Sunday 12th November 2006
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint

I wonder how many of you saw television pictures of the queues in Japan awaiting the midnight launch of Play Station Three. At one time only Jesus, at His Nativity and Resurrection, got a midnight launch but now it's everything from new Harry Potter books to games consoles.

Well, I have bad news for all children; but good news for parents. The launch of Sony's Play Station Three in the UK has been postponed from next week to next Easter. This might also be good news for Microsoft X-box 360 and Nintendo Game Cube families who can delay their purchase of a new games console. In other words, there will be a short truce in the arms race.

This only underlines our ingrained tendency to compete and that competition isn't ideological: this year the two would-be entrants to the nuclear arms race are a demented and isolated North Korea and the quasi theocratic state of Iran. But these two crises have only been long drawn out background motifs in a cacophony of violence from Sudan to Afghanistan. Nobody here needs to be reminded of the role our forces are playing, under the auspices of the United Nations, in Iraq and Afghanistan but I think it is important to bear two points in mind: the first is that, whatever we think of these military interventions, the troops are only loyally carrying out the wishes of politicians; and, secondly, we should be careful when we call for intervention and when we call for withdrawal that what we want is not the result of hysteria or vicarious gratification.

Faced with the awesome responsibility of working out what is for the best, politicians often make horrible mistakes but in democracies like ours they rarely make them in isolation. They are usually aware of the emotional ecology which sometimes mounts to hysteria. I wonder how many people who advocated the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, stirred by the assault on the Twin Towers, are now calling for withdrawal; and I wonder to what extent that call results from a kind of weariness with the enterprise, as if it was supposed to be easy to pacify the Taliban.

Such questions naturally lead, as they should, to controversy but my purpose here today is not to go into the various controversies but simply to warn of the dangers when we do. I have almost lost count of the number of bar stool generals with their muddled ethics and even more muddled ideas of strategy and geopolitics. I have almost lost count of the number of people who call for intervention here or there on the basis of some blinkered ideology. Worst of all, most people who discuss war and peace do so with nothing but the partial knowledge of the media to go on. Time and time again history has shown that contemporary views of strategy lacked basic information which was withheld for security reasons. And even after the release of papers we may be no wiser. The causes of the First World War are still a matter of extreme controversy.

It seems to me that what we are most lacking is humility. We are all too busy expressing ourselves without asking ourselves what we really know and what a small fraction our knowledge may be of the whole, complex picture which confronts politicians and generals as they struggle on our behalf to make sense of a frighteningly difficult world.

On such days as today one can only hope that the silence we have observed at the War Memorial will extend a little into our public life; that we try to live lives of Christian humility. By this I do not mean that we should never say anything or that what we say should be cautious and anodyne. Jesus, the model for our Christian humility was anything but cautious; but what he said was grounded, the literal meaning of the word humility, in an understanding of our relationship with our God in heaven and was grounded in a profound understanding of human nature. Without self understanding we cannot hope to orient ourselves properly in the public sphere.

In our age of global media we are apt to suffer from emotional inflation: everybody seems to be angry at the very least and usually incandescent; every disagreement is at least a split and more often a crisis; in our febrile effort to make sense of changing events there are, by turns, calls for drastic intervention and precipitate withdrawal. Christian humility requires that we distance ourselves from this maelstrom of emotional grotesquery and contemplate our world in a calmer and more sensitive frame of mind.

I want to suggest that there are three things it would be good for us to think about on this day and as we come to the close of a sombre year: first, it is vitally important for sanity in public life that we understand the difference between infallibility and integrity, that it is quite different to say that somebody made a mistake and to say they behaved dishonestly. Our accusations of dishonesty usually reflect our prejudice and not our considered, proportionate view. Secondly, to determine that we must use force in any circumstance should not stop us loving those against whom we decide we must take action. War should be a corrective action of last resort undertaken, dare I say it, in a spirit of love. It should not be vindictive and should certainly not be for the convenience of the warrior or the politician. Discipline of any sort should always be imposed in extreme sorrow as a mark of our individual and collective failure. Thirdly, we should, consequently, not adopt a superior moral tone. We all know how easy it is for the self proclaimed morally superior to be caught out, to be shown to be as flawed as those we presume to correct.

On all these three points, interestingly, I have always found our military leaders to be much more sober than civilian warriors. Those in the armed forces know how close they always are to disaster, either the disaster of being defeated or the disaster of inflicting gratuitous cruelty. In a world where personalities are far more prominent than issues, it is so easy to demonise and so difficult to think.

But to demonise the enemy and adopt a position of moral superiority is to run a terrible risk summed up by George Orwell in one of the most frightening passages of 20th Century literature. In Animal Farm the animals revolted against the wicked Farmer Jones and, over time, the pigs gained control of the farm and all the other animals and, at the very end, it was impossible to tell the difference between the reviled Jones and the politburo of pigs. In seeing Jones off we always need to be on our guard. Christian humility will help us to avoid joining the pigs.