Sunday, 9 November 2014

Remembrance Sunday

Proverbs 21:1-8
The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord;
he turns it wherever he will.
All deeds are right in the sight of the doer,
but the Lord weighs the heart.
To do righteousness and justice
is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.
Haughty eyes and a proud heart—
the lamp of the wicked—are sin.
The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance,
but everyone who is hasty comes only to want.
The getting of treasures by a lying tongue
is a fleeting vapour and a snare of death.
The violence of the wicked will sweep them away,
because they refuse to do what is just.
The way of the guilty is crooked,
but the conduct of the pure is right.

Romans 12:17-13:5
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience.

A Just War?
I always struggle with what to say at remembrance, and perhaps more this year than on any previous occasion because of the momentous nature of it being one hundred years since the worst war in the modern period. But it's not just about the first world war; it's about the second world war and the numerous other conflicts. And whilst we may have no doubts in our own minds that Great Britain had to fight in the world wars, and whilst we rightly gather to remember with gratitude those who laid down their lives for us and our nation's freedom, how do we feel about the other conflicts where the clarity of reason hasn't been so clear for us? Many people have doubts about Britain's involvement in other conflicts.  If we are going to engage with everyone's opinions, then as Christians it is our duty to understand something of why a nation like ours goes to war because the consequences will always be devastating.

So that's what we're thinking about here.  We back our soldiers to the hilt, supporting them and praying for them as they do one of the most difficult tasks that a country can ask of its people, but in the midst of the questions that many voice about going to war, what are we going to base our decisions on? How do we know when to fight and how to fight? I want to try and equip us with some biblically based ideas about war this morning. You see whilst our response in 1914 and 1939 to the threats posed then were necessary, even some who fought in those conflicts have raised questions about some of the decisions made regarding some of the ways in which the allies waged war. So the question I want to ask this morning is, 'How should we make the decision of when to go to war and how to wage war?'

After all we're only human. But is applying human standards to our decisions to fight sufficient? We have to ask whether the standards that we set are far too closely based on flawed human standards rather than on God's standards, because our standards might not be good enough. Let me give you an example, one that will be familiar to the experience of many of you, especially perhaps the men, in terms of how we wait before we respond.

I'm not a violent person. This hopefully doesn't come as a surprise. But I do have a slow burn temper. It takes a very long while to get going and I can take an awful lot being thrown at me, but eventually I react. I recall how as a teenager I was bullied by one particular individual. It went on a very long while, but eventually I lost my temper. He got bruised. The bullying stopped.

I don't think I'm unusual in this. I think most ordinary people would tell a similar story of retaliation in the face of extreme provocation. For the most part the average normal person gives up throwing temper tantrums if they don't get their own way by the time they've hit the age of five, yet somehow we keep some anger in reserve for when we are consistently wronged, or more importantly when someone who we love or feel responsible for is hurt by a third party. And it strikes me that it is precisely this reasonable human nature that is what lies behind what we call 'Just War theory'. But as Christians we should be obligated to ask ourselves if that is a sound moral basis and a high enough moral standard. Just War theory is essentially the yard stick that the government of a country like ours uses to tell it when to fight. In theory the idea of a just war should stop a nation like ours from becoming an aggressor.

Whether we're always correct in our actions is a matter for debate, but what should concern us more is whether the standards we set for choosing to go to war are high enough. The idea behind a Just War is the recognition that not to go to war, but to continually avoid it, may actually be a morally worse option than to engage in conflict; that although war is always, always, always a terrible option, sometimes the alternative, not going to war, is worse. If a nation has turned into a bully and will not respond to diplomacy, then there may well be no other actions that can be taken. But have our standards always been high enough?

The thirteenth century theologian and philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, first outlined three criteria for a Just War. Firstly a Just War must be waged by a properly instituted authority such as the state, which is why we had the reading from Romans 13. The governmental authorities are there to act as God's authority. Secondly a Just War must be for a good and just purpose rather than for self-gain, and thirdly the motive for going to war must be to bring back peace.

That second motive is the crucial one, because it is all about a 'Just' purpose. A Just War must be about Justice, and this all seems very reasonable, and something that we could agree with, I hope.
That is until we start to look at the word 'Justice' in the Bible and what it actually means, and this is where we have to raise questions about moral values because I want to suggest that this Biblical yardstick is different from the modern western human one. If we're going to use justice as our yardstick for entering conflict, then we'd better know what it is!

When it comes to justice in the Bible we find something rather surprising, which may challenge us to think about modifying our reasons for entering conflict. Two words from the bible stand out: 'Tsedaquah' and 'Dikaios' (spelt here phonetically). The first word is an Old Testament Hebrew word and the second is a New Testament Greek word, but they both mean the same thing, they both mean 'Justice'. But here's the surprising thing; they don't only mean justice. Despite being two very different languages, they also have a second word which they mean just as much. They both also mean 'Righteousness', the capability of living the right way. This means that for both the Jewish people before Jesus, and the church and much of the Greek-speaking world afterwards, Justice and Righteousness were the same thing.

And here, then, is the problem: Modern westerners tend to think of justice as being equated with fairness, and we tend to think of justice as meaning punishment for something wrong that has been perpetrated by one against another. But that is not the biblical understanding. Unfortunately, not recognising that and thinking of justice as punishment allows us to enter a 'Just' war to punish someone. In fact it says the same thing about any conflict, which is why what I'm saying here applies to all aspects of our lives. A battle between two people can begin because one has been unreasonable and the other wants to punish them. But in biblical terms justice is not linked with punishment, it is linked with righteousness, and that's what ought to inform our reasons for entering a battle of any kind. It also means that those of us who think justice is the same as fairness have an incomplete understanding. Justice is the same as righteousness, and that therefore means that justice is all about living according to the righteous standards of God, and so those standards are what we must apply when we think about entering into a conflict. Those are the standards that lie behind the idea of a Just War.

What then do we actually mean by justice and righteousness in God's understanding? I suggest that both mean to live life and make your decisions according to God's standards. It's exactly the same as when we say we do something in the name of Jesus. That means we are doing something in accordance with his will and his way of doing it. Justice and righteousness therefore mean we have to ask ourselves 'Is this action one that is consistent with living according to the moral obligations of saying that we follow Christ?' 
Now that is a far more difficult criteria to apply to conflict and a Just War simply because although the Bible makes it clear that ultimately there is going to be a reckoning between God and humanity, we also have to recognise that love, mercy and salvation are central to the nature of God. So if we are going to set the moral standard of a Just War as being living out the obligation of God's moral nature we also have to apply love, mercy and salvation. Those three mean that if we go to war, or if we enter into conflict, there must never, ever be such a thing as total war, and that war must cease as soon as the objectives have been met. I know of people who fought in the last world war who believe, for example, that the raid on Dresden by bomber command should never have happened. To that we might wish to add the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki because all just war theories say that we should leave civilians out of the conflict. Raining down terror on a population is exactly what we criticise IS and other fundamentalist jihadist groups for. But that should raise questions for us about the methods that we and our allies eventually resorted to. Yes of course the terrorists are acting as aggressors and must be stopped, but it nevertheless forces us to ask whether the terror of carpet bombing or nuclear annihilation of civilian populations morally acceptable according to the standards of God? Is that righteous? You decide.

Yes those actions may well have brought the second world war to an earlier end, but were they morally justifiable? Were they righteous actions? You see why God's standards are so challenging. The biblical standard for a Just War is that it must also be a righteous war. Are we sure that all our actions always had God on our side? Or were there angels weeping in the firestorms? When we act, if we call ourselves Christians then we had better act in ways that are consistent with God's standards.

War brings the worst out of human nature. My grandfather would simply never talk about what he did and what he saw, and the longer we go at it the further we risk slipping away from justice and righteousness. The same applies to any conflict, even just between neighbours. If an aggressor continues for long enough, even the most just response will eventually slip towards retribution and punishment.

So what I want us to take away from this is not merely a commentary on the last two world wars. Just war theory, when we equate justice with the righteousness of God, has a direct bearing on how we live our lives when conflict takes place, because sadly, conflict is inevitable. It happens on the school playground and it happens in the boardroom and it happens between neighbours. At some point in time someone will pick on you because they think they can get away with it. How will you react? If it is to be a Godly response then that requires that you have sufficient experience of the nature of God to know how to respond. Otherwise all you will do will be a human response. As I did as a teenager, you will simply retaliate. That is not necessarily the wrong response, but it is also not necessarily the right one.

What I do know is that war as punishment is always going to be wrong, because we can never have high enough moral standards to think that we might be instruments of God's vengeance. I do believe in a final judgement, but what happens then is up to God. When we fight, I believe that it must always be to bring peace back as soon as is possible.

And so not just in the wars that we fight, and the people who we remember with gratitude who fought for us, but also in our day to day conflicts in ordinary life, let us remember that to God justice is the same as righteousness, and so may our just actions also be righteous ones.

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