Sunday Sermon: “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More”

Gonna lay down my burden / Down by the riverside / Ain’t gonna study war no more. Refrain to “Down by the Riverside”

A prince ought to have no other aim or thought, nor select anything else for his study, than war and its rules and discipline; for this is the sole art that belongs to him who rules.–Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter 14

Last week, for reasons that will matter only to me, I listened to more than a hundred versions of “Down by the Riverside.” The classic spiritual traces back to before the Civil War. First published in 1918, it has been recorded by just about every artist I have ever considered important: Mahalia JacksonSister Rosetta Tharpe, and Lois Armstrong, certainly, but also Elvis PresleyPete Segar, and RaffiPeter, Paul, and Mary did the hippie version, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir did the respectable conservative recording. And who could forget Papa Bue’s Viking Jazzband’s classic take on the classic?

“Down by the Riverside” is unique in that, in most versions, about half of the singing time is devoted to the single refrain, “ain’t gonna study war no more.” This phrase itself strikes me as odd. Who studies war anyway? People fight wars, or don’t fight wars, or start wars, or stop wars. But wouldn’t a better declaration be “ain’t gonna go to war no more,” or “ain’t gonna fight in wars no more?” Studying is just not something that most people associate with wars.

The spiritual, of course, is quoting scripture. And the scripture it quotes is found in the second chapter of Isaiah:

And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)

Isaiah is talking about Jerusalem–but not Jerusalem as it is; but Jerusalem as it will be after it is redeemed by the Lord and converted into a different kind of kingdom. Jesus called this the Kingdom of God, and Joseph Smith called it Zion. But whatever we choose to call this place, it’s organizing principle is clear: think of all of the things that are important to the world today. What is valued? Who is revered? In Zion, it will be exactly the opposite.

And this, I think, is the essence of not studying war. As I think back to my high school and college days, I realize that I did study war. Or that almost everything I learned about history was organized through the concept of major wars. Greek civilization was built on the cultural memory of a unified force during the Trojan War. “Europe” is basically just all the stuff that happened between the Thirty Years’ War and the Napoleonic Wars. And “Modern Europe” is something that emerged around the two World Wars of the 20th Century. And American History (at least when I took it) consists of the things leading up to the Civil War and the things that happened as a result of the Civil War.

Now that I think of it, I did study war. A lot. But I didn’t study how to wage war. I studied a version of history that treated war as the organizing principle of the human experience. I studied a world in which war was, as described by Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz, “politics by other means”–simply an extension of what people do every day. I also studied war in the fabric of the metaphors that I learned to use every day when I spoke of academic battles, political campaigns, and culture wars. I even learned how to describe my spiritual life in martial terms like “a Royal Army,” “a Mighty Fortress,” and putting on “the whole armor of God.”

Once you start looking for it, war is everywhere. Thomas Hobbes got it right when he opined that war is the natural state of the human mind. At its core war is not a clashing of armies; it is a view of the world that sees every other human being as a competitor to be feared or a resource to be exploited. War is what we get when we see all human interaction action as a zero-sum game. War is who we are when the only question we ask is, “what about me?”

War, in other words, is not just a policy decision reserved for nations. It is a state of mind and a way of understanding the world. And it is perhaps the only way that fallen humanity can understand the world. This means that it is exactly the opposite of how we have to understand the world if we plan to have anything to do with the Kingdom of God. This, I think, is how we should read Doctrine & Covenants 98:16:

“Therefore, renounce war and proclaim peace, and seek diligently to turn the hearts of the children to their fathers, and the hearts of the fathers to the children.”

Renouncing war means something more than not ordering your army to invade Russia (or anyway else)–and it means more than being a conscientious objector when somebody else does. It means renouncing the view of human nature that makes war possible. It means laying down the burdens of fallen humanity, taking up the cross, having a mighty change of heart, and becoming the sort of person for whom the Kingdom of God is both possible and inevitable.

And it means studying war no more.

I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield
Down by the riverside
I’m gonna study, study, war no more

I ain’t gonna study war no more
Ain’t gonna study war no more
I ain’t gonna study war no more
I ain’t gonna study war no more

Ain’t gonna study war no more
I ain’t gonna study war no more

I’m gonna lay down my heavy load
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
I’m gonna lay down my heavy load
Down by the riverside
Gonna study war no more

I ain’t gonna study war no more
Ain’t gonna study war no more
I ain’t gonna study war no more
I ain’t gonna study war no more

Ain’t gonna study war no more
I ain’t gonna study war no more
Ain’t gonna study war no more
Ain’t gonna study war no more
Ain’t gonna study war no more

Ain’t gonna study war no more
Ain’t gonna study war no more
Ain’t gonna study war no more

Yes, laid down ?
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
I’m gonna lay down my heavy load
Down by the riverside
God is tiding on no more
No more

Comments

  1. Mark Brown says:

    The definitive version.

    Sister Rosetta Tharpe, from Cotton Plant, Arkansas.

  2. Michael, your writings about the Kingdom of Heaven have forever changed the way I read the scriptures and understand God’s expectations of me in the world.

    In response to BUBBA’s comments, I can certainly see where an appeal to the peaceful world of the Kingdom from a Black spiritual would rankle in our current climate. For centuries we have traded a false peacefulness (and demanded compliance as the price of bare and unsure survival for our for our brothers and sisters of color) rather than striving for the true peace brought by a hard fight for true justice.

    I believe that becoming the kind of people for whom the Kingdom of God is inevitable will entail a mighty struggle and I’m not sure we have the vocabulary to address that without war metaphors or fighting words.

  3. rickpowers says:

    Come on, people, come on, children
    Come on down to the glory river
    Gonna wash you up and wash you down
    Gonna lay the devil down, gonna lay that devil down

    Come on, people, come on, children
    There’s a king at the glory river
    And the precious king, he loved the people to sing
    Babes in the blinking sun sang “We Shall Overcome”

    I got fury in my soul, fury’s gonna take me to the glory goal
    In my mind I can’t study war no more
    Save the people
    Save the children
    Save the country now
    -Laura Nyro

  4. The hard question is if humanity can learn peace and let go of war without embracing Christ?

    Since, as you argue, war is the natural state of the fallen human, peace must be the state of the saint, the woman or man made clean and sanctified by the atonement of Jesus Christ.

    This is a process the world was created for, so war will always be the constant, while peace is the ideal we strive for – we can accomplish it individually at times, but collectively is always much harder.

    “The problems of mankind are reborn in every generation,” Arthur R Basset wrote. So I guess the best we can do is to learn peace ourselves and then strive to not inherit the study of war to our children.

  5. I’m pretty sure there’s no bad version of the song, but your post reminded me that I hadn’t listened to this version in years. Thanks! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VXxjLh9H4bQ

  6. Geoff-Aus says:

    Eric, America is the most religious of western countries, and has the least peaceful culture. Part of that is your present president creating division, but also large contributors are extreme conservative culture. Many of the things that unite a country, and move it toward a zion society, are immediately labeled socialist. Look at the happiest countries in the world https://www.google.com/search?ie=UTF-8&client=tablet-android-samsung&source=android-browser&q=happiest+countries+in+the+world+2020+list
    Do you have anything like this playing on TV during the virus?

  7. Wondering says:

    Thank you, Michael for an inspiring post on a message to be found in a great song, regardless of its origin. The interchange with BUBBA reminded me of the extreme importance of the reader’s background in understanding what is meant. For me, e.g., regardless of its earlier origin, the song is an anti-war song from the Viet Nam war period in which I lost friends and contemporaries and during which I became acquainted with the song. It is clearly something else for some others — just as some can’t get Paul Simon’s “American Tune” out of their heads when they hear the Passion hymn “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” [or the LDS version “O Savior, Thou who Wearest a Crown”], itself a ca. 1600 adaption from a secular love song.
    I had read your “respectable conservative recording” characterization of the Tabernacle Choir version as a gently sardonic reference to its musical style — and not as saying it was somehow more “respectable” than the styles of others in your list of “important” artists. I would never have supposed that “respectable conservative” in that context was an endorsement of any musical style (or any political position) as more respectable than any other, or in any way indicative of any view on systemic racism. Did I misunderstand?

  8. Michael Austin says:

    Wondering–you read my intentions correctly. I can’t imagine that anybody who knows me, or reads many of my posts here, would read a sentence like “the Mormon Tabernacle Choir did the respectable conservative recording” without perceiving the strong sense of irony.

  9. Wondering says:

    Sorry, BUBBA, that you feel your comments mocked. They were not mocked by me and, as there is not a single word about racism or systemic racism in Michael’s OP, I haven’t been able to read him as mocking, either. I can now see that some might read the OP as if it were part of a larger or ongoing discussion of racism. I didn’t and don’t think it needs to be read that way. Perhaps its timing was unfortunate.
    I apologize for giving offense by my failure to understand or to articulate matters in a way you would perceive as dialogue.