It’s now just over a hundred years since the First War started. A century ago this year, in 1915, allied forces were coming to terms with the use of chemical weapons at the front in Ypres (and were, themselves, using their chemical weapons against the German forces). The world was seeing the beginning of the slaughter of soldiers on a scale not previously experienced. This increased until, thirty years later, entire cities of civilians were obliterated in a single atomic detonation.
When killing was a manual business, carried out by individual soldiers, it was necessarily limited to human strength. Human development, not least in mechanics, technology and science, have made the destruction of tens of thousands, and even of the whole world, possible.
Christian faith, as it is informed by a view of war which develops through scripture, helps us to see a way forward towards the greater possibility of peace and away from destructive violence. But it will not be easy.
We start exploring this developing line of thought in scripture near the beginning, with the account of the rout of the city of Ai.
Then the Lord said to Joshua, ‘Hold out towards Ai the javelin that is in your hand, for into your hand I will deliver the city.’ So Joshua held out towards the city the javelin that was in his hand. As soon as he did this, the men in the ambush rose quickly from their position and rushed forward. They entered the city and captured it and quickly set it on fire.
The men of Ai looked back and saw the smoke of the city rising up into the sky, but they had no chance to escape in any direction; the Israelites who had been fleeing towards the wilderness had turned back against their pursuers. For when Joshua and all Israel saw that the ambush had taken the city and that smoke was going up from the city, they turned round and attacked the men of Ai. Those in the ambush also came out of the city against them, so that they were caught in the middle, with Israelites on both sides. Israel cut them down, leaving them neither survivors nor fugitives.
Some Bible passages suggest that God wishes the utter destruction of people who opposed the Hebrews. We need to read this in its context. It was written in a time when defeat had to be comprehensive and victory could be assured only by extermination. It seems unduly bloodthirsty to us, but before we consign it to a long-forgotten past let us not forget more recent times in central Europe, in the far east, and presently in Syria, where we may recognise the same desire for total destruction.
Even if we instinctively feel revulsion at destruction of this type and wonder how God can be associated with these sentiments, we should not think everyone finds it so distasteful. Part of the strength of scripture is that it speaks directly into our human situation, not all of which is noble or good; we must recognise the perennial temptation to make our victory a crushing defeat for a conquered enemy. At the same time we should not take it to be the mind of God; scripture tells us there is a better way.
[Jesus continued] ‘Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.
One such better way promotes negotiation and settlement over destruction. This is not simply about self-interest as the parable Jesus tells might suggest. You don’t only negotiate if you think you might not win outright. Peace needs to be won as much battles do, and differences are rarely settled simply by military superiority. The peacemaking and peacekeeping roles of our armed forces are perhaps too little recognised. In our services people are trained not simply to fight but to talk, not merely to disarm bombs but to defuse tensions, to engage in relationship-building and to encourage better understandings leading to collaboration.
Negotiated settlements are far more likely to be longer-lasting than some form of crushing defeat. This is a better way, but scripture holds out a yet more challenging third way.
Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, and said to them, ‘You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death. Therefore, I will punish him and then release him.’
But the whole crowd shouted, ‘Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!’ (Barabbas had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city, and for murder.)
Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. But they kept shouting, ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’
For the third time he spoke to them: ‘Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him.’
But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. So Pilate decided to grant their demand. He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will.
This third way is one which we struggle to accept even while we yearn to embrace it. It is the creation of peace through voluntary and often one-sided giving up of power and strength.
The idea is expressed to some extent by those who say that they would never use a nation’s nuclear capability (though there may be other, legal, reasons to commit oneself to such a position in respect of weapons of mass destruction).
You can see the problem right away: are we willing to accept the risk of being more vulnerable? Does a commitment in advance not to respond in practice entice enemies to attack? Does the threat of force actually keep the peace, and is it an insurance policy worth the premium of a hundred billion pounds each generation? It is impossible to give a definitive answer; and that is what makes this third, self-offering position, at once attractive and repellent.
Yet it is this third way which we see worked out in the life of Christ. He willingly makes himself available to the worst abuses of power and miscarriage of justice. Those who speak the loudest in front of Pilate the Procurator apparently get their way; they carry the day as Jesus is crucified despite the Roman authorities recognising there is no case of any substance against him. Legal process is no use unless it it is used.
Jesus is in a real sense a political prisoner and, in offering himself in peace, he is the forerunner of those who have endured long years of unjust imprisonment, who have been mistreated and tortured for doing no more than speaking out for what they believed was right. Jesus’ experience is shared by many thousands of prisoners across the world today. Where, in the name of this Jesus, do we use our voices to speak up today for those who are oppressed and imprisoned by the powerful and by those whose self-interest is backed by political, economic and military might?
The loudest voices do not have the last word, though. In Christ’s state-sponsored but death-defeating execution and resurrection there is made open to us a way both of peace and of life. His example is not so much one of meekness but is, rather, of a principled standing for the right even at the price of personal suffering. We have seen a similar approach, that of non-violent, principled opposition, change the minds of nations.
So it was interesting to hear on television the evening before this sermon was delivered this quote:
“The only way people can live in peace is if they’re prepared to forgive.”
It did not appear in the Festival of Remembrance but was, rather, spoken by Dr Who. Not that he is Christian, but his sentiment echoes directly the Saviour’s final words as his unjust treatment by those with power comes to its awful human conclusion. His final words include, ‘Father, forgive them.’
There may yet come a time when people in their millions make principled, concerted stances for justice and peace with freedom and fairness for all. The seismic events of populations who are forced to move from one war-scarred nation to another continent hint at a a need to be inter-national rather than parochial in our view of things. We need to work, and not simply to dream, of a time “where man to man the world o’er will brothers be for a’ that”. The time is now to work long and hard to make such a dream much more of a reality for many more folk. This is the third way spoken of both in scripture and in the lif e of the Word of God; it is the way that offers possibilities for peace, for hope and for life.
We have, in scripture, a range of responses to deep conflict. Total destruction, negotiation and self-giving are present in scripture’s pages. As Christians we do not give all of scripture equal weight. We rightly see a development through the pages of the Bible, and in this we discover that there is a better way. It is a deeply costly way and shall require of us much more than we may be willing presently to give.
But it is a way demanded of us by One who goes before us and who gives us an example to follow. ‘Take up your cross each day,’ he said; his image for discipleship is of an instrument of state-sponsored execution. Seeking peace is not easy. May our Prince of peace give us inner insight and the strength to cause peace to prosper right where we are, in our land, and across this world.
Preached at St Kentigern’s on Remembrance Sunday 2015.