VE Day Sermon

Last year, I seem to have annoyed a few people when I said that there is no such thing as a just war.  I should like to make it up to them this year, especially if they’ve served in the forces or still do. You can only say so much in a single sermon. In a nutshell, what I tried to say in the wake of yet another terrorist attack last year is that, for Christians, there can never be any religiously sanctioned violence, at least not in the way the Islamic tradition, or even the Jewish one, can condone it under certain conditions. There is for us no just war in the sense of a holy war. I never meant to say however that entering a war such as WWII could never be right. It was a little clumsy but then again you can only argue your case for so long in a single sermon and I would like to be given the chance to elaborate a little.

Let’s begin with hopelessness. 

Hopelessness in the face of our human propensity for violence and will for power. Hopelessness isn’t just a feeling, like when you check your phone (erstwhile your alarm clock) to see how much time you’ve got left to sleep and it’s right before your alarm is supposed to ring. That’s not hopelessness, that’s despondency. Heavy-heartedness… precisely because there was hope, but it’s been dashed. For something to be truly hopeless it must be an impossible quest.. Like a buzzing fly hitting itself madly against a window pane thinking it can get out. Like the ridiculous hope that you will find something you actually like inside a Christmas cracker, something you’ve always wanted. That’s not going to happen. I think Bill Bailey put it very well when he said: ‘I'm English, and as such I crave disappointment. That's why I buy Kinder Surprise. Sometimes I eat the toy out of sheer despair.’ That kind of hopelessness.

Though war cannot be holy for us, I believe it becomes quite necessary before a situation becomes hopeless, between the time you would hit the snooze button in despair, and it’s too late to get up. This said, looking for a justification for it in the gospels is an equally hopeless quest, like conquistadors searching for El Dorado. The just war theory is a tradition that reaches all the way back to St Augustine of Hippo. Poor old Bishop Augustine was elected bishop of the last little Roman town in north Africa when the barbarians were at the gates. Not just your garden variety barbarians, be it said in passing, but the Vandals whose name has since passed into legend as a by-word for destruction and cruelty. Vandalism. So these barbarians were at the gates, literally; Rome had fallen, and Augustine believed the end of the world was just around the corner. The situation was truly hopeless and thus he spelled out the conditions under which Christians can wage war: it was to be in retaliation only, in a commensurate manner, begun by a proper authority and done in order to achieve a moral aim, such as the restoration of peace. These are the four conditions under which a war could be deemed just, he thought. This is what the army still teaches you and, before I venture any further, I must hasten to add this is also what you’re taught at Theological College. 

I’m not sure we can reconcile this with what we read in the gospels. And I’m going to disappoint both sides of the argument: I am definitely not a pacifist for all that, I only meant to say that this is not where I would search Christian tradition for wisdom on the matter. Searching our Lord’s teaching to justify war is searching for something in vain. It reminds me slightly of the hopelessness you experience when you look for a new job as a Vicar and read the adverts in the Church Times. People want the eloquence of Martin Luther King conjugated with the pastoral care of Mother Teresa, the experience of a 50 year old, with the wisdom of a retired priest and the energy of a 30 year old on the pay-scale of a Curate… the additional ability to walk on water being desirable. It does not exist: similarly there is no teaching about war in the New Testament. The apostles and Christ never talked about war. Nor did they bother to describe any condition under which any form of government is legitimate, nor what form of violence is commensurate. Indeed when our Lord’s own body was tortured, when his heart was split open by a legionary’s spear, he prayed for the forgiveness of those who murdered him. And we are called to follow in his steps, to take our cross and follow him to be worthy of him. He taught that we should turn the other cheek in the face of those who hit us. We are called to do this not only seven times but seventy-seven times seven times, that is to say perpetually, to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. We must let ourselves be despoiled willingly and bear in mind that those who wield the sword would die by the sword… I could go on. But here’s the rub, 

and it’s a complete game-changer: 

the Gospel can never become a law. It can never be forced on others. It cannot become the constitution of any state that wants to endure. It is not a social charter, not even a blueprint for collective morality, thus, peacefulness in the face of a grave wrong that could only be stopped by violence would be a grave sin.

It’s common sense: you can decide to follow Christ individually but you cannot require that kind of pacifism from others, and when that kind of pacifism is threatened by forces who would compel you to abandon it in the name of G-d, you must resist them. We do not have revealed laws spelling out the legitimacy of warfare. The Torah does. The law of Moses encompassed all dimensions of life, with all its hideous strictures and ugly forms of allegedly God-ordained punishments. It was devised to be a civil law at a time when religion and state were definitely not separate. The revelation purportedly given to Muhammad is the same, you can deduce a shari’a from it, governing pretty much all aspects of civil life, if such can be called a civil life. Christianity is an altogether different animal. People talk about the Abrahamic religions, about the ‘people of the book,’ meaning by that Jews, Christians and Muslims… but we should certainly beg to differ. Never more so than in the face of violence or war.

When people ask what they can do to change almost any situation, I’m very practical. I ask, “Well, say you exerted all of your effort, all of your life, to try to change the person you are closest to. Do you think you could change them in a fundamental way?” And they always answer, “No. Hey, I’d be happy if I could get them to put the toilet seat down or the putting the cap back on the toothpaste.” The same holds true in the face of enmity and conflict, even more so. Sadly, if we have to acknowledge that we find it hard to change ourselves, even harder to change our loved ones, we cannot expect that those who hate us and wish us harm will change easily. They sometimes have to be opposed. We all know how difficult it is to change a fundamental aspect of ourselves, so I come back to what is actually practical for us to do. Yes, we can write letters; yes, we can send relief money to Syria and help try to promote health care there and get schools going and so on, or go to demonstrations for peace in Iraq. But if we really want to stop the repercussive effects of hatred and violence, well that can only be done individually. And that’s why our ultimate responsibility is to practice… but we cannot require such practice from anyone else, else we’re no better than those who oppose us and want to force their religion or beliefs upon us.

The violence of our enemies, or even of those who would kill or maim our friends, or indeed other people we are generally indifferent to, that violence must be restrained, not by prayers but by soldiers. Enemies won’t change quickly enough to bring about a solution by peaceful means. You cannot be a member of a terrorist organization in a non-violent way, in the laundry or the catering department.

If you would lend me your attention for just a little longer, I think a last thing really needs to be said to show why Christian pacifism cannot be imposed on anyone or become law. It’s easier to see if you look at a completely different tradition: the Japanese bushi-do, for instance, the ‘way of the warrior.’ It's not just one code, as people imagine, it’s a variety of treatises and educational ideals that governed the upbringing of samurais. 

Bushi-do distinguishes between 接人と(I think, the sword that takes life –I am utterly sorry Mrs Wong if you read this)  and 活人剣 (the sword that gives life). It’s a bit like our just war theory, an attempt to differentiate between the use of the sword for murderous ends as opposed to its use to protect people or to preserve the order of society, and like our just war theory it was made to fit any kind of need the government of the day needed. Martial arts devotee put a lot of stock on this, but they are deluded. At its most naive is the idea that, having power, one can choose to use it either to hurt others or lead them away from evil paths. It rests on the assumption that when attacked, the trained samurai could easily annihilate his attacker, but万歳! he will move in such a way that not only the attack is neutralized, but the enemy sees the error of his ways and turns away from violence, for ever. It’s a hopeless theory because it always assumes that the enemy will always be far less skilled or powerful than you –they’re not—and it assumes that, once humbled and shamed by your superior strength, they will undergo a profound change of personality: again, it’s not going to happen, such change takes a very long time, and the will to change. Once more, when it comes to our own Christian just war tradition, I really cannot see how a commensurate use of force wielded by a legitimate authority can be assessed… but this need not mean that war must not be waged for all that: we must preserve life.

And whose life is to preserved? The life of those who do not or cannot wield the sword, not the life of those who have chosen to pick up the sword to assert their own might.


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