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Sermon for Remembrance Sunday

I pray that I may speak, and that you may hear, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

War is brutal, bloody and terrifying! There is no way that we can escape that fact. Ask the soldier who has been in a wheelchair since 1942 because an enemy bullet shattered his spine; ask the child in a filthy and under-resourced Baghdad hospital, with an eye torn out by shrapnel - they will tell you that there is nothing good, nothing honourable, about war.

Now that the twentieth century is six years over, we have some statistics from that century, that are hardly believable to us ordinary folk, particularly those of us who have never even aimed a weapon at anyone else, letter alone discharged it.

It is estimated that in the twentieth century more than 120 million people died in conflicts, whether civil wars, or international conflicts. Now that is very easy to say and to digest, if said quickly enough, but look at it this way, that is more than one and a half times the population of the United Kingdom - men, women and children - now think about it again for a moment. That's every relative you have, every friend you have, everyone you have met this year, everyone you have spoken to on the telephone, everyone you have e mailed - all of them, and many, many more, killed in the twentieth century - 120 million souls.

During the First World War, around 90% of those killed were soldiers; this is even taking into account the six million Jews and Gypsies who were murdered in cold blood. By the end of the twentieth century however, it is estimated that some 75% of that 120 million were civilians with little or no real involvement in the war, save that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

That is 85 million souls wiped out, men, women and children - sadly very many children - killed in conflicts that they did not start, probably did not condone, and certainly could do nothing to stop.

Such horrific and startling statistics of the mass destruction of human life present us with a moral and ethical dilemma that is hard to solve. Wars, unlike natural disasters such as the Pakistani earthquake and the Indian Ocean Tsunami, are not without human control and decision-making. Can we justify the waging of war under any circumstances in the 21st Century? If we can, how do we limit and control its evil effects?

Speaking very broadly, there are two main traditions of thought in Christianity and general moral and ethical thinking. One the one hand, pacifism rejects the whole concept of participation in war and any sort of violence outright. On the other hand, the concept of 'just war' accepts that some wars may be morally justified, but seeks to limit and control warfare by appealing to justice.

Let us first look at pacifism. John Howard Yoda, one of the 20th century's best-known pacifists estimated that there were 29'varieities of religious pacifism'. Well, at least we may hope that they won't start a war between each other! However to over-simplify, it is possible to narrow it down to two main streams - Pacifism based on practicalities and consequences, what might be called 'pragmatic pacifism', and pacifism based on fundamental beliefs - what might be called 'principled pacifism'.

Let us look then, for a moment, very briefly, at pragmatic pacifism. Pragmatic pacifists argue both negatively from the horrific consequences of war, and positively from the benefits of non-violence.

War, or any violence for that matter they say, as it is always destructive, is incapable of creating a better situation as by its nature it injures and kills people and destroys the societies it involves. On the contrary, there is almost a natural law that says 'violence begets more violence' and begins an unstoppable spiral of destructive forces. Recent conflicts like Northern Ireland and the former Yugoslavia amply demonstrate that wars are often fuelled by history, sometimes a very old history, usually of violence, that has certainly not been forgotten, nor forgiven. It is obvious, even to the casual observer, that in both those places violence still simmers under the surface, with old scores to be settled, even though a kind of peace is being observed.

Contemporary culture seeks to deny this by teaching us, from a very early age, that there is such a thing as redemptive violence. Stories, cartoons, videos, DVDs and moving Pictures teach us that all problems can be solved by violence, whether it be Jerry pushing Tom over a cliff, or James Bond detonating whole buildings full of enemies of the state.

This probably explains why violence becomes almost addictive and, once that path has been embarked upon, is very difficult to stop. This is exaggerated by structures of political and economic power that reinforce that view through the arms trade and propaganda and actually encourage recourse to war.

Pacifists argue that the only way to combat such lies, and resist the forces of war politics and economics is to be completely non-violent and abstain from conflict altogether.

The obvious question, often asked of pacifists is this: 'If we are not to go to war, then what is the alternative; are they just being cowardly, and withdrawing from the harsh realities of life?"

Most pacifists will respond by accentuating the positive aspects of their way - rather than reading history as we are taught it in schools, in terms of wars and battles, non-violent movements and examples of passive resistance can be taught and highlighted as a means of effecting social change and ensuring justice for all.

Examples include Ghandi's removal of Imperial rule in India, the overthrow of the apartheid regime in South Africa by Nelson Mandela and the ANC, and Dr Martin Luther King's resistance to white supremacy in the United States of America. Here is the positive aspect of Pragmatic Pacifism - not only does war not work, but there are viable alternatives that have been shown to work.

The problem with this is the same as G K Chesterton said once about Christianity "it has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult, and not tried" The challenge then, is to resist the calls of the hawks in society, and to try and find original peace loving and peace making solutions to injustice and violence. No one pretends it will be easy, but every ethical notion has to start somewhere.

Now to Principled Pacifism, and this is much easier to describe. Principled Pacifists do not depend on consequences and effectiveness for their argument, and will even accept that their way is not so effective as a bombing campaign may be, but they object to violence simply as a matter of obedience to an order, often a Christian one.

Christian pacifist will cite certain teachings of Jesus, such as Matthew 5:43, part of the Sermon on the Mount, when he enjoins his disciples to 'love their enemies' and in Matthew 5:39 they are not to resist the evildoer, but to 'turn the other cheek.' Both of which are taken to be a total rejection of war and violence by Jesus himself.

The theme is carried on by the disciples where they teach us not to resist evil with evil, but to overcome evil with good as we bless those who persecute us (Romans 12:14-21), and calling us to follow the pattern of Christ by not threatening others when we suffer, but entrusting ourselves instead to God, and his judgement (1 Peter 2:19-24)

This reference shows how Jesus put his own teaching of non-violence into practice by not resisting his terrible death by crucifixion. Though he suffered perhaps the greatest injustice, he offered no violence in return.

Despite all this, the great majority of Christians around the globe have been able to ascribe to the notion of Just War. Whilst paying lip-service to the pacifist view (even Churchill said it was better to jaw jaw than war war), they have embarked on wars believing that their was an undeniable just cause for doing so and, until the invasion of Iraq, few people have been moved to question this.

The concept of a just war has been reduced, over the centuries, to a set of do's and don'ts, a kind of checklist, which must be ticked of before, and during, a conflict to see if the rules are being followed. This stems, originally from Thomas Aquinas.

The first question on the clipboard is 'who can wage war?" and the answer always was 'the Sovereign' Nearly always 'a legitimate authority' is now substituted for the sovereign, and this usually means the President, or the First Minister.

This highlights the difference between Christian Pacifists and those who maintain that there is such a thing as Just War, and is the concept that there are certain things that are acceptable when done by people in authority (and those under their authority) which are not acceptable actions for private individuals. I have no right to lock up a person in jail and keep them there against their will, put a judge has the right to sentence them to prison, and a prison officer has the right to see that they stay there.

Those who believe that there is such a thing as just war extend this, by their logic, to waging war, They will cite Romans 13:1-7, which seems to grant God given authority to those with political authority.

The second item on the checklist is that 'those who are to be attacked shall deserve to be attacked because of some fault'. These days the reason for war seems to be largely self-defence, or the defence of another state, perceived to be unable to defend itself, and this is especially likely when that state has something that needs to be protected by the intervening state, such as the western allies and Kuwaiti Oil.

The third item on the Just war checklist is when? And then goes on to say 'when every other avenue has been pursued.' Every other avenue can now mean almost anything, and will be interpreted in many ways by whichever protagonist is involved, it is almost meaningless.

Next comes how - just how much force should be used? Should we put in a United Nations peacekeeping force, or go in guns blazing? Sadly the latter seems to happen first, then the former second, which is the wrong way round.

We should now add another to the list, which was not really thought about in Aquinas' day, and that is who? Since more civilians are killed than those in the armed forces nowadays, should not that be the first consideration - how many innocents will we have to kill?

We can draw an analogy from the health service. We would not dream of invading a person's body unless surgery was the only recourse (cosmetic surgery excepted of course, but that's another sermon). This does not mean, however that we should not take every opportunity to practice health care to try and prevent the need for the operation. Pacifists would say that efficient health care is the only way, Just war enthusiasts would say - if you can't cure it, cut it out!

Those who stand on the front line in Basra, Baghdad and Kabul at this very moment, and the relatives who have died in those places, and on the Somme, in the air, on the high seas, in France, in Germany, in Russia, in Africa have a right to know why their particular conflict really began, who precipitated it, and if it did, or is doing, any real good, not just what is was meant, politically and economically, to do.

We honour those who have died in the many conflicts over the years, and it is right that we do so. When all wars have ceased then perhaps we may be able to look at things differently but, until then, and I wouldn't hold my breath if I were you, we will continue to honour them. Let us not suppose, however, that there was real purpose in all of their deaths, that many of them could not have been avoided with better diplomacy. Let us also remember the cold and bloody corpse of an Iraqi child in a ditch, and the blasted and bloody remains of what used to be the human body of a car bomb victim in Kabul.

You have the right to ask me if I am a pacifist, and my answer is yes, and a principled one at that. For me, it is not just that there might be a better way, it is that I cannot see how a Christian, if they claim the right to call themselves that, and bearing in mind everything that Jesus stands for, could commit violence on another person. It's as simple as that.

But then you have the right to ask another question. You know how close I am to my mum. Your question should be this 'if someone attacked her in front of me, would I defend her with force if it came to it?'

The answer is yes, of course, but that only shows how difficult ethical issues are, how many grey areas there are, how weak we all are as human beings, how little we trust in God.

Honour the war dead today, it is what we should do, but also pray that it stops now so that we do not have to continue to read out lists of names of those we will see no longer. Pray that the Democrats in America manage to pull out of Iraq sooner rather than later and that, if they do, we will have to follow. Pray that all conflicts around the world will cease, and that opponents will jaw jaw for hours on end rather than war war.


Ron Upton
 November 12th 2006

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