Sermon given by Rev. Ken Reeves, February 25, 2018
Like many American boys, I grew up interested in war. I read about historical wars and their battles. I played war with my friends, and any stick could become a gun. I noted on the evening news the Vietnam War body count, with about a hundred American soldiers killed each week, and many hundreds of enemy Vietnamese. It seemed like keeping score, and that we were winning.
As I grew up, my attitude shifted. I recall a conversation with my dad, a veteran of the peacetime Navy, who stated that no war in history had ever been justified. “What about World War II?”
“It could have been prevented.”
I had to ponder that, and as I did, war lost its thrill. I began to doubt the wisdom of the Vietnam War. I attended a Unitarian church in my youth, and heard its Humanist message of people improving the world. I had spiritual moments of closeness with other people, and, caring for others, I did not want anyone to suffer in a war. I re-read history, this time interested in how people have matured away from war. With this sermon, you are the lucky beneficiaries of that review of history. *
My maturational shift from a fascination with, to opposing, war, I think, parallels humanity’s developmental shift away from war. In this sermon I will review the terrible violence of our past, and theories explaining this violence, then look at the trends toward peace, and at theories explaining these trends. A warning, this sermon is rated R for violent content, but it has a peaceful ending. Indeed, I am disturbed by our historical brutality, but relieved that I will not be burned at the stake tomorrow. I want to extend this relief to you.
Regarding our history, archaeologists conclude that 1 in 7 primal people died by violence. One tribe would raid another, and kill everyone, because even one surviving child could grow up to seek revenge.
When people first developed cities, the rate of violent death dropped to 1 in 50, an improvement, but the same rate as during our American Civil War. Cities could be sacked, the men killed, and the women either killed or taken for sexual enslavement. For example, the fall of Jericho: we know the song – trumpets blowing and walls tumbling. After that the scripture reads: “Then they utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and asses, with the edge of the sword.” Historians have unearthed ancient texts describing other cities sacked and forgotten. Such events are reflected in a Psalm praising God for violence: “Thou hast destroyed the wicked; thou hast blotted out their name for ever and ever. The enemy has vanished in everlasting ruins; their cities thou hast rooted out; the very memory of them has perished.”
Through much of human history, people lived in fear of a sail on the horizon, or marchers in the distance bringing destruction. To assuage their fear, people would celebrate an alpha god who smites their enemies in miraculous victory.
Along with wars, commonplace violence included slavery and torture. Infants with a poor chance of survival were killed by their families. Crime was frequent.
Even marriages were not friendly relationships. Among the elite, a marriage cemented a political alliance. When such alliances went awry, the now-unneeded spouse and progeny could be killed. Among common people, a marriage was a business compact. The husband plowed the fields and tended the animals. The wife sewed, cooked, and tended the home. Affection between couples was frowned upon.
With death so likely, it made little sense to love a child or a spouse. Furthermore, frequent death gave human life little value. Instead of life, the soul was valued, and heaven hoped for.
To explain this violence some look to our closest genetic cousins, chimpanzees. They are cute, of course -- Curious George -- but can also be violent. In the wild they live in troops, each in its territory. If a group of males from one troop encounters a stray from another troop, they attack that indivual. The earliest humans may have behaved like chimps, not considering what they were doing, but killing with opportunistic savagery.
Consistent with not thinking, violence was impulsive. In a threat-filled world, it made sense to act fast, fight or run, and not think. And people would impulsively defend their honor. So, an interaction could shift in a moment from laughter to offended honor to a sword fight or duel.
People have tried to sound thoughtful as they justified war. “We are claiming territory,” a euphemism for theft. “We insist on purity.” This is not thought, but insecurity about differences. “They hit first.” Revenge does not think through outcomes, but fuels more violence.
In addition to not thinking, violence resulted from doing what was required to survive in the natural world. Long ago humans hunted and gathered, and a successful hunt might bring home a rabbit. Other predators preyed on the humans. But at some point people learned to hunt big animals, mastodons, and fight off predators. They could then hunt almost any animal, and did, wiping out mastodons, giant beavers, flightless birds. When the prey was gone, they could migrate to locate fresh prey, or, unlike other predators, shift to plant foods. We became omnipotent predators with no check on our predation. Early humans emphasized the survival of the fittest call to dominate, over the alternative, we’re-in-this-together cooperation. Animals lost; we won. We survived. A successful survival strategy, we applied it to each other.
Violence then boils down an attempt to win in a survival of the fittest world. Not only violence, I see our emphasis on the survival of the fittest, over we're in this together, as the root of all human problems.
You have stayed in the room for the brutal side of history, and now things improve. Over the centuries, we're becoming less violent. The we’re-in-this- together attitude has slowly developed, and with that, humanity is moving toward peace. I love human development. Individuals develop from impulsive children to concerned adults. Humanity has developed from feral animals into human beings.
In this development, the rate of death in war or other violence has dropped from one in 7 people in primal cultures, to one in 7,000 today (according to the World Health Organization.) Each of these deaths carries suffering and loss, but these tragedies occur less often.
At present villages do not raid each other. Entire cities are not sacked. Contemporary spiritual literature does not praise God's violence. Great powers no longer wage war against each other. Small countries at war still cause suffering, but great power wars caused great suffering. No great power has faced another on a battlefield since 1953, when US and Chinese armies fought in Korea.
In most of the world, private armies are not tolerated. Slavery still takes place, tragically, but it is illegal in every country. Torture is not routine. Infanticide is thousands of times less frequent, and child abuse is illegal in most countries. Even marriages have become opportunities for love and meaning.
This development of peace has many factors behind it, primarily: order, interdependence, and thought. As for order, when people collected into ever larger groups, they needed order, and so created laws. One such law, though often broken, was “Thou shalt not kill.” Creating order saved some lives, making them so valuable, people saw them as gifts of the Gods.
Related to laws was the development of norms of self-control. Medieval people were ill-mannered, picking teeth with their knives and such. Leading thinkers of the day, such as Erasmus, wrote serious, and best-selling, books of etiquette, with tips like: “Don’t pick your teeth with your knife.” More self-control led to less impulsive violence.
Also responding to impulsivity, and to the larger issue of warfare, when stronger warlords, or knights, conquered territories, to become even stronger, they became kings. These kings disliked turf battles among their subject knights, because dead peasants and destroyed crops were costly to the larger kingdom. The king would stop feuding knights, and impose peace, like a referee pulling apart boxers.
With the king stopping violence, knights gained stature not by being the most aggressive, but by currying favor with the king, which meant courtly manners. Behavior shifted from the impulsive defense of honor, to the restrained maintenance of dignity.
The value for dignity led people to wonder how a dignified king could apply the least violence necessary to keep peace. Entertaining a question about governance assumed that people could influence government. Then, if people could influence government, then government could be created by people, to benefit people. The next step for this thinking: democracy -- government “of the people, by the people, for the people.”
A democracy forms by consent, not force, so from its origin it is nonviolent. Furthermore, the leader of a democracy, ideally, supports the we’re-in-this-together system in which everyone benefits.
A non-democratic king could force his people to war. Such war posed little cost to the king – he wouldn’t be killed -- so wars could be capricious. In a democracy, though, the people have some say in whether a fight is worth their blood and treasure – often not. So, democracies are less prone to warfare.
Democracy contributes to the second factor that has supported peace, that is, people needing each other and working together. It began with trade. I have grapes, but no wheat; you have wheat, no grapes. Trading for wheat costs less than stealing wheat in a war, so I trade. As we trade and both benefit, we learn win-win arrangements. I also wonder, what else might my trading partner like? Maybe some wine. Wondering what my trading partner might like teaches me empathy. Win-win arrangements and empathy, contributed to peace.
Alongside order and interdependence: thinking, reflecting, slowing down and rising out of the weeds of events, has supported peace. During much of history people did not reflect on war and violence, just as chimpanzees do not reflect on why they attack a stray from another troop. Without reflection people assumed: it is a win-lose world, we have to fight hard to win; an assumption that helped early people survive and still taken for granted. But human brains are problem-solving organs, and they began to consider: how could things be better? Considering that question, they evaluated war and weighed alternatives.
Trade and resulting interaction with foreigners and their differing views supporting more thinking. Traders formed cosmopolitan cities where differing people hashed out differing ideas and developed new ideas. The Ages of Reason and Enlightenment began in cities and supported peace.
Printed books stimulated reflection. As people pondered and exchanged ideas on how things can be better, those ideas took hold and became enacted. As one historian notes: the most influential force in history has been: the idea.
Alongside increased reflection, people are getting smarter. IQ test scores are rising. Someone testing superior in 1914, would test as average today. This rising IQ reflects human development from concrete to scientific thinking. So, a question like: “What do dogs and rabbits have in common?” 100 years ago might have been answered concretely: “Dogs hunt rabbits.” Now it would be answered scientifically: “Both are mammals.” Scientific thinking doubts the animal logic of war, and helps us understand the complex tasks of peace.
With a greater chance of living one’s natural lifetime, and, more recently, with greater health and comfort, people came to appreciate this life, rather than look to heaven. So, let's preserve life.
With children and spouses more likely to have a future, we form intimate, loving bonds. As empathy has grown, friendly love has flourished. Let's preserve my friends and loved ones.
With thought and love, simple decency is growing. One plea for decency was addressed to former Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954. McCarthy had a problem with the Army, so the Army hired a lawyer, Joseph Welch, to make its case. At a hearing, McCarthy charged that one of Welch's attorneys had ties to Communism. Welch responded with lines that began the end of McCarthy's career: "Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness." When McCarthy continued his attack, Welch interrupted, "Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?"
The second plea was offered to Osama bin Laden in 2007 by one of his mentors, Saudi cleric Salman al-Odah: “My brother Osama, how much blood has been spilt? How many innocent people, children, elderly, and women have been killed?” Here violence is not accepted as the thing we do, nor something to celebrate, but is repugnant.
So, our larger, more complex societies needed order and created laws; needing each other, we learned to work together; and our big brains actually think.
There are other ways people have supported peace. I’ll list twenty-one. (It is a universe bending toward peace.) We have the empowerment of women and their civilizing effect; the growth of formal, universal education; increased rights for women, children, and minorities; widening human affiliation from tribe, to city, to state, to nation, to federation of nations; the arts; improved health care and greater longevity; improved means of communication and travel; prayers for peace; sermons for peace; peace movements; satire and mockery of war; the United Nations, its forum for making agreements, and its peacekeeping forces; international laws and the World Court; friendships between members of opposing groups; economic interdependence; transnational agreements; the fear of nuclear war; better policing; a fair criminal justice system; mediation, negotiation, and nonviolent problem-solving; and my conversation with my father. There may be others.
Peace is happening, and so, unfortunately, is war. Mass shootings and partisan feuding in our own government are disturbing. We are still working out how to live together. Sometimes I despair, but today I am hopeful because, as I see it, we have come a long way, and because what propels our journey to peace cannot be stopped: our need for order, our need for each other, and our minds that think with increasing complexity.
As peace develops among human beings, we have begun to look to our next peacemaking frontier: making peace with nature.
This is a Humanist sermon, on how human development bends toward peace. I also think that as the world gains peace and then safety, that safety supports spirituality, and a spirituality of union. When people are scared, they create an alpha God who smites their enemies; when miserable, they lift their eyes to heaven and long for release. But today, in a safer world, our spirituality can trust and open to oneness, which enriches our lives, and contributes further to peace.
War and violence have not ceased, but there is a peaceful tide rolling, lifted by the gravitational pulls of our needs for order and for each other, and our capacity for thought. This tide of peace is flowing to all corners of the earth, easing tensions, calming our hearts, and opening us further to union with all.
* Much of the historical material for this sermon comes from The Better Angels of our Nature, by Steven Pinker.