War, Providence, and Defense of Country

A Sermon by Rev. Mark Pendleton

“O my soul, my soul! I am pained in my very heart! My heart makes a noise in me; I cannot hold my peace, because you have heard, O my soul, the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war. Destruction upon destruction is cried, for the whole land is plundered.” (Jeremiah 4:19-20)

The call to war causes pain and anxiety in many hearts. It stirs up a sense of horror at the loss of life, and at the violence, cruelty and destruction that are associated with war. It churns up feelings of fear for the safety of loved ones, feelings of sadness, futility, bitterness and anger. Feelings such as these, no doubt, inspired one song writer to ask, “How many times must the cannon balls fly before they’re forever banned? How many deaths will it take ’til [we know] that too many people have died?”

The call to war causes pain and unrest, and it raises questions in our minds that demand answers. Some of those questions may challenge our faith: Why does an all-merciful, all-loving, and all-wise God allow wars to happen? How can we decide if we, or our country, should become involved in a war? Is the Lord really caring for His people in time of war? Is His providence really at work, or is it temporarily out of service? Questions like these can make it hard to hold on to a sense of peace in time of war.

Why does the Lord allow wars to happen? Why does He allow all of the murder, violence and cruelty of war to take place, when these are so much against Christian good will? Why does he allow one nation to attack and dominate over another? We know that in heaven, angels are so protected by the Lord that evil spirits can’t do them any harm. When evil spirits try to inflict harm on angels they’re stopped and punished before they’re able to carry out their intentions. This protection never fails, and the result is that angels never have to fight against evil spirits. Why can’t it be the same way in this world? Why can’t the Lord give that kind of blanket protection to those who would live content with what they have and in peace?

The Lord can’t offer the same kind of protection in this world as He does in heaven. Life in this world is an arena in which people must have the choice to act either from heavenly desire or from hellish impulse. People must be free to think, will and act either from heaven or from hell. There’s no other way for them to choose their eternal home. What’s more, if the Lord were to thwart all effort to act on hellish impulse, evil would fester inside people like gangrene or some other type of infection until all their vital organs were destroyed.

No, the Lord must permit people to attack and even dominate over other people without just cause. In this world, nation must be allowed to “lift up sword against nation.” The infection must have the chance to come to the surface so that evil can be seen for what it is and then resisted. “No person can be withdrawn from his hell by the Lord”, we’re taught, `unless he sees that he is in hell and wishes to be led out; and this can’t be done’ unless the Lord allows evil to come into action.

People must have the ability to act from evil intent in this world, but that doesn’t mean that evil should be allowed to run rampant. What kind of humane society could there be if evil were allowed free sway–if it weren’t resisted and contained? The fact that people have the ability to act from evil design doesn’t mean they should have license to do so.

Evil mustn’t be allowed free reign in this world, and so the Lord calls all people to defend themselves and their countries from invasion, injury, destruction and ruin.”Wars that have as an end the defense of the country”, we’re taught, `are not contrary to Christian good will.’

Along this line the Word for the New Church talks about the love that a person can foster for his country. One passage says that “one’s country should be loved, not as one loves himself, but more than himself”. This concept of loving one’s country more than oneself is said to be “a law inscribed on the human heart”. It’s a law out of which has come a “well-known principle,” which every true person is said to endorse: if one’s country is “threatened with ruin from an enemy or any other source, it is noble to die for it, and glorious for a soldier to shed his blood for it.” When a person’s country is threatened with ruin, it is right that a he should be willing to give his life in its defense.

But listen to the words that the Heavenly Doctrine uses when it talks about defense of country. We’re called by the Lord to defend our country from invasion by an insulting enemy, and in order to prevent injury, destruction, and the threat of ruin. What’s more, we’re flatly taught that “it is not allowable to make oneself an enemy without a cause.” In one place it’s said that “to despoil others for the sake of one’s self…is cruelty, because the end is selfish and contrary to the common good.”

In time of war the person who loves his country has a decision to make: from conscience he must decide whether or not to defend his country. Is it right that he should support his country in a given war? Does his country have any business being involved in that war? Is his country defending itself, or is it acting as an illegitimate aggressor? Is his country fighting from just cause, or is it simply despoiling others for the sake of its own self-interest? Is his country being invaded? Is it being threatened? If it is being threatened, what is it being threatened with? Is there a threat of injury, destruction, and ruin? These questions and others like them will likely be present in the mind of a person who is deciding how to respond to a call to war.

But in thinking about the question of defense of country, we might ask two more questions: Where do the boundaries of our country–our homeland–lie, and, where does our responsibility for defending against evil stop? No doubt, when the Word for the New Church talks about one’s country, it’s talking about a community of people that lives within certain well-defined geographical boundaries. But is there more to one’s country than that? Perhaps each one of us has a homeland, which stretches beyond the confines of border markers?

Listen, now, to some of the teachings of the Heavenly Doctrines of the New Church which talk about love for the neighbor, and raise our minds above the level of individual people, to a consideration of numbers of people, communities of people, one’s country, the Lord’s kingdom, and finally the Lord Himself. We read:

“…Sometimes [there is] mercy where mercy [is] not apparent, as for instance, when one aims at the common good by punishing the evil and reducing others to order, mercy is then exercised towards the community. So also in war, where the end is victory and thence the common good in the preservation of numbers.. Charity and mercy, moreover, are to be turned from the neighbor to numbers, from numbers to the community, from the community to the Lord’s kingdom, from the Lord’s kingdom to the Lord himself, who is the all in all.

Further:

“It should be known that those who love their country,..after death love the Lord’s kingdom, for then that is their country..”

And finally:

“The Lord’s kingdom is the neighbor that is to be loved in the highest degree, because the Lord’s kingdom means the church throughout the world..; also heaven is meant by it; consequently he who loves the Lord’s kingdom loves all in the whole world who acknowledge the Lord and have faith in Him and charity towards the neighbor; and he loves also all in heaven.

These teachings raise a number of important questions, some of which have already been asked: Where do the boundaries of our country lie? Do we have a homeland that stretches beyond the confines of border markers? What responsibility do we have to help stop aggression and domination wherever they crop up? Perhaps these teachings help to answer the very questions they raise. Perhaps the Lord is calling us to a sense of global defense against evil.

In this regard I’m reminded of one of the models of heaven that we’re given in the Heavenly Doctrines–one in which heaven and its inter-workings is compared to the structure, function, and inter-workings of the human body.

Think, for a minute, about the human body, and about how the body fights against disease. If there is a cancerous tumor, for example, present in the thigh of the human body, it isn’t just the muscles and tissues of the thigh that go to battle against the out-of-control, deadly new growth. No, the body’s response is systemic in nature. The different cells, tissues, organs, and organ systems of the body rally together, each contributing to the cause, in a coordinated effort to rid themselves of (or at least to wall off) the insulting host. Perhaps there are lessons for us to learn about how to deal with different forms of evil in the world, by paying attention to the ways in which the human body fights against different forms of disease.

But whether or not we decide to fight for our country during time of war, that may not do much to reduce the pain of war. Like Jeremiah the prophet, when we hear the alarm of war, we feel pain in our hearts, and we may wonder if the Lord is caring for his people. Is the Lord’s Providence really in charge of what’s going on, and if so, how? Is there any way that we can see evidence of His merciful leading in time of war?

Yes, the Lord does care for all of his people in time of war. His Providence for the salvation of all people never rests. It constantly works–and it never fails–to bring good out of evil situations. The Lord will not allow any war, or any incident in war, to happen that will not be a source of good: “It is an undoubtable fact”, we’re taught, “that the Lord governs the universe” and His government is said to be present and operative in “the most individual of even trivial affairs”. This includes the affairs of war. In this same vein, we’re taught that “there is no such thing as chance, that is, no evil happens by chance, but all evils are so governed that not one of them is permitted which is not conducive to good, both to human and soul. Moreover, nothing is permitted which has not thus been foreseen, for otherwise it could by no means happen; consequently, the various evils are so turned that certain ones, and not others occur.. Thus it is Providence alone which governs, for foresight is thus turned into Providence, and in this way those evils are provided from which there may be good.”

These are comforting teachings, and if we keep our eyes open, we can see the truth of them even while a war is raging: We see the Lord at work, for instance, in the life of young soldier who wrote home from the war in the Persian Gulf back in 1991:

“I’ve had trying times on this cruise, but as a person I believe I’ve grown from the experience. I’ve learned more about who I am, and truly had my faith and beliefs put to the test. I’ve had to reach deep inside myself and take a close look at what I believe and ask the Lord to navigate me through the rough waters and hard times to a peaceful shore. I’m gonna just pray and let the Lord’s providence guide this situation.”

Something good happened in the life of that soldier as a result of that war. But the Lord isn’t at work only in soldiers’ lives. He makes sure that good things are happening on the home front as well. For example, each time we watch the news or read the headlines in time of war, we’re reminded of the horror of war and of the loves that prompt unjust aggression. At times like that we may quietly vow to shun such evil loves as they show up in our own lives. When we do, our hearts are touched by the Lord’s goodness. Something good (small as it may be) has come from the evils of unjust aggression.

And finally, we can be sure that the Lord is working, even in the lives of those who perpetrate war: Think of a person who is tried and convicted of war crimes years after the fact. For the first time that person may realize the atrocity of things that he’s done, and he may then for the first time turn to his God and pray for deliverance from filthy loves, which prompted his actions.

The Lord never stops caring for people. He’s always there, in His Providence, guiding every least affair of our lives. He’s always there, governing even the smallest affairs of war. That’s the assurance we can have about the Lord. That’s the assurance on which confidence in Him, and courage, can be based. That’s the assurance that allows a soldier to ‘raise his mind, before battle, to the Lord, to commit his life into his hands, and afterwards to become brave’. That’s the assurance that each one of us can carry with us, day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment–until the time when ‘nation will no longer lift up sword against nation, neither will they learn war any more.’

Amen.