Susan Brecht May 12, 2019
Julia Ward Howe:
A different kind of Mother’s Day
Luke 6: 27
‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.’
Dhammapada 1.5 & 17.3 The Words of Buddha
Hatreds do not ever cease in this world by hating, but by love; this is an eternal truth … Overcome anger by love, overcome evil by good. Overcome the miser by giving, overcome the liar by truth.
In September of 1870 Julia Ward Howe gave the following rallying cry for peace:
“Again, in the sight of the Christian world, have the skill and power of two great nations exhausted themselves in mutual murder? Again have the sacred questions of international justice been committed to the fatal mediation of military weapons? In this day of progress, in this century of light, the ambition of rulers has been allowed to barter the dear interests of domestic life for the bloody exchanges of the battle-field. Thus men have done. Thus men will do.
But women need no longer be made a party to proceedings which fill the globe with grief and horror. Despite the assumptions of physical force, the mother has a sacred and commanding word to say to the sons who owe their life to her suffering. That word should now be heard, and answered to as never before.
Arise, then, Christian women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country, to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.” From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says; “Disarm, disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.” Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, man as the brother of man, each bearing after his own kind the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God!”
I hate to say it, but those words still ring true today. Julia Ward Howe was the mother of five, a Boston poet, a pacifist, a suffragist, and the author of the lyrics to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Her appeal was translated into French, Spanish, Italian, German and Swedish in her attempt to organize an international Congress of Women to be held in London, in the summer of 1872.
She had witnessed some of the worst effects of war - not only death and disease that maimed and killed the soldiers. She worked with widows and orphans on both sides of the Civil War and saw the economic crisis that followed. Outraged later by the Franco-Prussian War, she called on women to come together across national lines to promote peace.
These lofty dreams unfortunately never came to fruition, but this did not deter her from her life-long pursuit of peace. Her daughters wrote, “She turned her efforts in a new direction. She would have a festival, a day which should be called Mother’s Day, and be devoted to the advocacy of peace doctrines. She chose the second day of June. For many years she and her friends and followers kept this day religiously, with sweet and tender observances which were unspeakably dear to her.”
The last celebration of her Mother’s Day was held in Riverton, New Jersey on June 1,1912, two years after her death. The invitation informed those attending that “thirty-nine years ago Julia Ward Howe instituted this festival for peace - a time for the women and children to come together - to meet in the country, invite the public, and recite, speak, sing and pray for ‘those things that make for peace.’”
If only she had lived another five years, she would have witnessed her dream come true. In April of 1915, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom met for the first time in The Hague, in the Netherlands. It was formed by some 1,300 women from Europe and North America - from countries at war against each other, as well as neutral ones, who formed a Congress of Women to protest the killing and destruction of the war then raging in Europe. Today there are chapters in 37 countries.
But imagine how sad Julia Ward Howe would be today, to see that, despite all the organizing and protests and peace prizes, the prospects of peace in the world only seem to grow dimmer and dimmer. And a celebration for peace has been replaced by Hallmark cards and floral bouquets.
How many wars have we engaged in since 1915? How many wars are raging across the world today? Ghandi once said, “If non-violence is the law of our being, the future is with women. Who can make a more effective appeal to the heart than woman?” Seventeen women have won the Nobel Peace Prize since its inception. And women continue work for peace.
Julia Ward Howe’s dream has grown over the years - in different ways. I googled “Women for Peace” and 902,000,000 entries came up. “Mothers for Peace” had 206,000,000. I wondered “Whoever reads past those first few pages of entries?” But I found two surprises in the first pages of Mothers for Peace.
The first, happening in San Luis Obispo, the town next to the one I used to live in in California. Their Mothers for Peace is a non-profit organization concerned with the dangers posed by the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant and other nuclear reactors, nuclear weapons and radioactive waste. They work to promote peace, environmental and social justice and renewable energy, to create a more livable, peaceful world for their children and grand-children.
My second surprise is happening in Boston. As we worship today survivors of homicide victims and their neighbors are participating in the 22nd Annual Mother’s Day Walk for Peace, from Dorchester to City Hall. It began as a way to support mothers, and honor the lives of their murdered children. This Boston tradition celebrates our potential to create more peaceful communities, because peace starts in our homes and our communities, and, I might add, in our houses of worship, when people of faith speak out.
I had just started seminary when the bombs fell over Baghdad after 9-11. There was an outcry from those of us up on what we called Holy Hill. But where were the voices from the pulpits in our churches? I later asked that question to the President and General Minister of the UCC. He confirmed what I had suspected. They were afraid of offending members of their congregations, of creating division in their churches. Sadly, he admitted “We should have spoken up more.” You experienced that here at Eliot during the Vietnam War.
Where are Christian voices today as violence, terrorism and wars in Yemen, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria, Venezuela and Sri Lanka destroy the lives of their citizens? There are 40 active conflicts going on in the world today. Where are our voices as we send aircraft carriers toward Iran?
Where are the Christian voices as our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters are slaughtered in their houses of worship?
Hans Kung once said, “Until there is peace between religions, there can be no peace in the world.” History has shown us time after time that when we cling too tightly to our own beliefs and ideologies, professing that we have the ultimate truth, it inevitably leads to intolerance, violence and suffering. Everyone becomes a victim. We see this happening in the US, and all over the world.
Maybe the most disturbing headlines for me today, and I would imagine for most parents, are ones having to do with violence in our schools:
A 14-year-old student in Napa recently planned an attack at River Middle School and Vintage High School, wanting to cause harm and destruction to the young students and faculty.
Two young girls from Bartow Middle School in Florida have been accused in a plot to kill at least 15 students.
Just this last week, two students, one 18 and the other a minor, killed another student and wounded eight others in a school in Colorado.
Where did these children learn to hate? - on the internet? - from their peers? - in their homes? We are not born to hate. Have we become numb to the violence we hear about every day? Has it become the norm? If so, how has it affected our children?
It’s within the family that children experience love and safety. Enabling children to grow up in a healthy, violence free family enables them to reach their full potential and find their role in society. It’s the foundation of peace.
Maybe it’s time to return to Julia Ward Howe’s Mother’s Day: a time for women and children (and men) to come together to march and write their officials, to sing and pray for all things that make for peace.
Jesus tells us “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” Parents need to teach our children how to become the peacemakers.
Thich Nhat Hahn, a Zen Buddhist monk has dedicated the last 50 years of his life to peace work throughout the world. I’d like to end with a few of his words of wisdom.
“To work for peace you must have a peaceful heart...When we try to overcome evil with evil, we are not working for peace...We often think of peace as the absence of war, that if the powerful countries would reduce their weapon arsenals, we could have peace. But if we look deeply into the weapons, we see our own minds - our prejudices, fears, and ignorance. Even if we transport all the bombs to the moon, the roots of the war and the roots of bombs are still here, in our hearts and minds, and sooner or later we will make more bombs.
To work for peace is to uproot war from ourselves and from the hearts of men and women. To prepare for war, to give millions of men and women the opportunity to practice killing day and night in their hearts, is to plant millions of seeds of violence, anger, frustration and fear that will be passed on from one generation to another.” Isn’t that exactly what we are doing on both sides of this planet?
He tells us that the way to follow Jesus’ command to love your enemies is to look deeply at the person or persons we consider to be the cause of our suffering - to look deeply into their situation and the causes of how they came to be the way they are now. Then visualize yourself as being born in their condition and you may see that we could have become exactly like them. He tells us when we do this, compassion arises naturally and we see that the other person is to be helped, not punished. Lack of understanding creates suffering. Understanding is the power that can liberate us. In each of us is a seed of understanding. We call that seed God or Buddha. The only way to love your enemy is to understand him. Once you do, he is no longer your enemy.
There is so little understanding in the world today. There is so little attempt to understand those who are different than us, those we label as the enemy or the axis of evil. There is no magical fix to the mess the world is in, no easy answers. But one thing I am sure of: bombs are not the answer, be they suicide bombers or our own. Neither are semi-automatic rifles. The warring factions must sit down face to face and look deeply into themselves and each other, be they the Taliban and the Afghan government, or children in our schools. Only then can the process of understanding and reconciliation begin, and, God help us, peace be born.