Our summer worship theme is all “Peace, Love, and Rock & Roll,” because other formulations of the “and Rock & Roll” slogan aren’t exactly church-friendly, if you know what I mean. But before we get to 1967 and the Summer of Love, I have to take you back for a moment to pirates.
Things are desperate. Buttercup, a beautiful young woman, has been kidnapped by not one but by three villains, a giant, a swordsman, and an evil genius. Her would-be rescuer is no hero. In fact, the Man in Black is not only a pirate, he is a dread pirate, which is the worst possible kind. And now, having bested the giant and the swordsman, the Man in Black is facing the smartest of the bunch, the Sicilian, Vizzini. It is to be a game of wits, to the death, because there are two goblets, and one contains a deadly poison. Dialogue, dialogue, verbal sparring, blah blah, then Vizzini secretly switches the goblets, chooses, and drinks. When the Man in Black tells him that he has chosen wrong, Vizzini replies “You only think I guessed wrong! That’s what’s so funny! I switched glasses when your back was turned! Ha ha, you fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders! The most famous of which is ‘never get involved in a land war in Asia,’ but only slightly less well-known is this: ‘Never go in against a Sicilian when DEATH is on the line!’”
See, and you totally wondered how I was going to get there. The scene is in the now classic film “The Princess Bride,” released twenty years after the Summer of Love. Half of us in worship this morning can quote lines from it.
What made that moment, the Summer of Love in 1967, Haight-Ashbury and Hippies? An article in this month’s “Wired” magazine argues that it was all about the drugs, that as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of that cultural moment, we are being dishonest if we don’t discuss the role of Lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as just acid or LSD. To be sure, LSD was a lubricant for the growing movement, the ’60’s equivalent of alcohol in the Roaring 20’s, and next week we’ll consider whether there is a Christian version of Timothy Leary’s phrase “Turn On, Tune In, and Drop Out.” But it wasn’t just drugs. Youthful resistance grew in the fertile soil of the Cold War, including the terrible slide into that classic blunder, a land war in Asia, specifically in Vietnam. Decades later a similar spirit, the Occupy Movement, grew up out of frustration, corruption, endless war, and not drugs.
The military draft had returned in 1965, and by 1967, 40,000 young men were being inducted into the armed forces each month. Resistance to the draft and to the war itself led to protests and the burning of draft cards. The draft itself was discriminatory, choosing young men of color at twice the rate of their white neighbors. For this reason, resistance became entwined with both the Civil Rights movement and growing economic inequality, for those with wealth and power, always white, could keep their children out of the war, deferments or a diagnosis of flat-feet. Where the powerful had been proud to send their children off to war in the Revolution, the Civil War, the Great War, the Second World War, by the time of Vietnam, that patriotism was long dead.
The House Un-American Activities Committee, our nationalist cult’s version of the Inquisition, was in full swing. The intellectual and spiritual leaders of the resistance, people like Dr. Benjamin Spock and the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, would soon face prosecution in federal courts. But the Summer of Love crystalized most of all around music, around figures like Jimi Hendrix, who famously said “when the power of love overcomes the love of power… the world will know peace.”
Peace is the promised future throughout the Hebrew prophetic tradition, but it is tricky, not as straight-forward as pacifists would have us believe. We have to remember that the Hebrew myth is also a nationalist myth. Hebrew exceptionalism, like American exceptionalism, claimed a unique divine blessing, one that gave cover to violence against others. Peace in the Hebrew scriptures almost always means peace for Zion, and Zion alone. As their theology developed toward universalism, their understanding of peace broadened, but in the end, it was still all about them.
The peace promised in the apocalyptic texts, the last half of Daniel, the 13th chapter of Mark, and the whole Revelation to John of Patmos, is universal, but it comes at the cost of tremendous destruction and divine violence, everyone not part of the saved in group annihilated. Easy to be at peace with one another when everyone who thinks differently has been eliminated.
Many look to Jesus as an exemplar of non-violence, though that isn’t quite right either. While the entry into Jerusalem was a bold act of civil disobedience, there was nothing civil about the incident with the moneychangers in the Temple. Turning over the tables was disruption through destruction, and Jesus is even reported to have struck people. Never mind the many ways those who advocate for violence have tried to deconstruct the instruction to turn the other cheek. Here is real violence in the Temple.
To be sure, the story we have is of a Hebrew prophet who accepted his death as part of a divine plan to usher in the Kingdom of God, was passive and non-violent in the face of overwhelming force. But he was only sacrificing himself. I wonder what he would have done if the soldiers had grabbed his mother as well?
Early Christian texts and the cult of martyrdom emphasize non-violent resistance because who was going to take on Rome, a nation that reveled in its cruelty, the Colosseum and the Cross? But then Christianity became wed to that state, and thus to the militarism of the state, the violence of the state. Christians went from being on the receiving end of violence to being the ones dishing it out. They developed a “Just War” theory to rationalize murder.
The moral dilemma of the Rev. Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer resisting the Nazi Reich comes to mind. Here was this pastor, gentle, non-violent, who believed with every ounce of his being that murder was a sin that would lead to eternal damnation. Yet he conspired to commit murder, the assassination of Adolph Hitler, believing that he, Bonhoeffer, would be damned, but that others would be saved.
When is it okay to use violence? Like the great Israeli writer and war veteran Amos Oz says in describing himself, I am a peacenik, but I am not a pacifist. I don’t know if we knew enough and should or should not have bombed the tracks leading into Auschwitz. I am thankful that I was not at the table, that my conscience does not have to carry the burden of deciding to drop the bomb on Hiroshima. But I know this with complete certainty: the massacre of more than 8000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in a UN declared safe haven 22 years-ago this month should have never happened. And if it took a military attack on the Serb forces to prevent that slaughter, I’m okay with that.
Would that be “Just War”? The groundwork for that slaughter was carefully laid along the edge of the old Ottoman Empire for centuries, religious, racial and ethnic hatreds. Those who killed and those who were killed were the fruit of a poison vine that they themselves did not plant.
Who gets to decide when war is justified? When do we literally pull the trigger? In this age we know that we cannot unsend an email, take back a text message, but you have never been able to un-speak a word that has been spoken, you can never un-fire a gun, and we do not have the power to resurrect the dead.
Let’s look at a contemporary situation and ask the same set of questions. The Russians have never been tolerant of an independent Ukraine, a problem compounded by the forced relocations of the old Soviet state that scattered sizable Russian populations in other parts of Europe and Asia. Moscow interfered in Ukrainian elections in 2004, even poisoning Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western candidate. The Ukrainians finally succeeded in removing Russian proxy-control of their government in February 2014. You may know the name of at least one man who lost his job when the pro-Russian regime was ousted, Paul Manafort.
So far, while not exactly a great set of circumstances, nothing that would warrant a military response. But soon after the ouster, pro-Russian factions, with the help of Russian military forces without insignia, an old trick we used in Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam War, seized a large portion of Ukraine. About 10,000 Ukrainians have died, and there is no peace. Now we are getting to some real casualties. Are we past a proverbial line in the sand? How about when a Russian missile launcher took down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine, killing the more than 300 on-board.
Russian agents hacked the Ukrainian elections in May 2014, and launch thousands of attacks against Ukrainian infrastructure each month. They’ve taken down the power grid, including during the heart of winter. Taking down the power grid is not just economic warfare. Attacks on infrastructure can be deadly. And the scary thing is, the same Russian code has been found on computers controlling infrastructure in the US.
More than a century ago, it was easy for Union General Ulysses S. Grant to wage a war of attrition, a cold calculation that said that as long as the number killed stayed relatively even, the North would win the Civil War. But every one of those numbers was a person with hopes and dreams, children and parents. But so too were the slaves that were being freed from official bondage. So are the women and men we have been feeding into the machine of death in Iraq and Afghanistan for over a decade, America’s longest wars, a land war in Asia.
There is no formula that determines the value of a life, Jesus tells us to go after the lost sheep, that even the hairs on our head are numbered, a reminder of the infinite value of each part of God’s creation. If I had to err, I’d err on the side of pacifism, though that doesn’t work in the face of horrendous evil. As Amos Oz says, there are things worth fighting for.
If scripture doesn’t give us a clear answer, and the Christian tradition of “Just War” is hopelessly entangled with our faith’s role as servant to the state cult, true in Rome and true in this time and place, then what are we to do? Peace is no peace if it comes from putting our head in the sand and ignoring the slaughter of others. Peace that is secured through self-sacrifice is fine. Peace secured by throwing the other fellow under the bus, not so much.
The answer comes from the prophets, that group of obnoxious, difficult, rude women and men called by God to lead the people in new directions of righteousness and justice. They were not loved. The message they came to deliver was hard. The future they announced wasn’t warm and fuzzy. Follow this path, and it will lead to your destruction. That’s not the sort of message that gets you dinner party invitations. Follow this path, this narrow and difficult path, and it will lead you to blessing.
And what is that path? Justice. And not just justice, because human justice is grounded in our fear and a sense of scarcity. No, the prophets are frustratingly calling us to divine justice, and we are so much smaller, in size and in heart, than God.
Human justice is I earned, I got, don’t take. It is the dragon on the pile outraged over one lost golden coin.. It is the notion that the success of others somehow diminishes me. It is life as a zero sum game, even though everything we have experienced tells us that life is not a zero sum game, that the divine pours serendipitous creativity into the world constantly, that chaos theory, complexity science and the quantum tell us what we have always known, that when it comes to our encounter with the source of all, that one plus one actually equals eight. Divine math isn’t like our math. If any of us got what we deserved, the hard working and good would not die at a young age, and the wicked would not spend their golden years in craven fury on their growing piles of gold.
We did not call ourselves into being. You didn’t earn life. It is all gift. Every moment is gift. It is not yours.
Welcome the immigrant. Pay a just wage. Take care of the vulnerable. Heal the sick. Stop judging and be kind to one another. If there is an injured man in the ditch, do not walk by.
As Pastor King told us, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.”
This is why many years ago the United Church of Christ developed a doctrine of Just Peace, a counter to the notion of Just War. Do justice is one of the bedrocks of our Congregational and UCC traditions.
But it is not enough to react to injustice. That just makes us critics and complainers. We must move beyond what is wrong with the world. We must be proactive and articulate a vision of what we might become. Because Jesus believed the Kingdom of God was an in-breaking reality, and we pray constantly that God’s will be done on earth.
God takes the name “I Am Becoming.” Jesus announces what is happening, what will be. A faith that is about the past is worthless, always defending against the eroding force of time.
I am glad I do not have to decide when to send the sons and daughters of my friends and neighbors to their deaths. I do not love war. There are no winners, ever, in war. It seems to me that any war, not just a land war in Asia, is an epic blunder. But I know that the Way of Jesus offers a powerful, compelling vision of what we might be, a fulfillment of the justice-making of the Hebrew prophetic tradition. Justice making is peace making. Who knows, maybe even this little congregation in small-town Maine will choose to join the Just Peace movement.
It is okay to resist war, to refuse to celebrate and glorify violence. You can love the young women and men in uniform and detest the careless ways those with power destroy them. Chain yourselves to the gates, sing, gather for a Summer of Love.
Just Peace. Justice… divine justice, generous justice, justice so bold that we can’t do it alone. We need each other. We need the Spirit.
See it? Do you believe it? We can be better than this. It just takes justice, some peace and love, and who knows, maybe even a little rock and roll…