For many months, and especially in the last few weeks, we have been seeing the war in the Middle East and its horrible effects being reported almost daily on our TV screens and in our newspapers. I can barely watch the news now. I feel helpless, angry and even guilty at times, since those images of acute suffering are followed so often and so easily by twenty minutes of politics and sport. And even as I write this piece in mid December, the Ministry of Defence is saying that ‘RAF jet pilots are the busiest they have been for 25 years, dropping 11 times more bombs than at the height of the Afghanistan conflict’.
It was therefore a huge privilege to be able to be offer a structured response to the evening lecture (sponsored by Contemporary Christianity) on the futility of war which was given by Alan and Elaine Storkey in memory of Sir Fred Catherwood towards the end of November. Their address is available on the Contemporary Christianity’s website, and may I encourage you to listen and reflect carefully on their passionate plea for Christian people to be much more pacifist in our thinking and much more active in seeking to bring an end to war. They argued eloquently that Christ deconstructs the fear of those who can kill the body, which is the ultimate threat of the militarists, and on the cross faces that threat in reality. The Apostle Paul replaces the Roman armour, the military kit, with the Christian armour of spiritual attitudes and with our feet shod with the Gospel of Peace.
It is striking, and deeply disturbing, that our daily diet of the horrors of war on the news has not energised any substantial discussion amongst Christian people in the UK (or indeed the Western world) about war – even though huge attention has been given this year to remembering World War 1 and the Battle of the Somme. Is that because war is not quite yet on our doorstep, even thought its tentacles have brought death and fear to Nice, Rouen and Brussels this year, after the outrage in Paris in 2015? Is it because we know that jobs and economic prosperity come to us from the making of war and armaments, and that we don’t want unemployment to rise? Is it because we really do believe that a ‘war on terrorism’ war is necessary and justified to try to rid our world of such evil? Is it because we believe that national defence matters a great deal, and so we must encourage our government to take whatever steps are needed to protect us? Is it because we have committed so few of our armed forces to that conflict (unlike our role in Afghanistan)? Or is it because we haven’t thought much about it as Christian people, and find it all too easy to keep it that way.
Even though I find the arguments put forward by Alan and Elaine highly thought provoking, I still struggle with the question of evil when it appears on the world stage on a grand scale. It is no ‘accident’ that murder is the first evil recounted in Scripture after Adam and Eve were ejected from the Garden of Eden. Killing is deeply embedded in the DNA of our fallen human race, and needs to be controlled as far as that is possible – even though the remit to do that is given to governments who so often care so little about the sovereignty of God in the affairs of the nations, or the gift of the peace child at Christmas.
Yet I remain deeply uneasy about the apparent ease with which we find ourselves involved in war, and even more disquieted at the almost total absence of any call from the Christian community to re-examine both our rationale for war in the modern era, and the means by which we engage in it. And that lack of discussion also makes me feel helpless, angry and even guilty at times.
Alan and Elaine Storkey did us a great service in and by their lecture. So, where do we go from here?
Rev Norman Hamilton OBE is a retired Presbyterian minister and is currently chair of the Public Affairs Council of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland
Sincere congratulations to the Centre for hosting this event and addressing this huge (and neglected) ethical issue. Like you Norman I watch the news from Syria in helplessness and grief – and it could be South Sudan, Yemen, Iraq …
Bob Dylan, many decades ago, sang scathingly of the ‘Masters of War’. I doubt he could have imagined the exponential growth of those dealers in death since he penned his lyrics. It is via the overwhelming ‘success’ of the arms industry that war is normalised and arms production is now ‘too big to fail’ in many Western economies.
Can I suggest a couple of supplements to your suggestions as to why we fail to talk about war?
Do we as Christians assume too easily that we are members of the ‘good’, democratic, liberal and free West that is for global peace and tolerance? I am very grateful to live in the West, yet it is also Western governments which make billions out of selling sophisticated weaponry globally. The top 100 companies worldwide sold $400 billion worth of arms in 2013. Two-thirds of those companies are in the USA or Europe. The USA makes over half of global arms sales, followed by the UK and France and even peace-loving Germany not far behind. As Boris Johnston got into trouble for even mentioning, the Saudi’s are deeply involved in proxy wars in the Middle East – yet who arms the Saudis? The UK. As Christians have we largely failed to have a prophetic critical distance from our national myths around war and violence and how our nations make war possible globally? Why are we not talking about and working towards doing everything to avoid the futility and senselessness of war – and narrating events like the Somme as utter disasters rather than some sort of glorious memory?
Second, is it also how we read the Bible? As evangelicals we are rightly keen to interpret God’s word faithfully and to obey it. We can get pretty obsessed on issues that are highly debateable and not centrally important. But when it comes to Jesus’ clear teaching on violence all sorts of hermeneutical gymnastics are created to avoid the import of his words – that the followers of a crucified Messiah are to be men and women of peace, reconciliation and non-violence. Paul is just such a man – worth reading Jeremy Gabrielson’s book Paul’s Non-Violent Gospel: the theological politics of peace in Paul’s life and letters. The pre-conversion violent Paul ‘died’ when Christ revealed himself to Paul. And this conversion is paradigmatic for all followers of Jesus. A life of love, peace and non-violence is intrinsic to belonging to Christ in the new age of the Spirit.
I do not wish to denigrate the courage and great cost borne by those who have participated in war. That’s not my point. Such people need and deserve all the support we can give. My point is that we are not going to talk seriously about the arms industry and war unless we take our Lord’s teaching about violence seriously.
Could I feed in a reply to Norman’s main qualifying point about the human propensity for evil and killing. It is met directly by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount where he focusses on the processes of sin and evil. So in relation to murder, anger is to be nipped in the bud and disputes are to be addressed immediately, and offence is to be seen by the offender before it can produce its bitter fruit. The eye is to be taken out and especially, “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away” This that is what we should do with our hand, how much more should it be done with the weapons in the hand or the armoury. In other words the Christian doctrine of the prevention of evil is strong to address the struggle Norman and all of us have with evil on a large scale. Weapons channel sin into evil and motivate to sin, therefore they should be opposed in the name of the Sermon on the Mount.
A Response to “Peace on Earth?
Paul exhorts us in Romans 12:1-2: Therefore, I urge you brethern, in view of God’s mercy to offer you bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve whatGod’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
The reasons why most Christians have not concerned themselves about the issue of war and peace in the light of the teaching of their faith are many. One is, as Paul points out, they have not learnt how to live in the world without “conforming” to its patterns. Let us be honest and admit that it is very difficult to do so. It is much easier to subcribe to the prevailing politicaql and social trends rather than engage in the hard work of formulating a distinctively Christian perspective.
Alan ansd Elaine Storkey make a very convincing case for “pacimism”. But let us not forget that there is a very respectable “just war” Christain tradition. Can evil in the world be countered entirely with non-violence, notwithstanding examples of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela? On a personal level, if I see some old lady being beaten to death by some known criminal, and if I could only save her life by the use of force at my disposal, what am I to do? A similar reasoning was used to justify the Second World War in general and many particular acts of aggression (e. g., carpet boming of Dresden and dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki).
This, however, does not nullify the case Alan and Elaine make for anti-war stance, especially in the light of current examples they cite. America and many Western powers like Britain and France supportrd Sadam Hussain, Gadhafi and even Taliban by military and financial help for a long time before they decided to confront them by overwhelming force. And their support for Saudi Arabia, despite the overwhelming evidence of her support for the ISIL in Iraq and Syria is beyond any reasonable understanding, especially in the light of their “hypocritical” claim that all they are doing is to remove evil dictatorships and to promote freedom and democracy. If the current state of Afganisthan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria are the prime examples of their efforts, then no wonder a vast majority of the people in the non-Western countries are cynical about their claims. After 9/111, many thoughtful Americans rightly asked the question: why so many people in the world hate Americans? It seems the American establishment has still not found the answer (so obviouis to so many others) to that question.
That America’s main aim in invading Iraq was oil supplies and startegic domination of the Middle East is now, given a plethora evidence which has come to light over the years, beyond dispute. One simple fact should dispel any lingering doubt: the US military bothered to safeguard only two places: the oil ministry and oil fields after the invasion. All places like museams and architectural heritage sites were allowed to be looted in front of the watching US military.
Alan and Elaine are right in pointing out (and this I can support by my own experience with fellow-Christians) that most Christians are “lazy” as far as understanding the issues of war and peace are concerned: “war is war, nothing can be done”, war is needed to defeat evil”, “war is lesser of two evils”, “On this I haave to leave the decision to those who have the right knowledge, understanding, and information” (i. e, political and military leaders,) are very common responses. All we as Christians can do is to pray that God will gude them and help them!
I agree with Patrick Michael that one of the reasons why many Christians do not want to talk about war is due to their selective reading of the Bible. The passaes such as “if your right hand causes you sin…..”, and “ ..Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me, up to seven times?”….….”…not seven times, but seventy-seven times”, “…turn the other cheek…”, passages which exhort Christians not only to eschew violence but also to show unlimited forgiveness, are occasionally read but their message is not internalized. Instead most of the Sermon on the Mount is spiritualized and privatised and passages like “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God’s what is God”, is interpreted to absolve one’s responsibility for behaving thinkingly and morally in this fallen world.
It should come as no surprise then that Alan’s proposals re (i) cut in military spending by 10% every year, (ii) stop arms production,(iii) stop subsidies to arms companies are unlikely to gain support of a vast majority of Christians in US, Britain, France, and many other Western countries As for supposrt for UNs role in conflict, many Christians would subscribe to it but only if that role is in support for “our” side!. Yet despite such pessimism, I am grateful for Alan and Elaine Sorkey’s and Rev Hamilton’s contribution on this very important issue of war and peace. If nothing else, they are acting like the prophets of the OT who tireslessly warned Israelites of the consequences of their ungoldly behaviour and of the impending doom, knowing full well that God’s judgment will fall sooner or later.
While it is right to focus on the pernicious effect of the arms industry and our complicity in arming some of the most barbaric regimes on the planet, the sad truth is that the vast majority of conflicts are fought with and the vast majority of victims are killed with the simplest of weapons. Here in the Philippines, the best guess is that the long running Moro insurgency has killed 100,000 people, while the Communist insurgency has claimed another 40,000. We also know that the many of those who died in the Rwandan genocide were killed with machetes and other bladed weapons. No high tech weapons from the world’s weapons builders have been required. Ultimately, the arms industry is a symptom of the underlying problems. Yes, we should do all we can to mitigate the symptoms, but still, the world will not be at peace.