A Speech on Peace

26 June 2019, 3:32 PM
Golden Gate National Cemetery

Golden Gate National Cemetery, Section C. Photo via Wikicommons by BrokenSphere.

Speech by URI Founder and President The Rt. Rev. William E. Swing

From the Accelerate Peace conference

At the Hoover Institution on the Stanford University Campus

June 26, 2019

The Hebrew Scriptures say, in a couple of places, this phrase: “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go forth to war.” (2 Samuel 11:1 and I Chronicles 20:1) In religious writings, war is expected and important. Even at the end of the Bible, it says that “there was war in heaven.” So from Cain and Abel to the last book of the Bible, violent confrontation is a given.

This evening I would like to make a case for war’s opposite, i.e. peace. I speak of peace from a religious perspective, as a Christian, a bishop and an interfaith leader. I often hear people say, “Most wars are, basically, caused by religions.” But that is not true, at least not true in the four volumes of The Encyclopedia of Wars. The authors state that of the 1,763 recorded wars, only 123 of them were started for religious reasons. That means that less than 7% of all wars are religiously based. (Consider that 3,000 people died in the Inquisition; 35 million people died in WWI.)

Christianity, from its start and for 300 years, was a pacifist religion. And why? Because Jesus the Christ – of Christianity – chose not to fight. One of his most famous messages was, “Blessed are the peace-makers for they shall be called the children of God.” And by far, his most telling moment came when one of his followers pulled out a sword and cut of the ear of an adversary. Jesus told his follower to put away the sword. Put away the sword! There is another way. A better way.

And when Jesus rose from the dead, the first word that He uttered was, “Peace.”

After 300 years of being reviled and persecuted, the pacifist religion of Christianity changed radically. Because… it was embraced by the Roman Emperor and became the favored religion. The Roman Empire and its constant wars were wed to the man of peace and his religion of peace. Something had to give. The compromise and accommodation in the 4th century are what we are still living with today. In short, we are living, today, with a Just War Theory of the 4th century – the theory that admits that nations have to choose between two evils, and whatever the better choice is, it will be evil. Protecting innocent lives and defending moral values drive us, on occasions, to insist on the use of force and violence. Even when peace is the final objective.

I, personally, feel that haunting necessity to compromise and accommodate between the Church and the State, between peace and war. I live in Burlingame, California, and when I drive to work in San Francisco, I pass two military cemeteries. The first is the Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno. I look out the car window and my eyes scan the grave markers of 145,000 military dead. And just before I arrive at my office in the Presidio, I see the 26,400 grave markers in the San Francisco National Cemetery. All of those white markers catch my eye, and my heart stops. Who were all of those men and women? Why were they willing to be ready to die for our country?

Such thoughts are similar to the times when I look at a Christian cross of death and resurrection, and I ponder the nature of the sacrifice being made. Was Jesus giving His life for His country or His religion? Or something bigger? The soldier dies for an understandable peace. Jesus dies for peace that passes all understanding. The military is there at the ready because the battle of ultimate consequence has not been fought. The Christian cross is there at the ready because the battle of ultimate consequence has already been waged and won. For Christians, the cross is our Normandy Beach. A staggering price is paid, but the final outcome now becomes inevitable. Peace will reign!

When I step out of the car at the URI office, I have to make a radical transformation. I have to get out of the past and get into the present. I can’t accurately weigh all of the good and bad things done in the past by militaries and by religions – my own included. The bad news and the good news of today stare me in the face.

The bad news… is that Jews are mowed down at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Christians are killed at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. Muslim are slain in Christchurch, New Zealand. Is there a religious war going on? Not a war! But there is a rising tide of religiously-motivated violence where deranged individuals – provoked by religious zealots, racial bigots and cultural warriors – think that they are doing the will of God by murdering innocent people. Somebody had better do something about that… or there will never be a moment’s peace… in a movie theater or a school or a sporting event or a restaurant or a sub-way or a house of worship.  

The good news is that somebody is doing something about this. I step into my office, and I hear stories of people from all of the religions and most of the Indigenous tribes and a great many humanistic movements who have come together – in more than one-half of the nations of the world – and they are taking positive actions to build up their local communities. They plant trees, build schools, start musical groups, gather the mothers in conflict zones, protect journalists, film local scenes of peace-making, advocate for marginalized people, engage in conflict resolution, and thousands of other pursuits.

They make peace. They are peace. They are URI.

Before a war, during a war and after a war, they represent the glue that holds community life together… and they give rise to hope in devastating circumstances. None of this is based on the supposed superiority of one nation or one religion or one ethnic culture. All of it assumes that there is never going to be exclusive peace. The only peace that endures is inclusive peace. Somebody had better pay attention to this.

And that is why… URI exists.