“The Soul of America – An Open Letter to President George W. Bush”

Unitarian Universalist Church of the Monterey Peninsula

Rev. Greg Ward

November 4th, 2007

The Russians are a rotten lot, immoral, aggressive, ruthless, coarse, and generally evil.  They are responsible for most of the troubles in this world.  They’re not like us.


That’s pretty much the summary of the news (from the 50’s to the 80’s) about the Russians.  But sometimes something slips through the net of prejudice, some small signal that is so poignant and true that it wedges open iron curtains and scales Berlin walls long enough for us to see, not an enemy, but fellow travelers; members of the fellowship of human joy and pain.


See Nicolai Pestretsov.  I don’t know much about him, but this I know.


He was a sergeant major in the Russian army, thirty six years old.  He was stationed in Angola, a long way from home.  His wife had come to visit him.


On a late August day in the 80’s, South African military units entered Angola in an offensive against the black nationalist guerrillas taking sanctuary there.  At the village of N-Giva, they encountered a group of Russian soldiers.  Four were killed and the rest of the Russians fled – except Sergeant Major Pestretsov.  He was captured.  We know because the South African military communiqué read as follows: “Sgt. Major Nicolai Pestretsov refused to leave the body of his slain wife, who was killed in the assault on the village.” 


It was as if the South African’s could not believe it, for the communiqué repeated the information.  “He went to the body of his wife and would not leave it, although she was dead.”


How strange.  Why didn’t he run and save his own hide?  What made him go back?  Is it possible he loved her?  Is it possible that he wanted to hold her in his arms one last time?  Is it possible that he had tears to cry and dreams to grieve?  Is it possible he felt the futility of war?  Is it possible he felt the injustice of fate?  Is it possible he thought of children, born or unborn?  Is it possible that he didn’t care what became of him now that what he loved most had died?


It’s possible.  But we don’t know.  Because Nicolai Pestretsov sits alone in a South African prison.  The name on the door of his cell may say many things – “Russian,” “Communist,” “enemy soldier,” “evil traitor,” “terrorist.”  But the door to the prison of his heart offers no such labels.  If such a sign hung there it would reveal that Nicolai Pestretsov was just a man who loved beyond bounds of safety; who dreamed of things larger than the world he found himself in. 


Such is a difficult prison for him to live in.  It is a difficult prison for all of us to live in.


The Russians are a rotten lot, immoral, aggressive, ruthless, coarse, and generally evil.  They are responsible for most of the troubles in this world.  They’re not like us.


Except they are exactly like us.

                                                            - Adapted from the Rev. Robert Fulghum


George W. Bush

President of the United States of America

The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500


Dear Mr. President,


In his book, “The Psychology of War,” psychologist, educator and author Lawrence LeShan writes,

There are three ideas that, when they appear in society, should be regarded as signals that we are moving toward war… [these are:] 
  • The idea that there is a particular enemy that embodies evil and that if it were defeated, the world would become paradise.
  • The idea that taking action against this enemy is the path to glory and to legendary heights of existence.
  • The idea that anyone who does not agree with this accepted wisdom is a traitor – is, indeed, the enemy itself.


This is the reason I write to you.  To talk about the idea of war.  But more precisely, I want to talk about the idea of fear – fear of the enemy – and the kind of leadership that promotes this psychology - always becomes contagious.  Always spreads.  And always leads to war.


But you’ll forgive me, first, if I begin with what may seem like some irrelevant housekeeping details.  I need to say something about justice initiatives.  And I need to make an apology.  Bear with me.


Next week, my church is voting to adopt our new social justice platform.  We have seven excellent proposals to choose from.  We will choose four which we will then collectively dedicate ourselves to, wholeheartedly.   The choices include:

-          Studying labor practices and economic justice.

-          Advocating for the mentally ill

-          Advocating for the US to comply with the Nuclear non-proliferation treaty

-          IHELP Plus – which works with the homeless

-          Becoming tutors and mentors to children in schools

-          Becoming involved in California’s Legislative issues of health care for all, water rights and marriage equality

-          And finally, an initiative which helps us learn about our carbon footprint and teaches us to become good environmental stewards.


We are sharing the details about these proposals with as many of our people in as many ways as possible – placing the proposals in binders, posting on our website, making representatives available to talk, …  We believe that giving people choices and granting them decision making authority is the best way to inspire commitment and follow through.  And it’s the best way for us all to decide where we want to go and then go there together.  We believe that shared decision-making leads to shared leadership.


The second thing I need to do is apologize.  Last week, in the first of my three part sermon series on fear, I talked about a time I was afraid and said that I ‘screamed like a girl.’   When I said it, I wasn’t thinking of being disparaging to girls and women.  I wasn’t thinking about how many girls – and boys – have had that derogatory standard of weakness and inability applied them.  I wasn’t thinking about systems of sexism. Or how such a system is held in place by so many public offices and pulpits.  And I wasn’t thinking how many girls and women count on there being places that work on ending oppression by being part of the solution rather than part of the problem.  But that, of course, was the problem.   I wasn’t thinking. 


So, I need to apologize for being thoughtless.  And confess my embarrassment.  I have worked too hard, for too long to make such a mistake.  But I did.  I need them to know that I am sorry - that it is a privilege that they have given me when they asked me to lead them – and that it is important enough that I find every bit of clarity necessary to avoid making that mistake in the future.


I apologize, Mr. President because, as you must well know, it is tremendously important that if leadership is to remain strong, it must maintain the trust of the people.  Leadership is supported and strengthened not as long as leaders are always right, but as long as leaders are always trusted.  Without the people’s trust in us, our ability to lead them – even if we hold on to our office – is essentially gone.  Without our trust in the people, then democracy – even if it continues in place – doesn’t work.


If this isn’t compelling by itself, let me also add that when I asked the children of the congregation, during the worship service, what I should include in my letter to you – there were two comments about wanting to hear you tell the truth.  And a few comments about wanting you to help with making peace and asking if you would remember the animals as you plan your agenda – both foreign and domestic.  These are children who don’t read the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post.  But they know what’s most important.


Mr. President, we are both leaders.  Granted, there is an order of magnitude difference in the parameters of our leadership.  Pointing out that we are both leaders is like pointing out that I once played softball and you once owned the Texas Rangers.  But there is one thing common to all leaders.   And that is the choice of how to lead.


The best leaders I’ve known are the ones who inspire.  The worst leaders are those who control.  There is a choice all leaders must make – to compel the people using trust and democracy.  Or to control the people using fear and manipulation.


And that’s what I want to focus on with you today: leading with fear and manipulation.


Shortly after 911 you said something in a speech that stuck with me.  You said, “Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty have always been at war.  And in this war, God is not neutral.” 


As a minister, my ears perk up every time a politician invokes God’s will.  You’d be surprised how often I hear people invoke God’s will who have not considered what God’s will might be beyond their own set of prejudices.   Understanding God’s will is a spiritual discipline of constantly asking ourselves ‘Where does God stand on this?’


I remember shortly after I heard your comment, a suicide bomber drove an ambulance loaded with explosives into the Red Cross building in Baghdad and blew himself up.  He did it on the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.  


This was a man for whom reverence for religion, for institutions of care, for life itself was disturbingly absent.  A man so desperate he had nothing left to lose.  Perhaps he was recruited by people who convinced him he had nothing left to lose.  Perhaps, like Sgt. Major Pestretsov, he had already lost everything he ever wanted.  And so he did this despicable thing because it was the only way he could express his grief and fear loud enough to the bombs – and bombers – who never seem to listen..  ‘Where does God stand on this,’ Mr. President?


It was at this time I began seeing bumper stickers appear on cars.  Specifically ones with the American flag on them – with words above and below the flag saying ‘FEAR – THIS!’  As though they were telling people to fear the flag – fear our country.  It’s worth wondering, ‘where does God stand on this?’


I am writing to you today as the pastor of a church.  One who works to counteract fear and the feelings of desperation that come from it.  I have seen too much fear in the world the last few years.  Fear of personal safety.   Fear for our families.  But more prominently, fear for our dreams.  Fear that in the small parcel of time we are given we will not find a way to rise above our petty enmity and live out the dream that the goodness within us can lead to some co-existence among us. 


Leadership makes such a difference during difficult times.  It can mean a world of difference in how we respond.  Whether we look at the world from a consciousness of hope and love and determination.  Or from a consciousness of suspicion and fear.


You and me, our families, your constituency, my congregation – all of us – from within this climate of fear are struggling to meet two basic human needs.  The same two needs felt by the suicide bomber who struck last week.  The same two needs of the people who put the bumper stickers touting fear on their car.  Perhaps even the same two needs felt by God, Herself.


One of those is the drive to overcome the impotency of our individual existence.  To have some control or influence over our fate – to escape a sense of helplessness - and know that our efforts make a difference in the unfolding events of our lives and in the world around us.  In our democracy this drive is guaranteed as ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ - the American dream - except for the fact that it is a dream held by all human beings no matter where they are born, no matter where they live. 


The second human need is the drive to be part of something larger, a full fledged member of the greater tribe.  To feel joined in solidarity with the greater humanity.  To know interdependence.  You know this – as our nation’s leader you see it on every coin and form of currency we use.  It is on the American seal emblazoned on your desk.  It is “E Pluribus Unum” – ‘out of many, one.’ 


It is a difficult task of leaders, in whatever context they find themselves, to address both of these drives that motivate people.  I want to go back to Lawrence LeShan, whose words I used to began my note to you.  LeShan contends that every human being from every age and every culture has tried to address and reconcile these two basic human needs – and used one of two different means to do this.


The first of these means is religion.  Religion, at its best, aims to increase the potency of an individual’s existence; offer self awareness through contemplation and reflection and, at the same time, uphold a sense of well being tied together by participating in something larger than themselves.  In Buddhism this is often called the Way of the One and the Way of the Many.  In my own tradition these two drives are captured in our first and seventh principles: inherent worth and dignity of every individual and the interdependent web of which we are all part. 


But in his book, LeShan’s reveals the second way that cultures through the ages have tried to meet these two needs – for singularity of purpose and group identification: and that is war. 


Mr. President, I believe there is one reason why people allow fear – which is always the foreplay to war - to lead them;  It’s because of what LeShan says: “War sharpens [our] experience, heightens [our] perception, and makes [us] more and more aware of [our] existence.  At the same time, war allows us to become part of something larger and more intense.” 


For a while.  For a while, Mr. President.


It’s worthwhile to reflect on the words of writer Jo Coudert, who lived in England during the German invasion during World War II.  When asked by a reporter how it felt when the bombings finally stopped, she surprisingly spoke of disappointment.  “Oh,” she said, ‘it was a marvelous time.  [During the bombings] you forgot about yourself and you did what you could and we were all in it together.  It was frightening, of course, and you worried about getting killed, but in some ways it was better than now.  Now we’re all just ourselves again.”


The problem with war is that for it to meet the needs of the people, it has to do two things simultaneously – to stop resolutely and immediately; and to continue forever.  And so, even as we end one war we always find ourselves on the lookout for the next one.  That is what leadership by fear is all about.  


I understand the intense singularity and solidarity of purpose soldiers talk about in wartime.  As a civilian, I’ve known moments of deep connection with others around war – the sense of compassion, of charity, of pride in our collective values.  But in the long run, as a minister, I believe that war’s ability to offer humanity what it needs and hold us together is a myth. 


Listen to these words, from writer Troy Chapman, that describe my thoughts. 


War has lied to us.  It told us it would make the world a better place.  Increase goodness.  Reduce evil.  So we said, ‘yes, let’s wage war.’  We have said this so often it has become part of who we are.


Yes to war on crime.  Yes to war on drugs.  Yes to war on poverty.  Yes to war on communism and terrorism.  Yes to whatever we think is evil.  War promised to win, to stamp out evil.  But war has become the evil it has set out to kill. 


We assume that if we kill enough evil, goodness will simply rise up spontaneously.  This is a deadly error.  Goodness isn’t just what ‘happens’ when evil is eradicated.  Goodness is something that must be cultivated, planted, tended, grown – like growing wheat.  But we’ve left the fields and gone off to war. 


War, by itself, is an attempt to control.  But we cannot make life or people do what we want.  All we can do is influence and the best way to influence a world toward goodness is by showing it care and love. 


We want goodness without the bother of having to love people.  That’s the (mistaken) premise of war: that we can make people ‘be good’ without loving them. 


We cannot, ultimately achieve our aim as leaders, and bring more care and goodness into this world if our strategy always involves fear and war.  It is a different form of the same strategy used by suicide bombers and people putting ‘fear the flag’ bumper stickers on their cars.  It is a strategy that demands we remain small, our enemies remain large, and where we are both forever trapped in cages with what we fear most. 


There is a story of a minister who took her daughter to the Zoo, who stood amazed before one particular cage labeled, ‘co-existence.’  Looking inside she noticed a lion and some lambs.  The minister, stood dumbstruck.  It was a miracle.  The second coming.  The revelation foretold in the Bible.  She quickly sought out the Zoo keeper and wanted to know what he had done to bring about such divine circumstance.  “There is really nothing miraculous about it,’ the zoo keeper explained.  ‘We just have to add a few fresh lambs every now and then.’ 


So I ask you, Mr. President, ‘does co-existence always mean sacrifice of the most vulnerable?’  And if so ‘where does God stand’ between our method of sacrifice and a suicide bomber’s?   It is a scary question. 


Perhaps the answer is in this poem by Andrea Ayvazian who writes:

Before you confer with men pale and tired

Who have forgotten that deep goodness is shy and tender

And does not lurk in dark rooms where you gather

Does not make plans that will cause mothers to bury their children

Does not create suffering


Before you study the map with x’s and o’s

The map that shows cities and airfields,

Ports and factories

But does not show faces

Omits the stories about the grandfather 

Who waits for his grandson after school

The woman in labor in the hospital with clean white sheets

But little else.


Before you hear the choices that involve how many

And how much

And how wide

And how long

And how awful

And you weigh the options coolly

Without sobbing or repenting or getting on your knees


Before you nod and say yes

Before you approve the strikes that will destroy towns you have not visited

Kill people you have not met

Ruin homes with gardens

Crush buildings with people

Classrooms with students inside


Before, before, before


Take both of your hands and lay them on a baby’s head

Close your eyes

And listen

To the waves breaking on a distant shore

And hear the noise of a busy market place

Smell the freshness of the air

When there is no fear.


Mr. President, I don’t think God is neutral.   At least not with regard to fear.  The God I know wants there to be less of it.  To make the elimination of fear our individual and collective purpose.  From which we derive a sense of unity with all people of all nations.   And the God I know will not take sides.  Will not side with them, nor with us.  Will not call one side evil and the other side chosen.  Will not favor the glory of one people.  Or the glory of one nation.  The God I know only understands the Glory of Life.



Rev. Greg Ward

Monterey, CA


Copyright Wardswords, 2007