Was King Naïve?

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Isaiah 43: 1-7; Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22

The Prince of Peace.

So we have said and sung, in celebrating the birth of Jesus: we have named him as the prophets and the evangelists before us have done. In his Baptism today he is so acclaimed as the Son of God.

Yet the promises of the Scriptures sometimes seem so far removed, so improbable, and so impossible. Come winter, with Christmastide and Epiphany, we can feel so, in worship.

His name shall be called: wonderful, counselor, mighty, god, everlasting, father, prince of peace…

But now another January has rolled in with its bills, forecasts, 1040’s, newscasts, bombings, terrors and violence. War is all about us.

All the promises of God find their ‘yes’ in him, says Paul in 2 Corinthians 1. But the promises of peace seem light years away.

There is a beautiful anthem which our choir has sung, ‘streams in the desert’, lifting wonderfully the majestic promises of the Scriptures. It surely bring tears whenever it is heard. Yet, so far off, so far off…

What are we to make of the hope of peace in a world drenched in war? Is such a hope unrealistically naïve?

Was Isaiah naïve to sing ‘they shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain’?

Was John the Baptist naïve to shout ‘he will baptize you with the holy spirit’?

Was Ghandi naïve to believe that the British Empire could be thwarted by non-violent protest?

Were the great teachers and preachers of Boston University and elsewhere of another generation (Muelder, Chalmers, Tittle, Fosdick, Ward) naïve to practice and teach pacifism throughout their twentieth century lives?

Most pointedly—there is no escaping responsibility for response in this chapel, within this nave, upon this plaza—were Thurman and King naïve in their reliance on the power of non-violence in the face of brutal and violent oppression?

What shall we say, come Sunday, about war and peace? Over many decades now, Christian churches have deployed next Sunday as a time to honor King and his voice, his traditions, his style in worship. We too do our part in this way at Marsh, as we shall again next Sunday. But over these decades, it could be said, the American Christian church has done less well in remembering the content of King’s teaching, the range of his thought, the deep contours of his worldview, the piercing contemporaneity of his mind. Today, let us think with him about war and peace, beginning with some summary history of Christian thought on the matter.

We teach our students in preaching that a sermon can be delivered in a reflective mode, without a final resolution, or without a complete resolution. Such a preachment is meant to lift the heart, to lift the gaze, to lift the issues, and to lift up the marrow matters of life in the presence the divine. Today’s sermon is one such, delivered in the mode of reflection.

Over 20 centuries, and speaking with unforgivable concision, as one must in a 22 minute sermon, two basic understandings of war and peace have emerged in Christian thought. As you know, these roughly can be called the so-called pacifist and the so-called just war understandings.

Pacifism preceded its sibling, and infinitely extends to all times the interim ethic of the New Testament (which even in Luke, a late writing, expects that the coming of Christ will soon make moot our ethical dilemmas, and so tends to err on the side of quietism, or, in the case of arms, pacifism) : “to him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also”. Many utterly saintly Christian women and men have and do honor this understanding with their selfless commitment, including many in this congregation today. My own pulpit hero, Ernest Fremont Tittle, the best Methodist preacher of the 20th century, did so from his Chicago pulpit, through the whole Second World War. Last May—it was one of the greatest joys of 2009—I had the privilege of preaching from that pulpit. While personally I have not been able, to this date anyway, to agree with him, I never compose a sermon on this topic without wondering, and to some degree fearing, what his judgment might be.

The multiple theories of just war, or war as the least of all evil alternatives, have developed since the Fourth Century and the writing of St. Augustine. Here the command to “be merciful, even as God is merciful” is understood tragically to include times when mercy for the lamb means armed opposition to the wolf. The New Testament apocalyptic frame and its interim ethic are honored, to be sure, but supplemented with the historic experience of the church through the ages. Many utterly saintly Christian men and women have honored this understanding with their selfless commitment, including some present here today, and some who are not present because they gave their lives that others might live. Just war thought includes several serious caveats. We together can, in a reflective mode, recall these this morning, in five forms: just cause in response to serious evil, just intention for restoration of peace with justice, no self-enrichment or desire for devastation, use as an utterly last resort, have legitimate authority and have a reasonable hope of success, given the constraints of “discrimination” and “proportionality” (usually understood as protection of non-combatants). Response. Restoration. Restraint. Last resort. Common authority.

Going forward, it is a requirement for Christian living, that one be able in a paragraph to rehearse just war theory. Pacifist Christians will need to do so in order justly to be able to criticize this tradition. Those within the just war tradition will need to do so in order justly to distinguish this tradition from adversaries (e.g., preemption) and distortions. So repeat with me: response, restoration, restraint, last resort, common authority.

These two venerable pillars of Christian thought, pacifism and just war, demarcate the limit to date of received Christian teaching, from scripture, tradition, reason and experience.

How shall we reflect on the promises of the Prince of Peace, the tradition of promise in Scripture, and our readings for this Epiphany Sunday?

If the lectionary readings from Isaiah and Luke were not enough, if our lived experience up to and including the Christmas Day Detroit bomber were not enough, our sitting President has made avoidance of such reflection impossible, for us, and rightly so, in his recent Oslo speech. As Obama did earlier with race, so he has done with peace. He is forcing us to ‘think higher and feel deeper.’

Our President is asking and forcing us to think, to think harder, to think differently, to think in new ways.

In Oslo, Obama resurrected Reinhold Niebuhr. Our colleague Andrew Bacevich at Boston Univeristy and our President Barak Obama have done more in our time to resuscitate the ‘tamed cynic’ than has the whole theological community combined. You remember Niebuhr, the author of the serenity prayer: ‘God give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other’. But Niebuhr also wrote: “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith. Not
hing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own,; therefore, we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.” He further defined for our time the ‘just war’ argument for Christians, a kind of Christian realism. In fact, he is usually understood to be the modern ‘father’ of such realism.

Obama took his stand alongside Niebuhr, and, with respect, against King. He said, “We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations—acting individually or in concert—will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified”. Then comes the most fascinating of paragraphs:

“I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago: ‘Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem. It merely creates new and more complicated ones.’ As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr King’s life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there is nothing weak, nothing passive, nothing naïve in the creed and lives of Ghandi and King. But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.” While he placed no footnote, that sentence summarize Niebuhr’s book, Moral Man and Immoral Society—required reading for a theological education and recommended reading for an education: that is, groups and institutions do not have the moral freedom which individuals do. One person may sacrifice himself, but the head of a state or group or union or party or family or neighborhood simply is not free to enforce that choice upon those whom he leads or represents.

The rest of the speech, which has fairly been called a masterpiece, simply fills in the argument. War is folly, but war is necessary. Force can be justified on humanitarian grounds. Sanction, Justice, Negotiation, Human Rights are our tools. ‘We can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace…The nonviolence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love they preached—their faith in human progress—must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey….For if we lose that faith we lose what is best about our humanity. We lose our sense of possibility. We lose our moral compass.’

It is the splendor of this Oslo statement that it justly revives Niebuhr, makes the case for the second option in Judeo Christian ethics (not pacifism but just war practice), and yet holds in some connection the first option, historically and morally, within Christian thought, that of the Sermon on the Mount: ‘if anyone smite thee on thine right cheek, turn to him the other also’. Obama wants what we all want: the practical realism of Niebuhr and the dreaming idealism of King. Can one have both?

It is hard circle to square, a hard balance to strike.

Even Harriet Tubman, perhaps you remember, carried a pistol on her own journey to follow the North Star. In the Oslo perspective, the tragic inevitability of war, regrettable but inevitable, has the pole position, the honored position. The dreams are just that. Dreams. Twice Obama tries not to call King naïve, and commendably and graciously so. “I know there is nothing naïve in the creed and lives of Ghandi and King”. But did he avoid it?

Those who have listened for some time here at Marsh Chapel, know that my own perspective is in general partly Niebuhrian and in particular quite close, in expression and substance, to the sketch offered in Oslo. In fact, in our time, there is not a speech or preachment which does better to summarize the realist position, as it is given to this point, and yet and still to push us out toward ‘the world that ought to be’. For, most newspaper commentators to the contrary, Obama was doing more than rehearsing Niebuhr. He was not trying only to revivify a long dead Lutheran pastor and Union Seminary graduate, no bad thing in itself. He was reaching higher. There is a yearning, a longing, and a leaning in the Oslo speech (which resembles John Kennedy’s summer 1963 speech). There is a desire to move us forward, from war, to peace. What we are is not what we shall be.

Of course, the problem is in the first move. Niebuhr pretty clearly argues that, by and large, what we are IS what we shall be. ‘Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime…’

That is, there is here a serious, lasting conundrum for Christian realists. It is the peril Obama tries to circumnavigate at the end of his speech. Listen: ‘If we lose faith, if we dismiss it as silly or naïve…we lose our sense of possibility.’

With all due respect, we lose a lot more than that.

The Oslo weakness lies here. Obama rightly was trying to move us farther on from Niebuhr and King, Niebuhr vs. King. To do so, he would have had to face more frontally, more squarely, the devastation inherent in ‘realism’ of the kind which Neibuhr and many of us with him have affirmed. War begets war. The primary cause of war is war. It is this hard insight—we might call it deep river realism–which lies at the heart of King’s and Ghandi’s pacifism.

‘Realism’ cuts the nerve of vital energetic rebellion against violence. If ‘we shall not eradicate violence…’, if that is really the bottom line, then we are in a closed circle. The idealism needed, heart by heart, year by year, to reject violence is potentially strangled in the cradle, aborted before there is a chance of breath. If non-violence is doomed from the beginning, the muscle for peace building is severed from the torso of peace making. Christ and Culture in paradox suffocates Christ transforming Culture. Luther trumps Wesley, Niebuhr trumps King. It makes you wonder where the true realism lies. It makes you question the location of naivete.

As people of faith, you will in the course of your lifetimes need periodically to choose pacifism or realism. Both are time honored. Both have biblical roots. Both may be inferred from the teachings of Jesus. Both are found in the history of the church. Both have had courageous, faithful, humble advocates in our time and in the very space we now inhabit for worship. You may at least recognize that those who affirm pacifism may forget that justice for the lamb sometimes requires resistance to the wolf. You may at least realize that those who affirm realism may sever the nerve of hope, which alone can bring the idealism of peace.

Here are King’s Nobel Prize Speech words: ‘Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time; the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.’

Is that naïve? That does not sound so naïve. It even has a Niebuhrian hue, tinge, coloration. King from the grave encourages us to think and act anew. Our time is new, our circumstance is new, so our judgments and actions too must be new.

For a peaceful realism, a realistic pacifism to emerge, in our time, we shall need both the serene realism of Niebuhr and the prophetic dream of King.

I do not see a reasoned resolution to the paradoxical dual needs, the antinomial dual needs of serene realism and prophetic dream. That is, I do see not see a ready synthesis of the two.

All I can recommend to conclude is that we live it through. That we live it through, even when cannot think it through.

We need a picture of a world that can
work, a vision of what the world can look like, a generation from now, built upon a realistic peace. You will not be surprised to hear me name this vision, on Epiphany, as that of the Beloved Thou Art.

People of all religions and no religion will need to consider his claim upon their lives, your lives, our lives. This is not an advertisement for a particular form and place of worship, nor an argument for a particular form of divinity. It is something far truer and harder than that. It is a call to decision, for you, to take the plunge into the icy Jordan and yourself be baptized into his baptism. Into…

The humility of his life, embedded in each personal and public debate.

The stern love of his mount sermon, raiment for the day’s work.

The community of his joy and peace which his death created, a church, an honest to goodness fellowship of friends, as balm for the inevitable hurts and failures of the struggle.

The singing heart of his voice, pure and lovely like ‘streams in the desert’.

The touch of his hand, the finger of God, stirring ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

The emptiness of his purse, his chosen poverty, guidance for our use of what in any case we only have in passing.

The courage of his passion, a courage to be in every setting and time.

The self-giving of his death, mark and measure of our real humanity.

The promise of his resurrection, the promise of the possibility of real change, real compassion, real peace, in real time.

So that, in hunger banished, in poverty chastened, in literacy enhanced, in security achieved, in freedom cherished, in violence disdained, day by day, from the murky waters of messy history, there shall at last emerge a kind of human life which conforms to the body of the Prince of Peace. On that day, earth shall ring, and a voice shall cry out: ‘thou art my beloved, with thee I am well pleased’


1. It has been quite a year, has it not? Each of us has our own silent struggles. Whatever our particular political perspective, we might reflect for a moment on the 2009 to do list at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: Get elected; be safely inaugurated; recruit team to run country and world; phase out war one; consider war two; change the face and voice of the country for the world audience; face down global economic collapse; face forward the need for employment; push forward a national health care reform; talk tough to terror; keep hope alive; win the Nobel peace prize; take kids to Hawaii.

2. I thought I had a good year 2009, doing my annual report (found for the curious on my blog by the way), but nothing like this. It is humbling to try to think about what other very human humans must face hour by hour.

3. I think of those who have come before, and wrestled like Jacob with the same angels and demons.

Robert McAffee Brown left behind his pacifism for a chaplain’s Navy uniform in 1943 during World War II.

William Sloane Coffin left his CIA realism for draft card burning in Vietnam.

The four chaplains enshrined in our Marsh Chapel Connick stained glass gave their life jackets and their lives so that four GI’s could live.

Allan Knight Chalmers and Ernest Tittle preached pacifism through the 1940’s.

R Niebuhr left a legacy has been abused as a blanket defense of any and all warfare.

M King left a legacy that has been attacked as a cloak for naivete.

~ The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel

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