War Is Always Immoral

“If there is no justice, there can be no peace.”

In this sermon, Rabbi Olan wrestles with an intractable problem: he believes that all wars are immoral, but that some wars are also just or even necessary.  His prime example is, of course, the war against Hitler, but it is important to remember that he delivered this sermon on March 30, 1969, during the height of the Vietnam War.

Rabbi Olan reviews several extreme situations in which the people who were trapped in them turned to killing in order to survive.  However, he concludes that “Killing is still killing and that is evil, even if a necessary [evil].” 

He asks who is responsible for immoral but necessary killing in war.  Is it the soldier?  Is it the pilot over Hiroshima?  He concludes that they are our agents, so who is responsible?  “We are.”

While he firmly rejects absolute pacificism, Rabbi Olan also expresses concern that war teaches an unintended lesson to those who participate in it: “We have taught people that the only way to a better life is through violence.”

What can we do?  At the end of his sermon, Rabbi Olan returns to a familiar but stirring theme: “If we want peace, we must begin by creating a just social order.”  We can compare the words of another clergyman, Bishop Desmond Tutu, writing in 1986: “There is no peace because there is no justice.”  We are sure that he would have agreed with Rabbi Olan that only when we make progress towards a truly just social order will we be able to free ourselves from the immorality of war.

Follow this link to read the sermon text.

*Written by Lionel S. Joseph and Frances M. Olan*