All Commentary
Sunday, April 1, 1973

Right Congregation, Wrong Sermon

Mr. Sparks is an executive of an Ohio manufacturing company and a frequent contributor to The Freeman.

It was Sunday morning in church. The sermon was over. “The Price of Waging Peace” was a timely topic, for on the previous evening at seven o’clock the undeclared war between the United States and North Vietnam formally came to an end.

It was evident that the pastor had prepared well, and his delivery was flawless. His sincerity was indisputable. He talked of the need to work harder at peace — to love one another more — to bring more trust of others into our lives. He exhorted us to “pay such a price” in order to make peace work.

Since more love, more peaceful intentions, more trust of others were the keys to a lasting peace, it seemed to follow that the lack of these attributes among us, here in this small Ohio community, was somehow instrumental in causing the previous years of war.

Was the preacher talking to me? Did I feel more peaceful, loving and trusting this morning than I felt last week or during the past years when the war was being waged? While grateful that the fighting was now concluded, I could detect no change in my attitude favoring peaceful ways. My peaceful inclinations were then as strong as now. Concluding that I was not one of the culprits accountable for the war, then who could it be among others in the congregation?

Knowing most of my fellow townsmen, I mentally took inventory to see who might be responsible. There were several elderly widows seated together. No kindlier or more gentle persons could be found anywhere. Count them out.

No Hatred Here; Then Who Is At Fault?

An insurance man and his family were in the front row. They had been worried about their son, now away at college. The father had told me his son had drawn a low draft number and would be claimed in one more year. But that had changed yesterday, too. The Secretary of Defense had ended the military draft. Before that good news, the family and the college son were worried and perplexed. The young man would not harm anyone, had even declined to hunt and shoot deer, his father had recently confided to me. How could he be molded into a soldier trained to kill an enemy, not personally his enemy, but one designated by the state? Was the preacher’s sermon aimed at this family? Hardly, I concluded.

Across the aisle sat an attorney. His nephew had moved to Canada rather than accede to the call of the U. S. military forces. To call the nephew a coward was to ignore a courageous act he performed while yet a high school student —when he risked his life to save a small child who had broken through the ice of a nearby lake. The attorney never failed to stand up for his nephew — speaking quietly in the face of rancor evident in some others who had loved ones serving in Vietnam. The attorney did not appear to be the pastor’s target.

One by one I moved through the members of the congregation — all upstanding citizens, law-abiding, active in community affairs. I stopped with one family seated near the front. They used to be five, but this morning only four —and such it probably would remain. The oldest boy was lost in a bombing raid over Hanoi. Knowing the young man, I could imagine how difficult it was for him to carry out orders that would destroy lives of people he had never been closer to than at the moment the planes released their destruction thousands of feet overhead. He had no hate for anyone.

The Nature of War

Finding no one seated around me to be an appropriate culprit lacking in peacefulness and love, it seemed that the preacher’s exhortation had no real meaning. If he sincerely wanted to achieve substantial progress toward permanent peace, the means he advocated — while sounding good — would accomplish nothing. Nor would anything come of it if every church membership in America would have heard the same well-meant message. Why not?

The preacher had simply failed to recognize the real compelling factor in every war between nations in recent centuries. Only states conduct major wars. Manpower is a prerequisite of waging war. A physical conflict between two persons of strong differing opinions will attract very few supporters on either side willing to risk their lives or other physical harm to assist one or the other.

It is only when such conflict is between persons, who have the political power to demand that their fellow citizens join in the conflict, that a war occurs. Not much persuasion is needed to cause young men to join in arms to protect their homeland against attack. But when the conflict is difficult for the politicians to justify — when the issue is not clear, or the act not readily supportable, and especially when the conflict is in a geographic location far removed from the homeland — the state must use force to compel young men to become soldiers. Only a strong political power can enforce such a policy. Only large, strong nations wage major wars.

It logically follows, therefore, that wars in the world among nations will continue to be a probability as long as the people give their own governments great power —including the power to force the young men to become soldiers.

Big Wars from Small Errors

My thoughts on this matter turn back several years to a short essay by my good friend, E. W. Dykes, “Big Wars from Little Errors Grow” (The Freeman, January 1964). A friend had chided Dykes for being so engrossed in the basic principles of freedom and all their violations — no matter how seemingly insignificant, such as illustrated by a city government’s garbage collection service — that he (Dykes) tended to ignore the most vital problem of the time: war and peace. He accepted the friend’s challenge by the following reasoning:

War — like many other of today’s problems — is the culmination of the breaking of the principles of individual freedom, not once, but thousands of times. We are challenged to jump in at this point and apply our principles to get out of the unholy mess resulting from years and years of errors on errors. The challenge might just as well have been put in terms like this: “You are a second lieutenant. Your platoon is surrounded. Your ammunition is gone. Two of your squad leaders are dead, the third severely wounded. Now, Mr. Individual Freedom, let’s see you get out of this one with your little seminars.”

My answer: “Demunicipalize the garbage service.”

Now, wait, before you cross me off as a nut. I have a point. That second lieutenant is a goner. And so is the prospect of lasting peace until man learns why it is wrong to municipalize the garbage service. You can’t apply libertarian principles to wrong things at their culmination and expect to make much sense or progress. You have to start back at the very beginning, and that is precisely what our little seminars are for. There are people who build for tomorrow, others who build for a year, some who look forward a generation. The student of freedom takes the long view — forward to the time when war will be looked upon as we now look upon cannibalism, a thing of the past. And believe me, unless someone takes the long view, wars will continue.

Suppose a group of doctors in a meeting on cancer prevention decide to do with cancer as the state proposes to do with war: “Outlaw it.” What chance would the doctors have? None. And precisely for the same reason that the state can’t outlaw war: They don’t know what causes it.

I think I know what causes war. In an unpublished article called “War, the Social Cancer,” I developed the thesis that war is the malignancy resulting from the growth of interventionism, which invariably becomes uncontrolled, once started. Without interventionism — starting way back with things like the garbage service — war simply cannot happen.

What do we do in our little seminars? We make the case for freedom, which cannot coexist with interventionism. Slow? Of course, painfully slow. But who can really say and prove there is a better — or faster —way?

Agreed! If understanding of right principles must precede right action, then we must get to the job of bringing about an understanding of the principles of individual freedom. And it must be done so well that even the smallest seemingly most insignificant violation will not be countenanced.

Therein lies the remedy. Who, now, are the culprits? Everyone who has supported the growth of the state — voting more taxes, allowing more areas of decision-making to be removed from individual responsibility, involved in actions that give more and more power to the state.

The preacher had the culprits properly identified all the time! But the sermon he wrote to solve the problem of war simply did not fit the need. The power of the state must be reduced to a level where individual peaceful acts, love of fellowman, and trust of one’s neighbors can come shining through in fact, internationally. To reduce that power is the challenge facing peace-loving people everywhere. 

  • John C. Sparks, who died on March 27, 2005, served on the board of trustees of the Foundation for Economic Education for many years. In the mid-1980s, following his retirement from business, Mr. Sparks served a term as FEE’s president.