Monday, 10 November 2014

Remembrance Day- Christianity and violence




I feel the need to remind you that you can disagree with me in my sermons. I always welcome a friendly discussion, especially when we disagree about something. There are better Christians than I who think very differently than me on this topic.

I find Remembrance Day to be a difficult day, which is probably how it should be. I would like to share a bit of that struggle with you this morning. I think it is important to remember the suffering. 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 that can erupt into hate and violence. It is important to remember the sacrifices of those who tried to do something about the suffering because to sit back and do nothing was a worse evil. It is also a day to remember Jesus' words to us about violence and about how we are to treat our enemies.




War has always been a difficult thing for Christians. The early Christian Tertullian wrote in 204,
"I think we must first inquire whether warfare is proper at all for Christians... Do we believe it lawful for a human oath [of military allegiance] to be superadded to one divine [baptismal vows to be a follower of Christ]...? Should it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in battle when it does not even become him to sue at the law courts? And shall he apply the chain, and the prison, and the torture, and the punishment who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs? ... Shall he keep guard before the temples which he has renounced? ... And shall he diligently protect by night those who in daytime he has put to flight by his exorcisms, leaning and resting on the spear with which Christ's side was pierced? ... You may see by a slight survey how many other offences are involved in the performance of military officers which we must hold to involve a transgression of God's law." (De Corona IX).

For Tertullian, and many other early Christians, war and violence were not something the Christian was permitted to partake in. However, it is a question as to how many Christians were involved in the ranks of the Roman army. Some suspect Christianity spread in part due to to Christians who were also Roman soldiers. The question became more difficult after the Roman Empire adopted Christianity in 380. Before this Christians lived in the empire, but they really didn't have any power. The empire felt the need to use violence to maintain itself. They felt they had to squash rebellions internally and to fight enemies who attacked the empire externally. Suddenly, there was a need for a Christian understanding of how a Christian empire can use violence.

Here is where St. Augustine put his mind to work. He imagines the parable of the Good Samaritan. There is a man travelling on the road who is attacked, robbed, and left for dead. A priest and a religious person pass by, not helping the man, but someone you wouldn’t expect to help is the one who helps the man bleeding and dying in the ditch. Jesus uses this story to talk about loving your neighbour. St. Augustine wonders what would happen if the Good Samaritan came upon the man as he was getting attacked. How would the good neighbour respond? Surely the good neighbour wouldn’t look away and ignore the beating. He came to the conclusion that we could separate outward actions from inward dispositions. So as I defend someone from an attacker I may actually kill the attacker, but inwardly my actual motivation was to protect the person being attacked. I did not necessarily want to kill the attacker. It was a kind of accidental consequence that occurred as I was defending the person. 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. The act of killing is somewhat neutral since all humans die anyway. It is the inward disposition that motivates the act that determines if the act is moral or not. If I am motivated by a desire to protect the innocent rather than out of a desire for cruelty and violence, then I am justified in killing.

On top of this, St. Augustine believed that the social order we exist in is part of the natural order ordained by God to give us stable and peaceful lives. God meant society to be organized under rulers. So we read in Romans 13:1,4 that “…authorities that exist have been instituted by God… the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.” God meant for there to be empires and kingdoms. Since God placed these authorities over us, we are to obey rightful authority. In fact, since God ordained this order, obedience to the rightful ruler is actually obedience to God himself. It is the duty of the ruler to maintain order and peace and 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. War in itself is not good. It is something that causes bloodshed and suffering, but it seems to be necessary to maintain the peace and order of the state, which is what God wants for his people. War is really a means to an end. And, the end justifies the means. For the sake of maintaining peace and order war is permitted.

This does not mean that St. Augustine was bloodthirsty. He 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.

It is a compelling argument that Augustine put together. It helped the empire to resolve the moral conflict. 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. In fact, the ethicist Robert Brimlow, in his book What about Hitler? shows how Hitler could have convincingly used the Just War theory to justify the actions of the Third Reich based on their inward dispositions, beliefs, and motivations.

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. When we separate our inward dispositions from our outward actions we start down a dangerous road.

The German Theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer faced the Nazis and had his own struggle with non-violence. (He was arrested for his part in a resistance group that also attempted to assassinate Hitler). He speaks about when Jesus tells the rich young man to go and sell all he has and give it away to the poor and then to follow him. It bothered Bonhoeffer that Christians commented on that text by dividing action and inward disposition. They would say that what Jesus really wants is for the rich young man to have an inward detachment with regards to his money. And we take this attitude to Jesus' other commands. Bonhoeffer says,
"Perhaps Jesus would say to us: 'Whosoever smiteth thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.' We should then suppose him to mean: 'the way really to love your enemy is to fight him hard and hit him back.' ... All along the line we are trying to evade the obligation of single-minded, literal obedience. ... When orders are issued in other spheres of life there is no doubt whatever of their meaning. If a father sends his child to bed, the boy knows at once what he has to do. But suppose he has picked up a smattering of pseudo-theology. In that case he would argue more or less like this: 'Father tells me to go to bed, but he really means that I am tired, and he does not want me to be tired. I can overcome my tiredness just as well if I go out and play. Therefore though my father tells me to go to bed, he really means: 'Go out and play'." (p89-90- Cost of Discipleship). 
Bonhoeffer is drawing our attention to the way we twist Jesus' words to mean what we want them to mean because what he says seems too hard.

Jesus' words about our enemies are plain. Jesus says in Matthew ch 5, 
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. ... “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven."

Now we have to ask "did Jesus really mean what he said?" Is there any way of dividing a person so that inwardly they love their enemy, but outwardly they strike them across the cheek? I have heard plenty of interpretations of people trying to wiggle around what Jesus said. (I've no doubt been guilty of it myself). His words make us uncomfortable. His words don't seem realistic. 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?"

This makes us uncomfortable because we imagine ourselves during World War 2 and we wonder what we would do. We have people we care about who we want to protect from an invading army. There are atrocities being committed in the borders of Germany and we want to help. We ourselves might be in danger and we don't want to die. 
We have members of our church who have faced war- in Iraq, in the Congo, in Syria, and no doubt they have a perspective we need to learn from. 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. Sometimes that will mean we are on a cross with him. 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.

When thinking about war we often think of ourselves put in the middle of an 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."

We don't know what lies in the future, but if human history is any indication of the future we can expect that war will continue to be a part of human reality for the time being. We have choices now. We are called to live Jesus' third way right now. The violence, hatred, suffering, and sacrifice that we remember on Nov 11th is a part of each one of us. The seeds of war sit in each one of us. When someone offends us we are given the opportunity to practice peace by not shooting hurtful words back at them. When we see someone being hurt by someone else we are being given the opportunity to be a peacemaker. When we are tempted to bully people we are being given the opportunity to destroy that seed of war within us. When we are cut off in traffic we are asked to notice and deal with the anger within us that can lead to murder. We are called to live the third way right here and right now. Dare we believe that Jesus meant what he said?

We are not to look down on the decisions of those who have gone before us. They had hard decisions to make. We have no clue how difficult those decisions were. They should be remembered for not taking the easy way out, and for being willing to die to do something about the suffering they saw. However, we also need to notice the contradiction of the belief that war leads to peace. The peaceful world the prophet Micah speaks of, where the people of the world "will hammer their swords into plowshares And their spears into pruning hooks;[and] Nation will not lift up sword against nation, And never again will they train for war." That world will come about as God works through us- When the Sin that infects us and causes war is fully healed by the work of Jesus- and we are transformed into people who see each other as God's children- brothers and sisters of Christ under one Father. 

Jesus is not surprised by the wars or the complexity of the world. Jesus has given us his teaching precisely to help us live in this world (not some imaginary ideal world). He is always with us. He will help us. Hear Jesus words, 
"These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have trouble, but take courage; I have overcome the world."

Amen.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! That's quite a sermon; sorry I missed hearing it in person. I especially love the quote by Brimlow - that is so true. What a difference it would have made if the Christian people of Germany had refused to follow Hitler into war and refused to turn on their Jewish neighbours....

    Hope to have time to re-read it, or perhaps listen to the audio version.

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