Listen to these quotes about war: 

From William Tecumseh Sherman, American Civil War general on the Union side: “I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell.”

And then this, from writer and once soldier Ernest Hemingway: “Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.”

But now this, from Robert E. Lee, American Civil War general on the Confederate side: “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”

Those are the quotes. And already we can see where our exploration of war is going. Feelings about it are all over the place. War is hell but we can love it anyhow. War at times may be completely justified but it’s still a crime. 

There’s a poem by Jane Hirschfield that powerfully evokes this complexity, which centers on a particularly cruel invention called the brazen bull, or bronze bull, or Sicilian bull, created by an ancient Greek as a means of human execution, and used by Romans as well. The bronze bull was empty inside and big enough to hold a person. A fire would be lit underneath. The condemned would be locked inside and slowly roasted, and their screams would be caught up in the complex and ingeniously crafted system of tubes and stops in the structure’s head, transforming the screams into a sound like the bellowing of an infuriated bull. 

Now, the poem: 

Others have described 

the metal bull placed over fire,

it singing while the man inside it died.

Which emperor listened, in which country,

doesn’t matter, though surely

the thing itself was built by slaves.

An unearthly music, all reports agree.

We – the civilized – hearing this story,

recoil from it in horror: Not us. Not ours.

But why does my heart look back at me,

reproachful? Why does the bull?

That is the poem. Every war is like that bronze bull. Every war that ever was, in its capacity to inspire the creation of increasingly sophisticated weapons, to move people into deranged mentalities and behaviors, to maim bodies and shatter the structures of human civilization. The bronze bull symbolizes all of that and more. It is horrible. Because it is horrible, we civilized readers recoil from it, we disown it. “Not us, not ours.” And yet, the wars continue, and the bull never stops looking back at us, reproachfully. 

War is hell but we can love it anyhow. 

War at times may be necessary but it’s still a crime. 

To understand war, we must understand this complexity. 

We will need to find a focus, since over human history there have been, as we know, so many wars. So, I propose that we take a closer look at the conflict between Israel and Palestine. It’s currently one of the world’s most enduring conflicts, and perhaps one of the most perplexing. 

Let’s see where it takes us. 

The conflict between Israel and Palestine: it’s been simmering ever since 1917, when Great Britain captured part of the Middle East, including Palestine, from the Ottoman Empire, and sought to create a Jewish national home there. Simmering—and then boiling over with the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and the simultaneous creation of thousands of Palestinian refugees, moved off their historic lands to make room for incoming Jewish settlers. Boiling over with the founding of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1964 which carried out terrorist attacks against Israel. Boiling over with the Six Day War of 1967. Boiling over with the first Intifada (“Intifada” literally means “shaking off,” a popular uprising of Palestinians against Israeli power). Boiling over with a second Intifada. Boiling over with suicide attacks and official strike backs. Boiling over, with the most recent conflict this past May, between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which left at least 255 people dead, most of whom were Palestinians in the territory of Gaza. Boiling and boiling and boiling over. 

A parable from scholar Jerry Adams will help orient us. He calls it, the “Parable of the Family with an Orphan”: 

A large family takes in an orphan. The house is already crowded so the orphan must share an attic room with a child too weak to protest the intrusion. The parents give each of the two children half of the room but ask each child to share a beautiful cabinet, treasured by both. The parents take a long trip, leaving their strongest son in charge. 

When the parents leave, other children in the family attack the orphan and try to get him to leave. The weakest child, in particular, fights unfairly. He waits for the orphan to sleep and then attacks him. The orphan wakes up each time and hurts the weak child; he also takes over more of the room, including the beautiful cabinet.

As the orphan continues to take over more of the room, the weak child continues to take revenge. The strongest son tries to bring peace and sometimes succeeds for short periods. The basic problem, however, is that each child believes that he should have the entire attic room to himself.

That’s the parable. The “large family” represents the United Nations, sensitive to how Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people and very aware of their status of “orphan”—in the sense of having been, for so long, vulnerable around the world to one injustice after another, especially the Holocaust. But “the house is already crowded”: Palestinians have lived there since biblical times too. They see most Israeli Jews as foreign colonizers who began arriving within the last 100 years. Both count themselves as children of Abraham, even though they give God different names: either Yahweh, or Allah. But they are finding it impossible to share. Especially the “beautiful cabinet”: that’s Jerusalem. For Jews, it serves as a symbol of “the historic existence of a people hunted, humiliated, massacred, but never despairing of the promise of its ultimate restoration” (Zwi Werblowsky, PhD). For Muslims, Jerusalem is sacred because of its association with figures like Abraham, David, Solomon, and Jesus—all prophets revered in their tradition. Jerusalem also played a key role in the spiritual development of Mohammed. 

The parable goes on to mention how the other children in the family attack the orphan, once the parents leave. This touches on the fact that the Arab nations surrounding Israel from the beginning refused to accept its right to exist. “Israel,” said Bashar Al-Asaad, President of Syria, “was built on aggression and the rejection of peace, and nothing changes.” He said that in 2006, but it could have been equally said back in 1948, when the state of Israel was founded—and it was definitely the kind of rhetoric that led to the events of the Six Day War in 1967, when Egypt formed a defense union with Syria, Jordan, and Iraq and massed a large number of troops along the Israeli border. Israel attacked in June 1967 and conquered the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Desert from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan—and initially Israel was willing to return most of these territories in exchange for peace, but the Arab countries refused to negotiate peace and repeated their goal, at the Khartoum Conference, of destroying Israel. 

So, Israel kept the conquered territories. Of course! And suddenly, one million Palestinians found themselves under Israeli rule. Accordingly, the Palestinian resistance effort shifted to liberating the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, through acts of horrible terrorism. It’s the parable again: The weakest child, in particular, fights unfairly. He waits for the orphan to sleep and then attacks him. But the orphan is far stronger—he wakes up each time and hurts the weak child; he also takes over more of the room. This last part brings to mind the settler movement: Israelis who build—from the perspective of the United Nations, illegally build—towns on Palestinian land inside the West Bank, Israelis whose settlements are well-served with roads, water, and security, in stark contrast to what life is like for Palestinians. Hanan Watson writes, “try to imagine life in these settlements and around them. When settlers need to go to another area for work, school or medical care, they travel on roads built specifically for them. When Palestinians need to travel, they’re not allowed to use these roads and have to go through checkpoints manned by the Israeli army. Stories abound of women in labor giving birth in cars, and emergency medical conditions not promptly treated as Palestinians wait for hours at these checkpoints.”

I could go on and on—there are so many factors causing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but I particularly want you to see how this is like a family fight, a vicious fight within the family of Abraham over multiple issues: Israel and Palestine both being recognized as valid nations with a right to exist; agreeing on legitimate borders; equitable sharing of water and other resources; equitable sharing of Jerusalem; the legitimacy of the settler movement; Palestinian freedom of movement; what to do with all the Palestinian refugees dispossessed of their land. 

Even the “strongest son” of the parable is a factor in the conflict. The strongest son is America. The strongest son tries to bring peace, but to the Arab world he is clearly biased in favor of Israel. 

Unitarian Universalist minister the Rev. Bill Breedon sums the whole thing up when he says, “[Since the 1967 war and the occupation of the Golan Heights and the Gaza Strip, we’ve seen] a state of constant violence and the impoverishment of the Palestinian people, while at the same time [an increase in] the insecurity of the nation of Israel. Ironically, Israel, the self-proclaimed Jewish homeland, has become the most dangerous nation on earth for Jews.”

If this is not human screaming transformed into unearthly music, I don’t know what is. 

And the bronze bull never stops looking at us with its deeply reproachful look. 

I am convinced that this is so—the bull’s persistence—because, even as we have spent the past few moments surveying the practical reasons underlying the conflict between Israel and Palestine, practical reasons seem never enough to capture the full picture. It’s this way no matter what war you’re talking about. List every practical factor but it will still feel as if we’ve not penetrated the issue deeply enough. A fuller understanding requires something more.  

What must be added is spiritual insight. 

This is the belief of depth psychologist James Hillman, in his profound book entitled A Terrible Love of War. Listen to how he describes this, in connection with yet another family conflict—the Civil War: “We cannot understand the Civil War by pointing to its immediate cause—the firing on Fort Sumter in South Carolina in 1861—not by its proximate cause—the election of Lincoln in the autumn of 1860—nor by a list of underlying causes, i.e., the passions that riled the union: secession, abolition, the economics of cotton, the expansion westward, power contest in the Senate … ad infinitum. Nor will a compilation of the factors of that war’s complexity yield what we seek. Even the total sum of every explanation you can muster will not provide meaning to the horrific, drawn-out, repetitive butchery of battle after battle of that four-year-long war.” That’s James Hillman, and then he quotes Albert Einstein to make his point crystal clear: “Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.” 

I can’t help but agree, as I think of all the failed negotiations, resolutions, peace talks, and bridging proposals we’ve seen in the whole history of Israeli-Palestinian situation. As for the Civil War: how many of you feel like we’re still fighting that battle in some form or fashion? 

It’s all because problems are trying to be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.  

So our thinking must go higher, or go deeper, than the practical reasons that are usually trotted out as causes of war. 

Our thinking must elevate to—or deepen into—the spiritual.

War is hell, yes. War, no matter how justified, is a crime. But war also immerses people into a sense of the utterly transcendent. Humans have a natural hunger for this kind of experience, which is spiritual in nature. Humans hunger to feel filled with aliveness and purpose. Humans hunger for all the petty distractions of normal life to fall away, and for one’s entire awareness to be focused on something truly momentous. 

War delivers this spiritual experience to people. 

War movies too, war-based video games, books about war, too. 

It’s addictive. 

After World War II, a Frenchwoman said to philosopher J. Glenn Gray, “You know that I do not love war or want it to return. But at least it made me feel alive, as I have not felt alive before or since.” And then, more recently, there is Vincent Vargo, who served three tours of duty, two in Afghanistan and one in Iraq. He says, “War is ugly, but it’s not the worst part of military service. I like to explain war as the ‘easy’ part. The ‘hard’ part is getting out. Transition is by far the biggest battle. In war your only worry is death, you don’t have to worry about bills and food and all the other small things we worry about back home.” In short, normal life is fragmented and busy, so no wonder coming back home can be so hard, when it involves leaving a state of transcendent aliveness. 

There are indeed all sorts of usual reasons that people mention when they try to explain why nations or groups might go to war. But we must not forget the reason that is distinctively spiritual in nature. We must come clean about it. War is a way to feel filled with meaning. People can go to war and stay stuck in a war because their lives are simply lacking purpose and focus. 

There is a reason why combat veterans naturally gravitate, upon returning home, to first responder roles.

War, and the warlike mentality, is addictive. It is a spiritual addiction. 

And this is something that political leaders knowingly manipulate. The Nazi general Hermann Goering at his trial in Nuremburg was chillingly plain about this. He said, “The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.” That’s Hermann Goering. Create an enemy, create an urgency, insist that patriotism means unconditional obedience to what the authorities say, and all of a sudden: spirits that were aimless and scattered are now given direction and value. Now they become sharp and dangerous instruments for leaders to use. 

We have seen this up close in our country, just this past Jan. 6, with the Insurrection at the Capital. How the people were whipped up and sent. 


There is a phrase that you may be familiar with: “the fog of war,” which suggests how war can stupefy and desensitize. What I am saying is that the “fog of war” experience is also and at the same time a unique feeling of aliveness and purpose which is addictive. 

To prevent future wars, and to resolve current ones, attention must be paid to practical issues and considerations, yes. In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there must be mutually acceptable agreements on what the territorial borders will be. There must be equitable sharing of water and other resources, and equitable sharing of Jerusalem. These and a whole host of other factors must be addressed.

But above all this, or deeper than all this, is the spiritual question that must be recognized and acknowledged, the one that is about people’s spiritual emptiness. How will people satisfy the deep thirst for meaning? Can people find ways to do this that are not destructive of themselves and others? Can there even be such a thing as a spiritual vaccine that preserves people from the evil, viral influence of leaders like Herman Goering, who know how to manipulate the masses and make them serve evil ends?

Even more provocative is the recognition that many if not most of the people being whipped up into a war frenzy are already believers of some religion: devotees of Jesus, devotees of Allah, and so on. But what does it say about the power of such religions when they fail to prevent people from being inhumane? 

Is this a sign that the old religions must make way for something new? 

The rush to war is simply tragic. James Hillman rightly says that in this headlong rush, “No one has the courage to retreat from the brink; everyone is afraid of appearing cowardly. The fog of war spreads through the mind, stupefying, desensitizing, long before the battles begin.” 

Our purpose as a religious people is to be busy long before the battles begin, in the work of inoculating people with a spiritual vaccine that is powerful enough and potent enough to protect people from the virus of a warlike mentality. Our purpose is to be very honest about how our souls long to feel transcendent purpose and meaning, and that it’s so easy to make mistakes about where we go to find that. Our purpose is to provide ways that are far better than war to satisfy the soul’s yearnings. 

That is our purpose.

And with this, maybe the bronze bull will stop looking at us with its deeply reproachful look, because we civilized people have finally become honest with ourselves.