great Leap Forward. We saw a military-industrial complex change the economics of war and thus the world so dramatically that a mid-century sibyl offered this pithy prophecy: “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.”

It is not a new thing to ask if there may be such a thing as a just war. The Book of Mormon and the Bible are themselves full of examples of righteous men leading others into battle–Joshua, Gideon, Moroni, Mormon. I do not pretend that it must not rend a good man’s heart, but I cannot help but query still if any war is justifiable.

Is it not a sin to point to extenuating circumstances? Does that not challenge the validity of God’s Law and the reach of Christ’s Atonement? Can we, in the face of the waste that was Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia and Red China, that is North Korea and the heart of Africa, claim that God will always work a greater good in lieu of war?

The Book of Mormon does not adequately answer this question to my way of thinking. There is the example of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies and of Captain Moroni, so at odds with each other, but with no clear appraisal of their differing positions. The Doctrine and Covenants comes closer to an answer, as it directly addresses the issue:

If men will smite you, or your families, once, and ye bear it patiently and revile not against them, neither seek revenge, ye shall be rewarded; ∙but if ye bear it not patiently, it shall be accounted unto you as being meted out as a just measure unto you.

∙And again, if your enemy shall smite you the second time, and you revile not against your enemy, and bear it patiently, your reward shall be an hundredfold. ∙And again, if he shall smite you the third time, and ye bear it patiently, your reward shall be doubled unto you four-fold; ∙and these three testimonies shall stand against your enemy if he repent not, and shall not be blotted out.

∙And now, verily I say unto you, if that enemy shall escape my vengeance, that he be not brought into judgment before me, then ye shall see to it that ye warn him in my name, that he come no more upon you, neither upon your family, even your children’s children unto the third and fourth generation. ∙And then, if he shall come upon you or your children, or your children’s children unto the third and fourth generation, I have delivered thine enemy into thine hands; ∙and then if thou wilt spare him, thou shalt be rewarded for thy righteousness; and also thy children and thy children’s children unto the third and fourth generation.

∙Nevertheless, thine enemy is in thine hands; and if thou rewardest him according to his works thou art justified; if he has sought thy life, and thy life is endangered by him, thine enemy is in thine hands and thou art justified.

This seems a simple and straightforward justification of the type of warfare Captain Moroni waged in the decades before Jesus’ mortal birth. But there is still that lingering “if thou wilt spare him, thou shalt be rewarded for thy righteousness”–which seems to support Theodore Parker’s thesis that a greater good is available than that which we have known through even a “just war”.

What is that reward? What is that “wholly Christian way”? We haven’t had the courage to find out, for the most part; indeed, it requires a sort of courage which, until now, has been extremely rare in this telestial world. We must find–or learn–or create–such courage as we draw deeper into the thick of “perilous times”. At least, let us not worship the false gods of steel and concrete which so far have dazzled our eyes and distracted our politics, in “Zion” as much as Babylon. No security is worth the cost of hatred (Matthew 4:21-26)–the same Isaiah who presented us with the red-garbed Messiah of Edom gave us also the Suffering Servant (compare Isaiah 63:1-6 with Isaiah 53:7). And in a prophetic type of Christ, Isaiah “gave [his] back to the smiters, and [his] cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: [he] hid not [his] face from shame and spitting” (Isaiah 50:6). Will we do as much?

All citations are taken from American Sermons, published by Library of America, pp. 600-629.


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