Open to Otherness

Sunday 11th November 2018
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Remembrance Day Early Eucharist

In this year's Reith Lectures on war, Professor Margaret Macmillan noted, without venturing any very definite explanation, that making war seems to be an integral aspect of human existence. More helpfully, Vera Brittain, in Testament of Youth wrote of the First World War: "The causes of war are always falsely represented; its honour is dishonest and its glory meretricious, but the challenge to spiritual endurance, the intense sharpening of all the senses, the vitalising consciousness of common peril for a common end, remain to allure those boys and girls who have just reached the age when love and friendship and adventure call more persistently than at any later time." With a judiciousness born of deep suffering, she was able to distinguish between the operation of the communal life force and the way it is mercilessly exploited and demeaned by the powerful.

Sir Robert Walpole, our first Prime Minister, wisely remarked, at the commencement of the War of Jenkins' Ear in 1739: "They are ringing their bells now, but they will be wringing their hands soon." If Things Can Only Get Better is a singularly stupid anthem for politicians, it is disastrous for warriors. Very rarely, as in the case of the war against Hitler, there really was no alternative except, of course, that there were some,  notably the eminent economist John Maynard Keynes, who said that the Peace of Versailles at the end of the First World War was so vengeful that it would lead to further German aggression.

But most wars are eminently avoidable and, in the case of the First World War, nobody on either side really knew what they were fighting for: the German high command had some notion about its domination of Europe; and the allied response was muddled, such that Europe fell into catastrophe almost by accident. Significantly, most of the belligerence was articulated on the home front; the soldiers on both sides rarely showed animosity towards their enemies and, although I was haughtily reprimanded for saying so on a previous Armistice Day, many soldiers, by unwritten pact, shot into the air instead of at each other when they could.

I say all this to begin with not because this is a history lesson but because no democratic Government in the modern era can fight a war for very long if the people are not, at the very least, complicit, no matter how skilful the propaganda. But the pity of the First World War was that even before there was organised propaganda, young women were giving their brothers and boyfriends white feathers to goad them into joining up, on the basis, implicit at least, that they had faith that the Government was doing the right thing; the presenting cause was "gallant Belgium" but the greater cause was British and Imperial honour. And so, we have come full circle to Vera Brittain's castigation of honour as dishonest and glory as meretricious, to which I would add the contemporary twist that those whom we send into war are disproportionately black and/or poor. And today, it is as if we know we are not quite comfortable with ourselves as the periods of commemorative silences grow longer and the praise of our troops becomes ever more lavish.

The ingrained problem for Christianity is that, being born out of a doctrine much more radical than that of the pacifist, namely, Jesus' doctrine of turning the other cheek, it developed a theory of "Just War" to accommodate the secular powers it came to depend upon for its growing authority and wealth, from the Byzantine/Roman Empire in the 4th Century to Latin American military dictators in the 20th. Just war is so ingrained that both sides in the First World War invoked the blessing of God on their militarism; they may not have known what they were fighting for but they knew that God was on their side.

We do not have the time to delve too deeply into the details of just war theory but I should say this: what was developed when battle was localised and hand-to-hand does not relate at all to the era of 'smart' weapons; Bishop George Bell's opposition to carpet bombing in the Second World War was prescient. Indeed, Bell raised the question, implicitly at least, of whether we could justify all-out war even though he, more than almost anyone else in the United Kingdom, knew what was going on in German Concentration Camps.

At the very least, as we remember - the word "celebrate" is surely not apposite - the day, one hundred years ago, when the guns fell silent, we should ask ourselves, as a defence against future contingencies, whether there are any circumstances which justify the waging of war. For a start, none of the wars fought by United Kingdom troops in my lifetime have been in defence of The Realm. Some have, ostensibly, been for good causes, such as the saving from slaughter of defenceless people in Sierra Leone, Iraq, Kuwait and Bosnia but the frequency of such episodes argues against the notion that war is a last resort; we have had too many wars of late to make that idea stand up.

Almost every week during the Prayers of the Faithful we pray for peace and for peacemakers and every time the Government threatens war, we divide pro and anti as if the judgment we are making is primarily pragmatic in terms not of whether we will win but in terms of how effective winning will be for the cause we espouse. But as Christians we are called upon to view war through the lens of the teaching of Jesus. There is no greater case for applying the maxim: "What would Jesus do?" We know. We know because the man who was free from all sin submitted himself to be slaughtered by religio-political tyrants when he could have called forth his own Legions. We know because he told us that he died for our peace.

And I would only add one more very difficult and disturbing thought: we are used to the idea that love is active but perfect love is being vulnerable, leaving ourselves open to the other, no matter how hostile. That is what Jesus did. That, perhaps, is too much for us to bear but, at the very least, we should recognise a standard of perfection against which we make our judgments which should, at the very least, moderate our communal aggressive instinct.