To 'study war no more'

Bringing a spiritual perspective to daily life

Millions of ordinary citizens fill the streets of their cities in worldwide protests against a possible war with Iraq.

At the same time, many Western government officials, while expressing a general abhorrence of war, nevertheless warn of inevitable conflict if the situation doesn't change. Critics of some of these officials characterize them as "warmongers." One newsman recently commented that this was the most dramatic polarization of society he had seen since the divisive days of the Vietnam War protests. In some ways, the split in American society is still not healed.

I was one of those antiwar protesters during the Vietnam era. My friends and I marched; we sang; we were appalled at the carnage. But I'm afraid too many of us - me included - also moved around in a smug cocoon of assumed moral superiority as we demonized those who had differing opinions. On the other hand, people "on the other side" told us to leave the land of our birth and called us disloyal. So the condemnation was mutual.

I recently came across an account of the life of the Rev. Andrew Peabody. His Unitarian church in Portsmouth, N.H., refused to celebrate the bombardment and surrender of the city of Vera Cruz in 1847 during the Mexican War. He raised the ethical question of whether a soldier ought to participate in an action that would result in the suffering and death of innocent civilians.

In a move radical for his day, he expressed affection for Mexican citizens. While a local newspaper called him "particularly ridiculous," he weathered the criticism and continued his career for almost another 50 years. His generous spirit never allowed him to condemn the people with whom he disagreed. By the 1880s, he held the title of Preacher to Harvard University and was often a respected guest speaker in the church services conducted by Mary Baker Eddy (who also founded this newspaper) in Boston's Hawthorne Hall.

Mrs. Eddy wrote in one of her sermons from this same decade: "It is the baptism of Spirit that washes our robes and makes them white in the blood of the Lamb; that bathes us in the life of Truth and the truth of Life." Near the end of her sermon she made the startling observation, "Thus it is that our ideas of divinity form our models of humanity ("People's Idea of God," pgs. 9, 14). For her, baptism was a profoundly spiritual activity involving transformation of thought.

Almost a century after Mr. Peabody's stand in Portsmouth, "American Negro Songs," was published by John W. Work of Fisk University. These spirituals, which for some are the heart and soul of the African-American experience, showed a deep resilience, courage, and hope. One of them has since become a rallying song for the peace movement. Known variously as "Down by the Riverside" or "Study War No More," it contains these stirring lines:

I'm gonna put on my long white robe,Down by the riverside; I ain't gonna study war no more.

In 1940, these were profoundly and spiritually pacifist words for a nation on the brink of war, and they still are today.

To me, this spiritual echoes both Peabody's ideals and the point of Mrs. Eddy's sermon. It gives me food for thought as I consider today's war clouds. Its image of real baptism - thought purified and attuned to God - transforms my model of humanity so that I can "study war no more." The plea becomes a promise, not an idle platitude.

I hope and pray that there will be no war. I pray as sincerely as I can that a divine solution will be found. But I am also brought up short by the injunction to myself "to study war no more." I can't condemn people that I disagree with. My understanding of the all-encompassing God must allow me to mentally embrace everyone - Iraqi leaders, Western government officials, antiwar protesters, conservative political pundits - as my brothers and sisters.

My prayer is very much a work in progress. But I am learning that, if I'm to be worthy of that "long white robe," I have to "study war no more" on my individual level as well as on the political one.

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