The Waning of Warfare

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Chalice Lighting

In a world where hatred too often plunges us into darkness
May this flame bring love
In a world where the shadow of suspicion so readily blocks our vision
May this flame bring understanding
In a world where clouds of fear separate us and keep us apart
May this flame bring trust
May this flame bring light to all of the dark places -
In our world and in our hearts
May this light lead us toward love

Reading: Here Dead We Lie, by A.E. Housman

Here dead we lie
Because we did not choose
To live and shame the land
From which we sprung.
Life, to be sure,
Is nothing much to lose,
But young men think it is,
And we were young.
Flowers for the fallen and broken

Message Part 1 by Rev Andy Pakula

Today is Remembrance Day - the anniversary of the end of the First World War. The First World War was a tragedy. No matter the outcome, it was the first time the world had seen human beings slaughter one another on such a massive scale. Sadly, the ‘war to end all wars’ was nothing like the end of war. We have seen more wars since and there are terrible conflicts today that have killed many, wounded more, and displaced millions.

No matter how it is portrayed - no matter how much bravery and glory we imagine it to contain - no matter how evil we believe the enemy to be - war is always a disaster. We know that war is the worst way to solve any kind of conflict. We want war and all violence to disappear from the earth forever.

And yet our hatred of war must never prevent us from remembering and honouring those who fought. Whether the battles they fought were just - whether they were necessary - whether in the light of hindsight they were completely misguided - the dead and broken soldiers are still connected to us. Their sacrifice was - for better or for worse - in our name and meant to be for our benefit.

We also know that the connections of conflict are far broader and far more intricate than our connections to the British soldiers who died. In our interconnected world, deaths in Syria, Yemen, or anywhere else, touch us here in London.

The death of each individual is tragic - the vast number of deaths in wars over the past century is truly beyond comprehension - 300 million people. If each of those people was represented by a single grain of rice, the total would amount to 6 metric tonnes of rice - six thousand one-kilogram bags of rice.

And it is not just the individuals who died, but the connections between individuals. Each person killed was connected to others - each one was a brother, a sister, a son, a daughter, husband, wife, beloved, uncle, aunt, nephew, friend, teacher, student.

The relationships amongst us define an intricate network - a fabric - a life-giving and life-sustaining cloth that holds us. And each life lost creates a hole in that fabric. Each stitch that’s dropped affects many others to which it was connected and the tears spread throughout the fabric of our lives. When life is lost, it is not limited in its scope in space or in time - the pain spreads and the fabric is weakened there and then, but also here and now.

Our duty today is not simply to remember, but also to weave and sew and knit. As we honour the lost lives, we also feel the pain of the tearing of the fabric of our lives. And our response must be more than simply remembering - more than simply honouring. We can be weavers. Every relationship we build and sustain strengthens the fabric of life. Every broken connection restored, every suspicion overcome, creates a stronger, warmer fabric to hold all of us.

Let us then be grateful to every person whose life was taken in war. Let us honour their loss by working to ensure that war will never again take another life. And let us weave a fabric of connections so strong and so all-enfolding that war becomes only a memory.

Reading: Making Peace, by Denise Levertov

A voice from the dark called out,
“The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war.”

But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.

A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.

A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses. . . .

A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light—facets
of the forming crystal.

Message Part 2 by Rev Andy Pakula

It is easy to despair. The news we take in each day is filled with bombings and shootings and stabbings and war and terrorism. Division is growing. A shift toward non-democratic rule appears to be sweeping the world. Cruelty seems to be everywhere and human kindness and compassion seem to be vanishing.

How can we have hope in the face of such realities as these? The great Martin Luther King, Jr had hope for the growth of justice. He famously said ‘Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ This was a paraphrase of the words of an earlier speaker - a Unitarian minister in late 19th century Boston - Theodore Parker. Parker declared: “We cannot understand the moral Universe. The arc is a long one, and our eyes reach but a little way; we cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; but we can divine it by conscience, and we surely know that it bends toward justice. Justice will not fail, though wickedness appears strong, and has on its side the armies and thrones of power, the riches and the glory of the world, and though poor men crouch down in despair. Justice will not fail and perish out from the world of men, nor will what is really wrong and contrary [to] justice continually endure.’

They are good and hopeful words - inspiring words - though they seem naive as we encounter yet another instance of heartless cruelty from our fellow human beings. But these proclamations are not simply wishful thinking - hopeful balm for disheartened listeners. They are accurate - perhaps more so than those who uttered them recognised.

Steven Pinker - a Harvard professor of psychology and prolific author - contends that violence has declined over the history of humankind. In his 6th book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker lays out the case for the bend toward justice. He writes ‘violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence. The decline, to be sure, has not been smooth; it has not brought violence down to zero; and it is not guaranteed to continue. But it is an unmistakable development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars to the spanking of children.’

He proceeds to present an analysis of historical data about every imaginable aspect of human violence and cruelty and makes his case very convincingly. Deaths in war, the frequency of war, violence overall, cruelty, and the attitudes that underlie such inhumanity have steadily declined.

The reaction to Pinker’s work has included disbelief amongst many who simply cannot believe the analysis over their sense of how the world is going. In my mind, I argued with Pinker as I read. ‘What about the holocaust? What about Syria? What about resurgent racism?’ But even the 20th century with its two ghastly world wars does not undermine or negate the positive trend. As horrible as these more recent events were, to put them in perspective, we need to take into account the much greater human population now. The smaller numbers of deaths in previous centuries represented huge proportions of the then smaller populations.

The fact that we intuitively tend to believe that everything is getting worse despite the data is also a function of the way our minds work. Anything we have heard about recently is treated by our minds as much more probable. Those that have not been put in front of us recently, fade in our thinking. This is part of why many people are more afraid of shark attacks and terrorism than they are of car rides. Sharks and terrorists make the news. Cars kill vastly more people.

In previous centuries, torture was seen as a normal and acceptable way to treat anyone suspected of doing anything wrong - and was often a popular spectator attraction - even for families. Slavery was thought of a natural part of human life. Murder was more acceptable. War was often seen as noble and a suitable way for solving conflict and it was engaged in regularly. Ridicule of and violence toward LGBT people was commonplace. Women could not vote and were essentially the property of men.

Although such horrors as war, torture, and slavery have not vanished, they are almost universally understood as wrong in the developed world. Racism and homophobia are much less acceptable even than when I was young. This is an enormous shift.

And the wars of the 20th centuries pale against some of the incidents we may not have heard of or remember. The 8th century An Lushan revolt in China resulted in 36 million deaths. This would be the equivalent of 429 million dead in the mid-20th century. The Mongol conquests of the 13th century killed the 20th century equivalent of 278 million.

The second world war - with its unimaginable 55 million deaths - ranks only as 9th worst in a tally of the worst atrocities of human history. The eight that were worse all occurred before the 20th century.

The first world war - understood as unprecedented bloodletting from an early 20th century perspective - is only the 16th worst amongst the most deadly human actions when we look further back. The Atlantic slave trade killed more than five times as many people in 20th century terms.

Where wars between great powers were once common and almost always caused enormous loss of life, we have not seen one in more than six decades when the Korean war pitted the United States against China.

None of this is to say that everything is fine. None of this promises that nations will not explode again into massive war and killing. It doesn’t promise that we will not make our planet uninhabitable through climate change. But it does show us that - as hard as it may be to believe - the world is getting better. The moral arc of the universe is bending toward justice. It is our illusion that it is not - an illusion that things are getting worse in the long term.

This is an illusion we do not want to dispel and I hope we never do. It is this ability to be disgusted and outraged by the worst happenings of our times that keeps us inspired and able to work for change. We are able to see today’s racism and classism and homophobia and be incensed rather than saying ‘oh, don’t worry, it used to be worse.’

From such historical myopia comes the drive for ever-greater justice. And so our hands are motivated to be the force that bends that long moral arc. Let us continue to be shocked and outraged at injustice and cruelty. Let us ever work to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice.

Closing Words

Let us remember all who have died of violence
In war, in peace, soldier, and civilian
May their suffering teach us that there is no victory in war
All war is defeat
The only victory is peace
And the only effective weapon is love