War and the Christian
Luke 17, 11-19, Matthew 5
 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

 

I was going to stand up here this morning and preach on the appointed gospel for today, which is Luke's recounting of the ungrateful lepers, but I am not now going to preach on that. The reason for that is that we went to war last Sunday and that made me think quite a lot over this last week. It started thinking about my relationship with God in the context of that war and that led me to seek guidance from scripture as to how to reconcile in my own mind the overriding message of love that I hold to be central to my belief with the actions of war.

 

How can we as Christians love our neighbour, regardless of who they are and what they have done to us and, at the same time drop bombs on them? How can anyone who is a Christian and who accepts God's great commandment then take up arms against his fellow man? Are our baser instincts of revenge for the evils of September 11th overriding our ability to love? How can Tony Blair and George Bush, both avowed Christians, give the orders that they know will lead to death and destruction?

 

Now don't get me wrong. I am not an avowed pacifist looking to justify my position through my faith. I am firmly committed to the need to fight global terrorism, I'm just struggling to reconcile those beliefs with my religious beliefs and I suspect I am not alone. I suspect that there are many people who would like to find some answers to those questions that I posed earlier and that was what led me to abandon this week's lectionary in exchange for a search for those answers.

 

If that were not enough to cause me to change direction on my preaching, I then opened the Daily Telegraph on Friday and there was a picture of our very own bishop, Peter Forster expressing serious concerns over the morality of our actions in Afghanistan. For those of you who missed this, Bishop Peter has actually been at a Vatican Synod this week as a representative of the Church of England and was invited by the pope to speak on the subject. His observations were as follows:-

 

The Bishop of Chester upstaged a Vatican synod at which he was an observer yesterday by questioning the wisdom of bombing Afghanistan in response to the attacks on America while saying the West had "lost touch with reality".

 

The Rt Rev Peter Forster told the 10th Ordinary General Synod of Catholic Bishops that God was not only in the West but was also, "somehow present to the terrorists" who carried out the attacks.

 

"We now witness the most powerful nations on earth drop very sophisticated bombs on just about the least sophisticated nation on earth" he told some 250 bishops from around the world.

 

So, not only was my own mind in some turmoil about the rights and wrongs of our current position but my own bishop stirred the brew of confusion for me. Hence my need to turn to scripture for help. Interestingly, the article just beneath the one on Peter Forster was about the fact that churches have seen a massive growth in attendance since September 11th so obviously many people are seeking answers.

 

My search, led me to someone else's sermon and it spoke to me so strongly that I wanted to share it with you in the hope that it may help you as it helped me. The someone else in question was Dr Martin Luther King. The sermon was one that he preached in Montgomery Alabama on the 17th November 1957 and his theme was Loving Your Enemies. He took as his scriptural base, Matthew 5 - the Sermon on the mount. Oddly enough, the same text that Peter Forster took, so we should start with that.

 

Matthew 5:43

You have heard that it was said "Love your neighbour and hate your enemies", but I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.

 

Let's start with the command itself to love our enemies. It seems almost idealistic in its simplicity and it seems almost impossible to deliver. But deliver it we must - Jesus makes that clear. It is our Christian duty to love our enemies and that means it is our Christian duty to analyse how we should do that - how we should overcome the difficulties and achieve the apparently impossible.

 

So what's the first step. Well, the first thing we have to do is not look at our enemy but look at ourself and ask ourselves - why is this man my enemy. What is it in me that gives him cause to hate. Is it something I've done or something I've said? Maybe it isn't that logical. Maybe they don't like the way you talk or the way you walk. Maybe they don't like the colour of your eyes or your hair. Maybe they don't like you because you're popular and they're not or because you can laugh at yourself and they can't. Whatever the cause, it is worth starting by analysing why your enemy might hate you.

 

It could be you can do something about it or it could be that you can't - either way, you are better knowing what it is within you that triggers the hatred of someone else. Now this is just as true at international level as it is at a personal level. Turning to our current conflict, do we understand what it is about our Western way of life that can engender such hatred in parts of the Muslim world?

 

We look at the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and we see the terrible oppression of women, the disorganisation that leads to ruined cities and a starving population, the fanatical beliefs that ban music for fear that it might make the people too light headed. We see all that and we hate it. Yes we hate it. Our hate for these injustices masks God's great commandment to love all our neighbours. And what do they see when they look at us?

 

Do they see the best of our schools and hospitals, the fairness of our judicial system, the food in our supermarkets or do they see the beggars on our streets living cheek by jowl with millionaires or Bill Gates's vast fortune, bigger than that of many countries. Do they see our enterprise culture that gives opportunity to all or do they see the race riots on our streets and religious bigotry against 5 year old children in Belfast. They, like us, see what they want to see. They see all that is wrong with our society and nothing that is right and that allows them to hate us with impunity.

 

So we need to start by understanding that our enemies hatred of us may have cause, whether we are a person or a state. This is what Jesus meant when he asked, "How is that you can see the splinter in your brother's eye but cannot see the plank in your own". So the first thing that we need to do if we are to truly love our enemies is to look at ourselves.

 

The next thing that we need to do is to look for the good in our enemy. Now this is a really tough one. Let's take Osamu bin Laden and see just how tough it is. How can we find the good in someone who has dedicated his life to terrorism and has brought pain and misery to so many people. Surely he, like Hitler or Stalin, is just bad - end of story. If he was responsible for the September 11th bombing - and their seems little cause to assume his innocence then he has committed the most atrocious of crimes. Worse still, he has no remorse for the crime but relishes the destruction and grief that it caused. But he, like us, is made in the image of God.

 

Can we bring ourselves to find the image of God in Osamu bin Laden? Can we find something in there that is worthy of our love rather than our hate? Is it worth the effort? I mean, why should we work that hard to love someone? Why create all that internal conflict and difficulty when it is easier to take what we see and hate the man? This takes us back to the fundamental of Jesus' command to love our enemies. If we fail in the task then what we are left with is hate. This is why it is so important that we seek to follow God's command and love our enemy.

 

Hate for hate only serves to intensify hate and evil throughout the world. No good can ever come of it. It is a vicious downward spiral that leads us inexorably to hell. As Martin Luther King put it, if I hit you and you hit me back and I hit you back and you hit me back, it never ends. Somewhere, somebody needs to have some sense and that's the strong person. The strong person who can break the chain of hate and the chain of evil. And that's the tragedy of hate - that it doesn't cut off. Instead it intensifies and grows and gets stronger.

 

Someone needs to have religion enough and morality enough to cut it off and replace it with that strong and powerful element of love.

 

If you've been reading or watching the news in the last few days, you may have been struck by photographs of Osamu bin Laden as a shy and slightly awkward 14 year old boy. If you look at his face, you don't see the eyes of a mass murderer or a maniacal killer. You see into the eyes of a shy, awkward, mixed up 14 year old boy. What is it that transformed this boy into the world's most wanted man? He was brought up in a large and very wealthy Saudi family. His father had many wives and so his siblings (al 52 of them) were all half brothers and sisters to him and, from what we read, he had difficulty with this. He lacked some of those fundamentals of family life that lead to the creation of a stable and well adjusted adult.

 

But so do millions of others and they don't turn to violence and terror. They become frustrated teachers or dissatisfied accountants. So what made the difference here. It would appear that the difference was love and hate. Here was a young man who was not loved as he should have been and found an outlet for his hate. He had been brought up as a wealthy teenager and exposed to a Western lifestyle. Perhaps his father made up for lack of real love with material love. Whatever the cause, bin Laden focussed on Western society and the US in particular as the outlet for his hate.

 

Having selected his focus, his hatred was fuelled by his refusal to see the good and to look only at the bad and, as he became known in the West, it was further fuelled by our hatred for him - the vicious cycle of hate that Jesus preaches against.

 

Hate distorts the personality of the hater. We usually think of the effect of hate on the hated but it is much worse for the hater. It creates irrationality. You can't see things for what they are but only for what you believe them to be. For the person consumed by hate, the good becomes evil and the beautiful becomes ugly. Bin Laden is just such a person. Hate destroys the individual and that is why Jesus warns us against this vicious cycle.

 

There is one last reason expounded by Dr King as to why Jesus' doctrine of love for our enemies is so powerful and that is because love is a redemptive power. If you hate your enemies then you have no way to redeem and transform them from their evil ways. If you love your enemies then you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption and Martin Luther King gives us a very powerful example of this in the life of Abraham Lincoln.

 

Lincoln was running for President and there was a particular politician by the name of Stanton who made it his duty to whip up hatred against Lincoln. He went around the country criticising everything that Lincoln did or said, even to the extent of criticising how he looked. Well, of course Lincoln was elected and came to choose his cabinet and to the horror of his advisers, when he came to the post of Secretary of War, he chose Stanton. His advisors were apoplectic and reminded Lincoln of the things that Stanton had said and written about him in the campaign but Lincoln was adamant that he was the best man for the job and Stanton, to his amazement was appointed to this high office.

 

Some time later, Lincoln was assassinated and the warmest and most moving eulogy to this great man was made by none other than Stanton. If Lincoln had reacted to Stanton's hatred then the two men would have gone to their graves hating each other. Lincoln's love, meant that Stanton was redeemed. There is a power in love that the world seems to rarely see.

 

So how does all of this help us in our dilemma? How does it help us to respond to Bishop Peter's words? How should we react to the tragedy of September 11th and what should be our attitude to our current war in Afghanistan. Is there a doctrine of war within Christian theology - well there are some that would claim such a doctrine and it would go something like this. You might like to test how you see our current involvement in Afghanistan fitting against this.

 

• War should be a last resort. We should have exhausted all other possibilities for peace before we resort to violence.
• We should have just cause for war. Aggression is condemned, defence is justified.
• We should have just intentions and the only legitimate intention is that we should secure peace.
• We should have limited objectives - do only enough to secure the peace and do not go any further.
• We should use proportionate means - the necessary force and no more.
• We should ensure the immunity of civilians.

 

Against that checklist, we can test whether what we are doing today is justified to us as Christians. The problem is that I guarantee that if I got everyone here to analyse our current actions against that checklist I would have many different answers. Turning finally for more help to another preacher better than I, I found some words from a sermon by Dietrich Bonhoeffor that may help. Let me read you a few extracts.

 

Repay no-one evil for evil. When evil befalls you it is not you who are in danger but the other who does you evil; and if you don't help him he will perish in it.

 

Giving up our desire to take revenge is a hard sacrifice, perhaps the hardest which Christ requires of us. For our whole human nature cries out for vengeance against our enemies. The desire for revenge is stronger in our human blood than any other desire. But - and we know it - we can no longer take revenge.

 

How do we overcome evil? By forgiving it without end. How is that done? By seeing our enemy as he really is, as the one for whom Christ died, whom Christ loves. How will we gain victory over our enemies? By letting Christ's love be victorious over them.

 

Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord. It is God who will punish the evil doers and it is God who will recognise their repentance and forgive them their sins no matter how terrible. Our task is simple. It is our task to love.

 

Let us pray.

 

Lord give us the strength to love our enemies. We pray for all those that have suffered at the hands of terrorists - most especially for the thousands who lost their lives on September 11th. We pray for our military engaged in conflict in Afghanistan and, hardest of all Lord, we pray for those terrorists and their leaders. May your Spirit come to them, may they fall before you in repentance and may they know the wonder of your forgiving love. We ask this in Jesus name. Amen

 

Tom Crotty