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Andrew Peabody Preached Against War in 1847

 

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Morality and war

Peabody's 1847 sermon didn't stop at protesting the month-long American bombardment of the Mexican fortifications at Vera Cruz. He also posed the most controversial of all military questions -- Is a soldier required to follow orders, if he considers them immoral? Ethics, Peabody suggested, do belong on the battlefield.  War does not free the individual soldier of moral responsibility, he said. And Rev. Peabody did not mince words:

“When the individual soul stands before the divine tribunal, stained with the wanton butchery of those women and babes,” he wrote, “think you that the plea, ‘I knew that it was wrong and vile, but my country bade me do it?’ will be accepted in Heaven's chancery in mitigation of the crime?”

Soldiers, Peabody said, should be encouraged to act on their moral beliefs, and rewarded for doing so.  Rather than undermining the military establishment, he said, this philosophy would ensure that -- when America fights -- it fights only for the right. "My country, right or wrong", he implies, is not patriotism at all, but barbarism, especially when the war is fought on other people's homelands -- no matter how compelling the cause.

Empathy for the enemy

In 1847, it was a stretch for white Christian Americans in New Hampshire to fathom the plight of the impoverished Mexican victims at Vera Cruz. Then as now, newspapers rarely reported civilian casualties, offering instead, only glowing accounts of how few of the 10,000 American troops on hand died in the weeks of bombardment. Peabody, however, asked his parishioners to cast aside their ethnic prejudices. He said:

“Again, the Mexicans are called our enemies. They probably are so. We have done enough to make them so…[but] Those Mexicans have human hearts. There are there, as here, fond parents and loving children. They have the same susceptibilities of suffering and anguish with ourselves.”

But if these “foreigners” whose homes we are bombing, Peabody wrote, are really our enemies, then we should treat them as enemies. The Christian bible, he noted, mandates clear responses. Christians should love and forgive their enemies. He quoted this scriptural passage – “If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirsts, give him drink.”

Peabody’s response to aggression was as politically incorrect in his time, as it may be today. United States policy appears to follow the Old Testament precepts of an “eye for an eye.” To not fight back when attacked is generally considered weakness, Retaliation and punishment are synonyms for justice. “Justice has been done,” President Barack Obama announced when American troops killed terrorist Ossama Bin Ladin in Pakistan recently as throngs cheered outside the White House gates.

Peabody, by contrast, preached in favor of meekness and mercy, modeling his Christianity after the biblical Christ. The road to righteousness, he reminded his Portsmouth congregation, was to turn the other cheek. It is only by forgiving evil, he explained, that one avoids becoming as evil as one’s own enemies.

 

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