Whatever anyone may think about the necessity of entering into armed conflict, war is never the first preferred option for rational leaders in resolving international disputes.

Sending people to kill or be killed is always second best, always a less desirable alternative, if one could be found, to a strategy that might spare bloodshed. War is always the culmination of a litany of failures that have mounted to the point that the worst possible solution seems the only possible choice.

This morning, as part of our worship in the community where I serve, we will sing “Amazing Grace.” In the version we will sing, we will alter one line of the first verse, but not the line most commonly changed in this great old hymn.

Usually line two gets tweaked. We are not sure we feel comfortable singing

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.

Calling oneself “a wretch” somehow feels like an unhealthy way to self-identify. But, in its original context, “wretch” may well have been the appropriate noun.

John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace” was born in London, England in 1725. He went to sea with the British Navy at the age of eleven after both his parents died. Eventually, Newton left the navy as a deserter. He purchased his own ship and entered into the lucrative slave trade buying Africans in Sierra Leone, west Africa and shipping them back to England to be sold into slavery. It was not a pleasant business.

Looking back on his life, Newton knew that, as a slave trader, he had behaved many times like a wretch. To feel wretched about his past was only realistic.

We observe Remembrance Day, not to glorify war or to demonize those who fought on the other side of the conflict. We observe Remembrance Day to remind ourselves of the wretched failures that inevitably culminate in violent conflict and the even more wretched acts that always follow when human beings become trapped in “the fog of war”.

Remembrance Day calls us to look seriously into our own hearts and to see honestly the wretched choices we have at times made and the wretched consequences that have followed from these choices.

It is only by looking honestly at the dark side of the human condition that we have any hope of living in the world in ways that may make it less often seem necessary for people to take up arms against one another.

The line we will change as we sing “Amazing Grace” today is the fourth line of the first verse where we are instructed in the original to sing,

was blind but now I see.

Instead, we will sing

was bound but now am free.

The constant use in Christian hymns of the morally neutral condition of blindness as a metaphor for spiritual opacity is offensive and inappropriate. But, as we will sing this morning, we can all acknowledge that we are, to varying degrees, bound and longing to be free.

When I refuse to see the darkness in my own heart, I am bound by that darkness and doomed to act out of it. Any unacknowledged shadow in me, makes it impossible for me to live in the world as a true peacemaker.

This is why Jesus warned,

For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. (Matthew 15:19)

It all starts with the human heart. It is only as I seek in my heart freedom from anger, hatred, and revenge, and strive to overcome the determination to exert my will over others, that I will ever begin to be free of those dark forces that lie at the root of all war.

Etty Hillesum the young Jewish martyr of the Second World War, understood and lived these words profoundly. As a young woman of twenty-eight, while incarcerated in the Dutch transit camp Westerbork, Etty wrote in her diary:

Tuesday 29 Sept. 1942 – Ultimately we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it towards others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world. (Hillesum, Etty. Etty: The Letters and Diaries of Etty Hillesum 1941-1943. Complete and Unabridged. ed. Klass A. D. Smelik. Trans. Arnold J. Pomerans. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 2002, p 536).

This is the only lasting path to peace. Peace begins when I do my own heart-work. I grow in peace when I acknowledge the ways I have been wretched and, see clearly how I am bound. Peace will increase when I seek the grace and mercy of love that is the only power able to transform me into the being of light and peace I was created to be. May it be so.