3rd August 2014

“An end to war?” (Isaiah 2:1-4).

On 10th February 1906 the world’s media gathered in Portsmouth to watch King Edward VII launch the Royal Navy’s newest warship – H.M.S. ‘Dreadnought’. She was truly revolutionary: the first modern battleship, fitted with huge guns that could fire half-ton shells over a distance of 10 miles. A commentator at the time described her as “'the most deadly fighting machine ever launched in the history of the world”. Most people in Britain, a country obsessed with its Navy, were delighted with ‘Dreadnought’ for, at a stroke, she had rendered all other warships obsolete. But her launch triggered an arms race with Germany which was one of the chief causes of the First World War.

Well, they didn’t have battleships eight centuries before Christ and we might not have thought that they had arms races either! But that may well have been precisely the problem that existed when Isaiah wrote the prophecy we heard earlier. For this was the middle of the Iron Age. The Hebrew people were enjoying the benefits that iron ploughs had brought to farming.  They had plenty of food, Jerusalem was prosperous and they had built a great Temple.  But iron was, quite literally, a double-edged sword because it had made warfare more destructive and costly.  Once the Iron Age came, you could no longer send out an army of farmers with homemade weapons, you needed a serious industrial production of weapons. This meant having mines, smelters and forges, together with the taxes to pay for them.

At that time Judah was not a great Middle Eastern power like Assyria or Egypt. But it had cornered a nice piece of the arms trade, selling chariots and horses to all sides – the profits had helped to finance Solomon’s temple.  All this means Isaiah’s prophecies are not just poetic language hoping for peace in the face of threats from Israel’s neighbours, nor are they simply vague hopes of future eternal harmony (although they are both of those things). Within their words there is an urgent subtext: let’s turn the clock back and get out of this idiotic rat-race before it’s too late, it can only lead to disaster. Presumably Judah’s military leaders, responsible for defending the country, read what Isaiah wrote; I wonder what they thought of it?

Today we are looking back on the century since the start of the First World War. And, as I said at the start of our service, this cannot in any way be an occasion for jubilation. For, although Britain, France, Germany and Belgium are now happy trade partners within the European Union, we are all too painfully aware of the conflicts that are raging in Palestine, the Ukraine, Syria and other places. Yes, we may have peace in Britain, but this is not a time to rest contentedly on our laurels. Instead, it is a day to ask why supposedly civilised human beings not only still believe that killing each other and destroying their nations is a sensible way of resolving their differences, but also to question why we seem to spend so much time and effort devising ever-better ways of doing these terrible things. As Christians who have sung today about crowning Jesus as the King of Peace, we can only wonder why these dreadful notions were not eradicated from our thinking decades, or even centuries, ago.

It strikes me that the whole issue of warfare is a complicated one because Christian leaders have so often used religion to defend or even advocate it. This was certainly true in 1914. Listen to what Arthur Winnington-Ingram, the Anglican bishop of London, said to British soldiers in September of that year: “This is a Holy War. We are on the side of Christianity against anti-Christ. We are on the side of the New Testament which respects the weak, and honours treaties, and dies for its friends, and looks upon war as a regrettable necessity.… It is a Holy War, and to fight in a Holy war is an honour.… Already I have seen a light in men’s eyes which I have never seen before”. Don’t those words horrify you and make you think of a Muslim extremist declaring jihad? Yet they were spoken by the fourth most senior Bishop of our national Church.

The Nonconformists were perhaps less extreme. But the leading Baptist John Clifford, renowned (and often reviled) for his pacifist views, nevertheless declared that the War was just because Germany had “deliberately and of express purpose ... broken into Belgium, flung to the winds as veriest chaff her solemn treaty obligation, flouted public law, and trampled underfoot with ineffable scorn the rights of small nations”. Indeed, although the Baptist Union Council approved a lengthy Manifesto affirming that Baptists stood for peace “where the sacred rights and liberties of men are not imperilled”, it also declared, “We believe the call of God has come to Britain to spare neither blood nor treasure in the struggle to shatter a great anti-Christian attempt to destroy the fabric of Christian civilisation”. The leading Congregationalist Minister Alfred Garvie took a similar view, as did many others including at least one Roman Catholic Bishop.

Not everyone agreed. J.H. Rushbrooke, the Minister of Hampstead Garden Suburb Free Church in London, was a German scholar with many friends in that country. He wrote of the deep shock he felt upon the outbreak of war, shock which caused his own faith to “almost reel”. He had believed that “the Christian faith was strong enough to overcome the suspicions and jealousies that make for war” but now realised that his hope had been doomed to failure. Equally the great American Methodist and YMCA leader John Mott, the driving force behind the great Edinburgh Missionary Conference of four years earlier which became the root of today’s World Council of Churches, spoke of the start of war as a “terrible blow” to all that he had been working for. He wrote letters of solidarity to Christian leaders all over Europe, and made it clear that apportioning responsibility for the war to any one nation was futile. You will probably not be surprised to learn that Mott would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946!

Of course we have to set all those comments within the wider relationship between religion and war. And that has never been simple. I guess that most of us find it very difficult to read stories such as the occupation of the Promised Land and the extermination of its inhabitants under Joshua’s leadership. For they don’t just tell us that God instructed the Israelites to commit genocide, but we hear their echoes resonating around Israel and Gaza today. We are also, of course, all aware of the religious reasons given for the butchery being carried out by fanatical Muslim forces such as Boko Haram, the Taliban or Isis, reasons we utterly deplore. And Christians cannot evade censure; the Crusades are a permanent and bloody stain on the Church’s history. There are some people who say that religion is the cause of all war; I cannot subscribe to that view and, in fact, I think that religion has a noble tradition in bringing warring factions together for reconciliation. But it is obvious that it has been used, far too often, as the justification for barbaric and aggressive acts.

But what about acts of self-defence? I think you’ll agree that this is a more difficult issue. We need to remember that most of the Christian leaders who supported Britain’s entry into the Great War believed that we were coming to the aid of a small nation – Belgium – which had been violated by the much bigger bully-boys of Germany. We know now that their view had been conditioned by years of one-sided political propaganda; we also know that the causes of the War were a complex and interconnecting set of factors which, once set in motion, seemed impossible to stop. It is never easy to debate the question of coming to defend an ally or, even more, to protect people against an evil and corrupt regime; as we all know, the United Nations agonised over whether it should get involved in Syria and found itself in an impossible dilemma. Armed intervention was likely to lead to terrible suffering and destruction; so was standing back and doing nothing.

Well, I can’t speak for the United Nations – whose exterior wall, by the way, is inscribed with Isaiah’s words and whose garden has a sculpture of a blacksmith literally beating a sword into a ploughshare. They have their Charter and protocols which govern their actions with regard to getting involved in the internal affairs of nations. What I would say is that the best-intentioned of military interventions has sometimes had the most horrendous consequences. And, much more important, I would also suggest that we humans may be far more obsessed with the idea of individual nations and races than God is. After all, the Bible story of Babel, the dividing of the human race into separate languages and tribes, is presented to us as a failure. God’s aim in creating the Church, the prototype of the new creation, is for it to be a community in which all such divisions should count for nothing. For Christ has demolished them, once and for all, and made us into a new, spiritual, nation; we worship him, not our country. As Isaiah foretold so long ago, “all nations” will flock as one to Zion’s hill.

So what can we do today? It would be naive of me to suggest any simple answers, especially when we realise that most nations that go to war are utterly convinced of the rightness of their cause, and that many wars are started by power-hungry tyrants who are in no way amenable to reason and discussion. But let me give you some ideas.

1. I would love to say, “Let’s just demilitarise unilaterally, disband our armed forces, scrap our tanks and warships”, but I realise that that isn’t practical or even sensible in today’s troubled world. However I do feel that Christians should be far more proactive in making a case for Britain getting out of the arms business, although I do recognise that such a view would not go down well on the Clyde or in Barrow-in-Furness, among other places where armaments are made. I have unexpected for that suggestion from the former American general (and later President), Dwight Eisenhower. He said back in 1953, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed ... The cost of one heavy bomber is a modern school in more than 30 cities, two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population, or two fine, fully equipped hospitals ... We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people”. Back in the days of perestroika we heard a lot about the benefits of the so-called “peace dividend”. Perhaps the churches should be shouting a lot louder for that idea to be revived.

2. I would also question the support that the churches can appear to give to both our nations and our armed forces. I don’t think that bishops bless tanks or bombers any more: I sincerely hope they don’t. But I do get worried about the way in which Church, State and the Military sometimes seem to get muddled up on national occasions; as you know, I think that can so easily happen on Remembrance Day, giving the impression that the churches endorse war when they ought to be challenging it. I believe very strongly that Christians ought to be saying, “We absolutely refuse to get dragged into all that stuff. Our primary allegiance is to Christ, whose kingdom spans every frontier. We stand against everything that brings about death and pain, for such things are not worthy of his name”. I know that such a view is not popular – and please believe, by the way, that I am no sense criticising military chaplains, who do amazing work in the most difficult of situations – but I do believe that Christians must stand against the status quo and say, “No, there is another way”. Isaiah fervently hoped that people would not even learn about war any more; is there anything we can do which will help to bring about that aim?

3. Third, I believe that the churches should be presenting a model of international peace and fraternity to the world – indeed that was the aim of Christian leaders I mentioned earlier, such as Rushbrooke and Mott. Now, I am no great fan of the World Council of Churches, but at least it exists and meets; however I am also saying that every local congregation should be a place where people from different backgrounds and races can mix harmoniously. And I must say that, although I know there are good reasons for their existence, I get a bit upset when I hear of African churches and Caribbean churches and Norwegian churches and – dare I say it? – even exclusively English churches here in Britain. International churches are the way ahead, even though they are difficult to hold together. For I can’t see us each having our own little national compartment in heaven; we’ll all have to rub along together then. So we might as well get into practice now!

4. And, finally, we can pray for Isaiah’s vision to come to pass, that vision which he elsewhere described as a “new heaven and a new earth” in which there will be no sound of weeping nor cry of distress, where no infant will die after a few days but everyone will live out their full lifespan, where no-one will ever be driven from the homes by an oppressor or have to bear children in times of calamity. I know that we have prayed for so long and with so few clear answers that we may feel it is no longer worth persevering. Yet there is nothing better we can do to keep hope alive. We simply must keep on crying out to God, in sheer desperation.

One more thing, and I will close. Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy, the army chaplain who became known as “Woodbine Willie”, saw more of the life in the trenches than most people. During the Great War he enthusiastically supported the British military cause, but afterwards he became an advocate of peace. I’d like to read one of his poems.

           

            Waste of Muscle, waste of Brain,
            Waste of Patience, waste of Pain,
            Waste of Manhood, waste of Health,
            Waste of Beauty, waste of Wealth,
            Waste of Blood, and waste of Tears,
            Waste of Youth’s most precious years,
            Waste of ways the Saints have trod,
            Waste of Glory, waste of God – 

            War!

Is that the vision of despair we will still be lamenting in another hundred years’ time? And isn’t Isaiah’s vision so very much better?