Saturday, 10 November 2012

Remembrance Day

Before I begin, I just want to say that not everyone is going to agree with what I'm about to say.  I hope that if anything I say bothers you that we can have a conversation. This goes for all my sermons actually. You can disagree with me.

            I find Remembrance Day to be a difficult day, which is probably how it should be. This morning I would like to share a bit of that struggle.  I think it is important to remember those who have suffered in war. It is important to remember the high cost of war- then and now. It is important to remember how fragile peace can be. It is important to remember the monsters that live inside of us. It is important to remember those who risked their lives trying to do something about suffering because to sit back and do nothing was a worse evil. Remembrance Day is also a day to remember Jesus' words to us about violence and about how we are to treat our enemies. 

Personal Connections to WW2

            My Oma and Opa (grandma and grandma) were in Holland during the war. On a regular basis the Germans would pull my Opa and his family out of bed in the middle of the night and raid their house. My Opa tells me about a gold pocket watch that was handed down through the family- a bit of a family heirloom- that was stolen by the German soldiers.

            My Oma lived on a farm near a river and the Germans would float bombs down the river and they would explode near their house. (I should also say that "Roth" is a German name.) Oma would go to bed with a pillow over her head to muffle the explosions in the night. When she went to sleep she wasn't always sure if she was going to wake up and would comfort herself with the thought that she might wake up in heaven.

            My great grandmother's last name was "Goldstein". She was Jewish, but adopted into a Christian Dutch family. They spelled her name in an unusual way which is likely why the Germans never took her away. So I'm also conscious of my unknown Jewish relatives who suffered in World War 2. 

            I had conversations with my wife's grandpa before he died. He was a rifleman in the Canadian Army. He didn't talk about this often at all, but on the rare occasion if it was late enough he would share glimpses of his story. He was part of a group that liberated a concentration camp. He described one prisoner who was standing at the gate of the camp. The man was just skin and bones. He was so excited when the troops came to free them that he passed out and died.

            I encounter war through the memories of those around me. I have never had to make those hard decisions, nor have I had to live in the midst of those unimaginable conditions. But, these memories also allow me to see the war in a personal way. I see it through the eyes of family and people I care about. Good people.  

            The situation in the mid 20th century was horrible. Something had to be done. A decision had to be made to help those who were suffering. And the action that was decided on was not the easy option. Those who went to fight risked their lives trying to do something about what was going on. They were willing to put their lives on the line for those who were suffering.

            And that is something we are called to as Christians. We are not permitted to stand by and do nothing as people are suffering. Christ calls us to step into the situation as peacemakers. We are called to stand with the victims of oppression and cruelty. Jesus calls us to risk our lives if necessary. In the midst of the conflict I feel within myself during Remembrance Day, I also acknowledge that many died trying to something about the suffering and injustice that was going on. They were willing to risk their lives to do something about it. They refused to stand by and do nothing when others were suffering.

Encounter war as a Christian

            There is no doubt in my mind that Christians are called to risk their lives to do something about injustice. ..But,... I'm really not sure that 'something' involves taking the life of another human being. This is where I feel conflicted. It's the killing part that bothers me.

            The reason I feel conflicted is because Jesus said to his followers: "Love your enemies" (Luke 6:35); "Do good to those who hate you" (Luke 6:27); and "Turn the other cheek" (Luke 6:29). The Jesus we serve allowed himself to be killed on a Roman cross. He wouldn't let Peter fight for him. Peter cut the ear off one of the soldiers and Jesus healed the soldier and rebuked Peter telling him to “Put [his] sword back in its place ... for all who draw the sword will die by the sword." (Matt 26:52).

             I'm not sure what can be done to cancel out these plain teachings of Jesus against deadly force. And that leaves me conflicted. What would Jesus have us do about Hitler and the Nazis? Did Jesus really mean what he said? Is there any way that a person can love their enemy, but outwardly strike them across the cheek? I have heard plenty of interpretations of people trying to wiggle around what Jesus said. (I've probably been guilty of it myself).  His words make us uncomfortable. His words don't seem realistic.  They seem too hard. He is asking too much of us. He's asking us for everything. He's asking for our very lives. ... He is. ... He is asking for everything from us. We shouldn't try to wiggle around what he's actually saying, and make him say something else. Our only question in response to his teaching is "will we follow him? Are we willing to give him everything?"

What is the Christian response? Have to do something, but Take Jesus' words about our enemies seriously.

Just War Theory

            Christians have tried to wiggle around Jesus' words for a long time- how do we protect ourselves from enemies, and help those who are victims of violence and still follow the words of Christ? The best attempt to justify a Christian use of violence was St. Augustine's Just War theory.

            Augustine put together a theory of Just War at a time when his people were being killed and raped by foreign armies. He spelled out principles, which are still used today, under which circumstances a nation can justly go to war. Augustine clearly saw it as a last resort to be used only when all other means have failed and when the other nation compels a defensive response. War is always used as the lesser of two evils. The suffering and evil of not defending and allowing the enemy to destroy at will with no opposition is seen as too great an evil to endure. The suffering of war would be less than the suffering of not going to war. Entering into war amounts to less evil overall.

            St. Augustine came to the conclusion that we could separate outward actions from inward dispositions. So in self-defence I may actually kill my attacker, but inwardly my actual motivation was to protect myself. I did not want to kill my attacker. It was a kind of accident that occurred as I was defending myself. So to St. Augustine the sin to be found in a war is really internal- it is to be found in motivation and inward disposition.  It is the inward disposition that motivates the act that determines if the act is right or wrong. If I am motivated by a desire to protect the innocent rather than out of a desire to punish my enemy, then I am justified in killing.

            It is also the duty of the ruler to maintain order and peace. At times this means war. If order and peace in a nation are part of God's will, then it also becomes God's will to partake in war which seems necessary to maintain that order and peace. So while war in itself is not good, it is necessary at times to maintain the peace and order of the state. The end justifies the means.         

            It is a compelling argument that Augustine put together. It helped those Augustine was advising to use violence to protect their people. ... But, there are problems with it. I will give two examples.  First, as theologian Stanley Hauerwas once said, "I just want to know when the Just War theory has led Christians to say 'no' to a war". Just War theory often provides a way of justifying wars, but doesn't really ever seem to have the power to prevent a nation from entering into war.

            A second problem with the theory is that it separates our motivations from our actions. Jesus taught that our actions flow from our inward dispositions. The act of adultery begins through the lust in our heart. Murder begins through the anger in our heart. If we love our enemy our actions will flow from that disposition, our actions will not contradict our inward disposition. Loving our enemy is turning the other cheek and doing good to those who hate us. It seems strange to see an act of inward love expressed through a balled fist swung at an enemy's nose.

            We want to wiggle out of Jesus' words to us because they are challenging. Jesus forces us to trust him entirely or reject him entirely. We want middle ground that he doesn't seem to give us. As Christians we are forced to act between two extremes. We cannot do nothing, but neither are we permitted to kill our enemies. WE have to do something to protect those who are suffering and we have to love the enemy that causes the suffering. We are called to risk our lives, but we are not to kill.   

Forced into this position  because Christians weren't acting as Christians

            When thinking about war and violence we often think of ourselves put in the middle of an already existing battle, but we have to remember that there were many events that led up to the war. The ethicist Robert Brimlow says, "If the question is asking how a pacifist church should have responded to the horrors of the Holocaust, the answer surely lies in being a peacemaking church long before the holocaust ever began. The church should have preached and lived a love of the Jews for many centuries before the twentieth; the church should have formed Christians into the kind of people who do not kill Jews, or homosexuals, or gypsies, or communists, or other Christians, or Nazis, or whoever else was victimized by the war. The church should have lived and taught in such a way that the First World War would have been incomprehensible in a largely Christian Europe and, failing that, should have railed against the Versailles Treaty and the vengeance it embodied in favour of forgiveness and reconciliation. The failure of the church and of Christians to be peacemakers in 1942 is horrible precisely because it is a result and culmination of centuries of failure." 

            These are difficult and challenging words. He is basically saying that if Christians had been listening to Jesus' call before Word War 1 and World War 2 those wars might not have happened. In the World Wars national flags became more important than their Lord and Savior, and Christians were willing to kill other Christians. In the Bible Christians are not even permitted to take each other to court. How could it be that Christians were killing each other when they are called to love even enemies? Brimlow has strong and challenging words to say to past generations. I don't know how justified they are. They lived in difficult times and had to make difficult choices.

            Perhaps Brimlow's words can stand as a warning for us now. It's not fair for us to look into past generations and cast judgment on them, especially if we are not willing to make our own choices today.

            In our own lives there are two things we can do. First, we can deal with the seed of war in our own hearts. We can deal with our own anger, contempt, and leanings towards violence. We are called to become more Christ-like by taking our spiritual formation seriously. When we speak about being a people of Mission that is not a new church trend. Not recognizing and grasping our sense of mission has real life consequences. Brimlow would tell us that Christians not taking their Mission to be the light of the world seriously resulted in the deaths of many millions of people. Christians not taking their spiritual formation into Christ-likeness seriously resulted in millions of lives lost. We don't know what is in our future, but our own spiritual lives concern more than just the salvation of our souls. So first, we have to deal with our own hearts as we follow Jesus recognizing that there is much at stake. 

            Second, when we do find ourselves facing a violent situation we are called to a third way. Through prayer and the creativity of the Spirit we find a way somewhere between doing nothing and killing our enemy. We find a way to protect the innocent and stand with them, while also loving our enemy with the love of Christ.  This makes us uncomfortable because we imagine ourselves during World War 2 and we wonder what we would do. What if we had to protect our families and friends from an invading army. What would we do if we knew about those who were suffering in concentration camps? As disciples of Christ we are called to be peacemakers and to turn the other cheek. What do we do? 

                We are called to a third way. We are not to partake in killing, but neither are we to do nothing. We are to sit in those hard questions and pray. And in prayer we are to have faith that God will provide a third way.  It will not be predictable. It will not always be safe. It will not always be rational. It won't be a formula that can be applied to every violent situation. It won't even necessarily be the right action for similar situations. We have to rely on God through prayer to give us the right way- To give us a third way. Jesus' way of love led to his own death, but there are worse things than death for the Christian. The third way will mean that we are with Jesus walking in his footsteps. In the big eternal picture that is the safest place to be. His way may lead us to death, but it will also lead us to resurrection. We follow Jesus' way because we are disciples who want to follow Jesus and we know that ultimately peace and freedom come not from war, but from God.
            So yes, on this Remembrance Day we remember the suffering caused by war. We remember the high cost of war- in lives lost, in social damage, and psychological damage. We remember that partaking in war changes us. We remember the preciousness and fragility of peace. We remember that the monsters of war live in our own hearts. We remember that sacrifice is often needed to react to violence because to do nothing is a terrible evil. ...But today we also remember that our choice to live lives following Jesus has an effect on the world. ... And the opposite of that is also true, our choice to not lead holy lives also has an impact on the world.       So on Remembrance Day we also remember Jesus' challenging words to us about violence and loving our enemies, and we remember the high cost of Christians not taking Jesus' call seriously.    

If you want to learn more about Christian non-violence here are two great resources:

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