Dean David N. Hempton: Harvesting Peace

October 7, 2015
Dean David Hempton
Dean David N. Hempton / Photo: Tony Rinaldo

Dean David N. Hempton, the Alonzo L. McDonald Family Professor of Evangelical Theological Studies and John Lord O’Brian Professor of Divinity, delivered the sermon during Sunday Services at Memorial Church on October 4, 2015. Below is his sermon, as prepared for delivery.

"But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness."

In August I gave a talk at the Chautauqua Institution in New York State. A cross between a Methodist Camp meeting and Tanglewood, Chautauqua has been an important site for humanitarian and progressive causes since its founding in the late nineteenth century. I spoke about European religion, past, present and future—from Christendom, through secularization, to pluralism. For centuries, Europe has found it difficult to embrace religious difference—from the Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century to the problems posed by the rapid increase of the Muslim population of Western Europe over the last 30 years, and more recently to the heartbreaking refugee crisis. The recently published Pew Research Center report on religious trends up to 2050 suggests that by 2050 Europe will be less Christian, more unaffiliated, more Muslim, and more religiously pluralistic. As the ongoing influx of refugees into Europe makes clear, European nations are going to struggle to meet the challenge of greater ethnic and religious pluralism.

Coincidentally, my speech at Chautauqua was given on the 69th anniversary of a much more important speech at Chautauqua delivered by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It has become known as his "I hate War" speech, some of which is reproduced at the impressive FDR memorial in Washington, which you should visit if you get the chance.



He stated: "I have seen war. I have seen war on land and sea. I have seen blood running from the wounded. I have seen men coughing out their gassed lungs. I have seen the dead in the mud. I have seen cities destroyed. I have seen two hundred limping, exhausted men come out of line—the survivors of a regiment of one thousand that went forward 48 hours before. I have seen children starving. I have seen the agony of mothers and wives. I hate war.

We can keep out of war if those who watch and decide have a sufficiently detailed understanding of international affairs to make certain that the small decisions of each day do not lead toward war and if, at the same time, they possess the courage to say 'no' to those who selfishly or unwisely would let us go to war. 

Of all the nations of the world today we are in many ways most singularly blessed. Our closest neighbors are good neighbors. If there are remoter nations that wish us not good but ill, they know that we are strong; they know that we can and will defend ourselves and defend our neighborhood.

We seek to dominate no other nation. We ask no territorial expansion. We oppose imperialism. We desire reduction in world armaments. We believe in democracy; we believe in freedom; we believe in peace. We offer to every nation of the world the handclasp of the good neighbor. Let those who wish our friendship look us in the eye and take our hand."

Despite these noble intentions, only five years later Roosevelt found himself and the nation engaged in a second world war, ending with the terrible nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We have lived in the shadow of these bombs ever since. Roosevelt hated war, but international affairs delivered war to his desk.

My Chautauqua talk was given at the end of a week devoted to European religion, and it was followed by a week devoted to religion and conflict in the Middle East. One of the featured speakers was Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian doctor from Gaza who happened to be staying in the same residence. He arrived for breakfast with an ebullient smile and accompanied by his sparkling five children of various ages and heights. They tumbled in with all the disheveled grandeur of a happy family. But these were not his only children. Shortly after his wife died of leukemia in 2008, he had three daughters killed by a shell from an Israeli tank in January 2009, near the end of a 23-day attack on the Gaza Strip to combat Hamas militants. Abuelaish recounts the story in a powerful book called, I Shall Not Hate. His chapter on the attack on his home, while he was there, and how he discovered the mutilated bodies of his beloved daughters is one of the most disturbing I have ever read. When he spoke about it at Chautauqua, there was scarcely a dry eye in the house. Although Abuelaish's life was devastated by this incident, and by the subsequent refusal of the Israeli government to issue an apology, his book is not in the tradition of vengeful defenses of a particular cause. His is not an anti-Israeli book; indeed it is endorsed by my old colleague at BU, Elie Wiesel, a concentration camp survivor and Nobel Peace Laureate. Dr. Abuelaish had many friends and medical colleagues at the Sheba Medical Center in Tel Aviv, where his other wounded daughters were nursed back to health by caring Israeli doctors and nurses. When asked if he hated the Israelis for what happened to his family, he replied "which Israelis am I supposed to hate?" Certainly not those who were treating his daughters and standing by him in friendship.

Abuelaish's experiences, his remarkable book, and his foundation of an organization dedicated to his three deceased children called Daughters for Life, have resulted in many peace prizes and three consecutive nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize. He is a remarkable person. Go read his book. It finishes with a list of lessons he thinks he has learned on his painful journey. He writes, "Peace is humanity; peace is respect; peace is open dialogue. I don't think of peace as the absence of anything because that just puts it in a negative light. Let's be positive about what peace is—rather than what it is not. Hate is blindness and leads to irrational thinking and behavior. It is a chronic, severe, and destructive sickness. We do not have to merely accept what is happening around us. We all have the capacity to be agents of change." Especially, "I have every faith in women and their potential." That is why he founded Daughters for Life.

What then do these Chautauqua stories have to do with the readings about peace from the Beatitudes and the letter of James?  The passage in James begins with a question: "Who is wise and understanding among you?" This is a good question to ask at Harvard, where knowledge is rarely in short supply, but wisdom is sometimes a different matter. The answer given by James is that wisdom is exemplified in the good life built upon humility and self-control. It is the opposite of "bitter envy and selfish ambition." Rather the wisdom from above is "first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness." This path of spiritual formation is strikingly similar to the Beatitudes, where the sequence is poverty of spirit, meekness, righteousness, mercy, purity, and peacemaking. "Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the children of God."

In these passages peacemaking is carried out by people characterized by purity, humility, impartiality, and righteousness. In Psalm 85, the psalmist writes that "righteousness and peace kiss each other" in a sacred embrace. 

Nothing here is easy or weak. Peacemaking is not some kind of feeble accommodationism or unrealistic wishful thinking. I can tell you from the experience of living through the Northern Ireland troubles that impartiality is hard, disciplined work. Humility and meekness are not easy to come by in the world of international affairs or in the midst of civil conflicts. Righteousness and the wisdom advocated by James do not come falling off the back of trucks. Look at the character attributes on display from some of the world's great non-violent advocates and peacemakers. Gandhi, Elie Wiesel, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, George Mitchell, Malala, and someone else who will be announced in a few days' time.

As some of you know, I was a teenager in Northern Ireland when the "troubles" broke out in 1969. I still remember the shock of the first deaths at police hands in the summer of 1969. I went to Queen's University in Belfast through the worst four years of the troubles when over a 1,000 people were killed in a small province of just over a million and a half people. Trying to understand the roots of that conflict is what got me engaged as an historian. Over the years I became especially interested in the conditions that produced civil wars in particular. What are the forces and structural problems that produce such conflicts—the English Civil Wars in the seventeenth century, the American Civil War in the nineteenth century, the Irish and Spanish Civil wars in the twentieth century. What they all have in common is a set of structural inequalities, injustices, and unresolved conflicts that over time erode the capacity for creative solutions and then slide inexorably into serious levels of violence.

In our twenty-first century rise to globalism there is a sense that all our future conflicts are really civil wars for the human family. Another Chautauqua speaker, Timothy Snyder in his book Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, suggests that climate change threatens to provoke a new ecological panic in which competition for water, fertile land, and food supply will drive future conflicts. In addition, the Pew survey I mentioned earlier suggests that by the middle of this century that there will be roughly equal numbers of Muslims and Christians. How will we deal with that? What can we do to make a difference?

Soon after I became Dean of the Divinity School in 2012, I gave the annual Convocation address on "The Fog of Religious Conflict." I was surprised about how much of a chord it struck within our community and beyond. Last year we established the Religions and Practice of Peace Initiative at HDS, and we reached out to scholars, practitioners, and students across Harvard and greater Boston. We are now in our second year with an active website, a regular evening colloquium, new courses, plans for a newly endowed chair, and connections with many sister programs and movements throughout the United States and beyond.  Please go to the HDS website, go to programs, and check it out. Please get behind us if you can.

Finally, look what is promised in the passages we have read this morning. "Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God." "Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness." Here are images of freshness, fertility, youthfulness, and plenty. One of my favorite proverbs states that "a heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones (14:30)." Envy and war rot our bones, figuratively and literally.

When I first thought about our text's statement that peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness a number of images flashed into my mind. The first is that harvest of small white crosses in Flanders Fields in France commemorating the First World War dead, which are the poignant reminders of the harvest of a whole generation of young adults, whose lives were cut short. If the fields are simply too big to absorb, read Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth and see what it meant for one young woman at Oxford to lose her fiancé, her brother, and her best friends in the same withering conflict—a whole generation of talent. Or think of Dr Abuelaish's young daughters, or any number of other grim harvests of hatred and conflict. What then would a harvest of righteousness look like? What would we reap if we invested in wisdom, humility, impartiality, and righteousness? The biblical answer of course is that whatsoever we sow, that also shall we reap. If that is the crop we desire, however easily put down it may be by the collective forces of cynicism, realism, pragmatism, and self-interest, then we should start sowing peace in any available plot we can find. Even a small harvest of peace and righteousness beats the centuries of harvested crops of violence and war. Peacemaking is a spiritual discipline. It needs to be cultivated in our characters day by day, it needs to be practiced in our relationships and in our families, it needs to be represented on the public stage, and it needs perseverance in light of the many setbacks that are sure to follow.

May you cultivate the wisdom that brings a harvest of righteousness for you, your families, our country, and the world. It sorely needs it. Peace be with you. Amen.