The Revival of the Church Militant

Sunday 25th November 2012
Year B, The Last Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
John 18:33-37

In the age of global media we are rarely surprised: we watch seemingly endless programmes about the mating habits of obscure jungle species; we drop scientific references in our conversation to the 'Big Bang' or the human genome project; there is no food or foreign terrain that escapes us; and we even go to Wembley to watch American football and, who knows, before very long Americans may grasp the beautiful essence of cricket, a game that can last for five days without victory for either side.

We should not on this account think ourselves wiser than our ancestors who, at various times, thought that gods lived in volcanoes, that conception was a purely female phenomenon, that the planets revolved around the earth and that the highest form of sport was gladiatorial, but our ancestors had less to go on when it came to absorbing novelty. Not very much, after all, is totally new, and so we can draw on our massive information consumption to absorb new phenomena and objects; but imagine what it was like for a Roman soldier to see his first Hannibal elephant, for an Elizabethan to see his first black person, for an African jungle dweller to see his first gun, or for a scientist to look down the first microscope. We have lost our sense of wonder and, with our knowingness, we have also gained for ourselves a false sense of comprehension, of believing that we have control over our own, individual destinies.

Pontius Pilate had no such assurance: he might well have thought, like Thomas Hobbes, that life was nasty, brutish and short, full of unpleasant surprises and incalculable risks; here he was, facing Jesus and his great protégé had just been sacked by the Emperor so that his back was no longer covered; and there was this man in front of him being accused by the incomprehensible, impossibly fanatical Jews, of being some sort of king. Pilate knew what kings were and this man definitely wasn't one; but he also knew what trouble was and this man certainly could be trouble. But he really couldn't get to the bottom of it. Why?

The main reason why Pilate was out of his depth was that there was no room in Roman official policy or in its wildly, accommodating polytheistic civic religion for altruism, charity or humility. As I said, life was nasty, brutish and short, violence was endemic, food supplies precarious, alliances treacherous and the gods vengeful. Some of the phenomena we take for granted today - although we know that we individually and collectively fall short - are a sense of social decency, of charitable giving, of human rights, of rational assessment and scientific method, all social values which were unknown to Pilate because they were engendered by the Jesus revolution. This man, standing before Pilate, caused the only true revolution in Western civilisation and we are his heirs. We believe, unlike the Greeks or Romans before Jesus, that God is love, that our faith is a matter of loyalty, that we can aspire to the divine, that life has meaning beyond mere physical survival between birth and death. We are the people who, imperfectly admittedly, live by a code of solidarity, empathy, considerateness and even sacrifice and, believe it or not, the current militant atheists who attack us pay us the ultimate compliment of not being able to follow their own doctrine of individual will and choice to its logical conclusion because they know that would lead to disaster. We might be living in a post Christian age but our society cannot escape from the Christianity it claims to be post.

On this Feast of Christ the King, it is a good moment to ask ourselves how we stand with King Jesus. Are we the kind of soldier he would want? Or is that language out-dated? Does King Jesus want functionary technocrats who just keep things going and never rock the boat?

Well, we seem to have lost the idea of the "Church Militant", we have transferred our dislike of physical warfare into a dislike of any kind of militancy. I doubt that many of us in the Christian denominations would think of ourselves as "militant" but I fear we have confused being properly combative with being gratuitously aggressive. Dietrich Bonhoeffer not only stood up for Christian values against Hitler but also against a corrupt Lutheran church and, difficult though his decision was, he opted to support a plan to assassinate Hitler. Meanwhile, millions of run-of-the-mill Christians got sucked into the Nazi system, manning the gas chambers on week days and going to church on Sundays.

Nothing in our lives is as extreme as that, but let me list some of the events of our lifetime: the exposure of British soldiers to nuclear weapons testing bomb; the harbouring by Catholics and Protestants of Northern Ireland terrorists; the police cover up of Hillsborough; the BBC cover-up of Jimmy Saville; the Roman Catholic and Church of England cover ups of child abuse; pension mis-selling, payment protection insurance mis-selling, mortgage mis-selling, credit mis-selling and the apparent indifference or obliviousness of financial executives; the phone hacking cover up at the News of the World and elsewhere; the MP cover up of their manipulation of expenses; and goodness knows what Government cover-ups. The problem with all this is that we don't know what we don't know.

But it is people like us who were officers in the army when the nuclear bombs were tested; people like us who keep quiet children when we're too frightened to ask direct questions; people like us who work in financial services, the city and the media; people like us who don't want to lose our jobs and our reputations; people like us who want to be part of the crowd, who have been taught since nursery school that the penalty for 'snitching' is immediate and severe.

If we as Christians are supposed to have one characteristic which sets us apart from the atheists, from the Nazis and the Stalinists, from the collaborators and the quislings, it is our capacity, no matter how pallid, to imitate Christ. If we are not careful, we will be indistinguishable from those who turn a blind eye before they are steadily sucked into collaboration. If we do not revive the concept of the Church Militant we will become indistinguishable from our atheist critics.

So when we stand before the brutal Pilate, are we going to be taken in? Are we going to take the easy way out? And what stance will we finally adopt? Part of me wants to be comprehensible to Pilate. Part of me wants to be so incomprehensible and different that he does not recognise me any more than he recognised Jesus. But I don't know.

What about you?