It All Started When He Hit Me Back

June 6, 2004



It All Started When He Hit Me Back (6/6/04)

Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

Today is June 6th, the anniversary of D-Day. Those who stood against the evils of the Third Reich and the Axis Powers are now called the “Greatest Generation,” and for good reason. In the middle years of the 20th Century the world was pushed to the brink by some very corrupt powers, and in spite of efforts to resolve the problems through negotiation and diplomacy, our nation had no choice but to make a committed stand. I shudder to think what the world would look like today if not for the courageous people who willingly fought that war.

Most of you know I am the president of a group of clergy and other church leaders called People of Faith for Peace. Many of you have asked me about this group—what it is about and what my role is within that group—and today, because it is the anniversary of one of the bloodiest, and yet most necessary, battles in history, I want to spend some time talking about People of Faith for Peace.

We formed in the months leading up to the Iraq War. At that time we agreed that we could not reconcile the idea of a pre-emptive strike with our faith. We are all Americans. We feel blessed to have been born in this nation; we are proud to be American citizens; and we honor the courage and sacrifice of those who have fought to preserve our nation. But as we marched toward war, we, as faith leaders, could not reconcile our faith with the idea of striking somebody because we thought they might strike us in the future. It may be a practical idea. There might be times in this crazy world when it makes sense. But we felt compelled to speak out, and at least let our congregations know that we could not make that idea fit in with our faith.

Nobody likes war, and the United States is a peace-loving nation. We have been accused of waiting too long to enter a fight—some say this about World War II; and we’ve been accused of not hitting hard enough once the fighting begins—many say this about the way we handled Viet Nam. But we had never attacked or invaded a nation that had not attacked us. We’d never struck pre-emptively, and many Americans wanted to keep it that way.

Well, the war started anyway—imagine that—a couple of dozen Wichita ministers couldn’t stop a war from happening—but we chose to remain together. Why? After all, we had no success in preventing the war. And we do not have a single mind about how to approach the evils of our world. There are pure pacifists in our group—people who do not believe war is ever justified, under any circumstance. There are others who believe in the just war theory. And there are still others, like myself, who

don’t fall into either of those groups—those of us who recognize that war is sometimes necessary, but don’t think politicians and statesmen, the world over, do nearly enough to try to keep war from happening.

Now, while I was quite vocal about my opposition to the war before it happened, I haven’t said much since it began. And I won’t. What am I going to do? Stand on a street corner with a sign that says, “I wish we hadn’t done that?” It makes no sense, and it is not productive. Furthermore, the men and women our leaders sent to Iraq enlisted in the armed services for the best of reasons. Those men and women don’t make foreign policy, and they deserve our unrestrained support.

On that subject, let me mention something that I think is of vital importance to the future of the United States. When a person commits his or her life to the defense of our country, that is one of the noblest things they could possibly do. When a person makes that commitment—that sacrifice—they are saying that this nation, and everything it stands for, from its land to its constitution, is worth dying for. In a nation of, for and by the people, our patriots in the armed services rely on the people of this nation not to put them in harms way unless it is for the defense of our nation. We have a moral responsibility to speak out loudly and boldly if we believe the leaders of our nation are putting those men and women in harms way for reasons that do not measure up. Soldiers don’t start wars. Generals don’t start wars. Wars are started by civilian politicians and the people the appoint.
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If any one of us is unwilling to die for a particular cause, or to have our own children die for a particular cause, we should not send other people’s children to die for that cause. It is not unpatriotic to hold the men who send our children off to fight to very high standards. In fact, in my estimation, it is both unpatriotic and cowardly not to speak out if we believe an impending war is unjust.

Please note: I am not debating the merits of this present war. I am not saying those who supported the war when it began, and continue to support this war, are in the wrong. We get to disagree about such things, and that is what makes this country great. Again, I have not spoken publicly against the war since it began, and I am not speaking against it now. It happened.

But I am saying that those who thought in the months leading up to this war that it was wrong, and did not speak out due to fear of how others would see them, are in no way patriots. If this was a cause a person was willing to die for, and to have his own children die for, then I applaud his support for the war. If this was a cause that a person did not believe in, but was too frightened to speak out, well, I have little respect for that person. They owed our country more. They owed our men and women in uniform more.

Well, reality set in. The war began, and there was no turning back. So again, why did People of Faith for Peace stay together? It’s simple.

After the war began, some polls revealed that only about 5% of the American population said their faith played a role in their views on the war. Think about that! In this most religious nation in the Western world, only one person in twenty said their religion played a role in their view toward war.

And that’s why we stayed together: not to look at the current conflict and say, “We shouldn’t have done that”; not to look at the unavoidable horrors of war and say, “I told ya so”; not to weaken the support for our troops, who need and deserve our unconditional support. We have done none of those things. We stayed together because of next time. And there will be a next time. There always is. We will fight future wars, and some of them will be unavoidable. But some of the wars we will fight will arise because we will not try hard enough to seek just and peaceful solutions to our problems. People of Faith for Peace stayed together because it is our sincere hope that next time, more people of faith will at least think about their faith when they make such decisions. If we don’t allow our faith to play a role in life and death decisions, then our faith is meaningless.

I am very proud of what People of Faith for Peace has done since the war began. We have not spoken out against this war. We have brought speakers to Wichita who are considered visionaries in the religious community. These speakers have not railed against the war in Iraq. What they have done is reveal some different ways of thinking about war and peace; some different ways of approaching the problems of the world; some hope for dealing with international conflict next time, without resort to bloodshed. These speakers have rejected both pacifism and the just war theory, claiming there is another way to confront evil.

The first person we brought to Wichita was James Lawson, the famous civil rights leader who was a close friend to Martin Luther King, Jr. James Lawson, who mentored King in Mahatma Gandhi’s methods of non-violent resistance, spoke at two events we sponsored. The main thing we learned from Lawson is that non-violence does not result in an absence of violence. Those who speak out against injustice and practice non-violence often become victims of violence themselves. That’s just the way it is. But over time they are able to bring forth change without shedding the blood of others. The most memorable quote that James Lawson left with us was this: The only hope for humanity is for religion to stop justifying violence. What a simple but profound statement!

The next two speakers we brought to Wichita, several months apart, were Glen Stassen and Phil Wogaman. Those names may not be familiar to most people, but there is not a seminary in the nation where those two religious ethicists are not studied. Glen Stassen is most famous for assembling a group of over twenty experts in Christian ethics, and writing a book about peacemaking. In this book he literally establishes ten steps that can be applied to any problem, and in almost all cases result in a non-violent solution. This is the stuff they will be studying in seminaries a hundred years from now, and we felt quite fortunate to be able to draw Dr. Stassen to Wichita.

Phil Wogaman may be the most famous Christian ethicist in our nation. This is because he was a professor who, after having written many books on ethics, decided to serve as the pastor of a church. The church he served was in Washington, D.C., and it was attended by the Clinton family through the 90’s. Wogaman became famous as the person who counseled President Clinton through the Lewinski scandal.

But that’s not why we brought Dr. Wogaman to Wichita. Stassen and Wogaman, perhaps the two most famous Christian ethicists in the nation, famously disagreed over the first Gulf War. They both agreed that the pre-emptive nature of the Iraq War could not be justified on religious grounds, but they disagreed about the war to take back the oilfields of Kuwait in the early 90’s. Stassen did not believe that war was justified, and Wogaman did. Their disagreement was much discussed in seminaries all over the world, and People of Faith for Peace were thrilled to hear from both of these great Christian thinkers, and to learn from their disagreements, as well as their points of agreement.

Finally, on June 1st—this past Tuesday—we teamed with the Mainstream Coalition to bring Welton Gaddy to Wichita. Welton Gaddy is the head of the Interfaith Alliance, which was formed as a response to the Religious Right. I know some of you were at the Gaddy event, and for those who were not, I can only say there is a reason he is the most famous non-fundamental religious figure in America.

I should make an observation about how the local press responded to his visit. We hand delivered press releases to all the television stations, the newspaper, and many local radio stations prior to Gaddy’s visit, announcing a press conference. This was a big deal. I mean, exactly two weeks prior to his visit to Wichita, Welton Gaddy sat at a table in Jordan with Colin Powell and about a dozen Middle East leaders, trying to find ways to improve U.S.—Arab relations. Welton Gaddy is a major player in American religion and politics. Journalists from Topeka and Kansas City heard that Gaddy was going to be in Kansas, and they set up speaker phones at Interfaith Ministries here in Wichita so they could hear the press conference and report it in their papers.

Not one Wichita news-person showed up for the press conference. Welton Gaddy and I chatted over the speakerphone with the press from Topeka and Kansas City, and that was that.

So where is this going? Well, I wanted to explain my role in People of Faith for Peace, because many of you have asked me about it. But there is something else that has resulted from my association with that group. I have found a family of clergy and other faith leaders with whom I have developed a wonderful spiritual bond. These men and women are idealistic enough and perhaps naïve enough to agree with me that the human race is capable of evolving into something greater than it is now. We are serious about out faiths, and we are serious about encouraging people to explore the depths of their faiths, because we believe God has written certain truths on all of our hearts. And we believe that even though religion has been corrupted by religious leaders and overtaken by various political powers, we share a spiritual center that is calling us forward to something greater.

We don’t meet for the purpose of congratulating each other on how correct our thinking is, or to pat each other on the back for our spiritual depth. We meet to learn and to grow, and to seek ways to be instruments of God’s will and makers of God’s peace.

Our learning comes not only from nationally recognized religious leaders, but also from listening to the local community. One of the most difficult problems the world faces today is the situation between Israel and the Palestinians. We invited my friend, Rabbi Michael Davis from Wichita’s Temple Emanuel to speak to us; and a week later we had Mahir Musleh, a spokesman for the local Islamic community, address our group.

We made a commitment to each of these men. We told them that if they would speak to us for an hour or two, we would listen. We would not question their points of view. We would not argue with them over anything they had to say. We wanted only to know their hearts, and to understand what they, and their respective communities, thought about the world situation with regard to the Middle East.

After listening to both of these great men, let me say this: they are both men of peace. They are both anguished over the situation in Israel and Palestine. And although these two men know and respect each other; and even though the Jewish and Islamic communities here in Wichita have a civil and peaceful relationship; there is little hope for a peaceful solution to the situation in Israel. Each side says the other struck first, and each side says that its religion demands justice—eye for eye and tooth for tooth.

I came away from my meetings with these two men respectful of their faiths, but more convinced than ever before that the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth are wiser than I ever imagined. Listen to Jesus:

You have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth; but I say to you do not return evil for evil;

You have heard it said love your neighbors and hate your enemies; but I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you;

Don’t make a public display of your religion;

Don’t judge others.

This teaching is not idealistic babble. It is practical, down-to-earth wisdom. The reason there is so little hope in the Israel-Palestinian situation is that there have been generations of eye for eye and tooth for tooth; there have been self-righteous prayers for one side against the other; there have been constant public displays of religion; and each side has judged the other as being beyond the grace of God.

I stand more convinced than ever that the answers to the evils of this world are found in the teachings of Jesus. Violence begets violence. We cannot kill our way to peace. And if evil fights against evil, there is only one thing we can say with certainty; evil will win. There is no other choice. Somebody has to be willing to bring goodness into the equation. Somebody has to be willing to at least try to be a peacemaker.

And that is not a popular thing to do. The most misunderstood of all the beatitudes is Jesus famous, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” That sounds so benign, but the fact is, the world hates peacemakers. We want to fight. We want to make our stand. And if a person honestly tries to do the things that can bring about peace, he or she receives little respect and admiration. Ask Anwar Sadat. As Egypt’s leader, he tried to make peace with Israel, and he was killed—by his own people. Ask Yitzhak Rabin. As Israel’s leader, he tried to make peace with the Arabs, and he was killed—by his own people.

We can’t solve that Israeli-Palestinian problem. It may be that nobody can solve it, because the generation coming of age in each society has learned to hate the other side. When your mom is killed on a bus in Tel Aviv coming home from work, you hate. When your brother is killed leaving a mosque in the West Bank, you hate.

We can’t solve that problem, but we can learn from it. As a nation, we will pull together and get through this situation in which we find ourselves in Iraq. And I am determined to be a faithful Christian and a patriotic American until we see this thing through.

But next time. Next time. I hope more than 5% of our population brings its faith into play when we make our political decisions. The teachings of Jesus have never been popular. But as Mahatma Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”