by Pastor Doug Kings

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.” To work for peace, you must have a peaceful heart. When you do, you are a child of God. But many who work for peace are not at peace. They still have anger and frustration, and their work is not really peaceful. We cannot say that they are touching the Kingdom of God. To preserve peace, our hearts must be at peace with the world, with our brothers and sisters…. To work for peace is to uproot war from ourselves and from the hearts of men and women.

Thich Nhat Hahn in Living Buddha, Living Christ

The Great War, as it was called, which ended a little over a century ago, was also called The War to End All Wars. Events quickly made a mockery of that hope. In just two decades it had to be renamed the First World War.

The victors’ noble goal crashed and burned on the floor of the Versailles Palace outside Paris, where the “peace” treaty was hammered out. Real peace was not achieved because the new post-war world order which the treaty established was to be preserved by a small group of the world’s most powerful nations. In addition to Germany being emasculated, the needs of smaller or weaker countries were given little attention and pleas for independence from European colonies ignored. The seeds for future conflict were well sown and quickly sprouted.

In Luke’s telling, as Jesus’ Palm Sunday procession comes to an end, he weeps over Jerusalem lamenting, “If you had only recognized the things that make for peace!” Those words have hung over our world ever since. Ending armed conflict is not the same as establishing peace. As Thich Nhat Hahn says above, “To work for peace, you must have a peaceful heart.” Unfortunately, in modern history such hearts have been in short supply among world leaders. Most have had other agendas.

The ending of World War II avoided the worst mistakes of Versailles but plenty of others were made. The great powers lived in a tense standoff called the Cold War. There were panic-stricken moments when war threatened to become unimaginably hot. But while direct armed conflict between those powers was avoided, the emerging nations of what was called the Third World often became the battlegrounds of surrogate wars, most never formally declared.

While Cold War tensions eased, armed conflicts have continued, many with horrendous consequences. I found a list of modern wars and their casualties on Wikipedia and was stunned by how many there were and by their death tolls. I was embarrassed that some of the worst I was not even aware of. Did you know that five million people died in the Second Congo War (1998-2003)? I had never heard of it. (Three-quarters of a million died in the first war shortly before it.) Or that the 15-year Mexican drug war has caused up to a quarter of a million deaths? It’s about the same number as died in the 5-year Iraq War.

Our attention now is understandably and rightly on the war in Ukraine. Yet to fully understand that conflict, it must be seen in the context of the conflicted state of our world. The Wikipedia list identifies 24 conflicts as “ongoing”, some going back decades. The individual death tolls for most are in the hundreds of thousands and one (Afghanistan) is well over a million. Some of the worst conflicts right now are in Yemen, Syria, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Somalia.

In 2020 estimated global miliary spending reached $2 trillion. The US was at the top with 39% of that total, followed by China (13%), India (3.7%), Russia (3.1%), and the UK (3%) rounding out the top 5. The international arms export business is estimated at well over $100 billion, with the US in the lead with 37% of that total, followed by Russia with 20%.

Most such sales go directly to the military units of foreign governments. A not insignificant amount, however, enters the black market to support insurgencies and various nongovernmental military forces. Many of these sales are funded surreptitiously by other governments but so-called “dark money” is also a factor, sources of which can include corporations trying to protect or expand their foreign interests. It is no coincidence that Congo’s appalling death toll was in a country rich in strategic mineral resources.

I’m sorry to bore you with these statistics but I am making the perhaps obvious point that war is big business. In 1935 retired Marine Corps general Smedley Butler authored one the most powerful modern anti-war tracts, War Is a Racket. And as he was leaving office in 1961, then President (and retired general) Dwight Eisenhower gave this famous warning in his farewell address to the country.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

Today it is widely accepted that Eisenhower’s warning was ignored. The business of war is means jobs and profits. It may support many of us directly, or indirectly through our pensions and investments. Yet the cost of this business to the world’s wellbeing is horrific and only growing worse. In another speech, early in his administration, Eisenhower rendered this verdict:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

In the face of such enormous challenges, it is easy to feel helpless and hopeless. Yet Jesus and Thich Nhat Hahn are correct that every day, at every moment, we can be peace makers, and thus children of God. Peace in the world is a matter of peace in our hearts. The division and hostility in society and the world will end only when we confront those things within ourselves. As Nhat Hahn counsels,

There are many conflicting feelings and ideas within us, and it is important for us to look deeply and know what is going on. When there are wars within us, it will not be long before we are at war with others, even those we love.

Only by honest reflection and by centering ourselves in the Spirit and love of God can our hearts be transformed into places that know what Paul calls “the peace that surpasses all understanding.” Then peace becomes a way of life, and becomes our life. Thich Nhat Hahn writes,

Peace activist A. J. Muste said, “There is no way to peace; peace is the way.” He meant that we can realize peace right in the present moment with each look, smile, and action. Peace is not just an end. Each step we make should be peace, should be joy, should be happiness….

Blessings in your life and ministry.