a Sermon for Remembrance Day
St. Luke’s Anglican Church, Winnipeg. November 8, 2009
The Rev’d Canon Tony Harwood-Jones
Biblical texts underlying this sermon: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might…” 1 and, “In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith – being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” 2
War – the use of maximum deadly force between large groups of people.
War is never good – it is terrifying and it leaves huge permanent scars.
Individual acts of bravery and self-sacrifice during a war can be good – extremely good – but war itself is not good. It is evil.
That is why very few countries or individuals ever start wars. In the instances where countries do start a war, they invariably try to say that the other side “provoked” it; that this apparent starting was really an honourable defense against some prior evil.
Once a war has started, Christian values are pretty much thrown out the window: gentleness, generosity, forgiveness, love of enemy, and turning the other cheek are all CORE Christian values, but in a war they are not applicable. Once a war has started, citizens of the nations involved are caught up in it whether they want to be or not. I don't just mean civilians who are killed as collateral damage – which is, of course, one of the greatest evils, and terrors, of war; I mean that a Christian who wants to practice forgiveness of the enemy is not permitted to do so; for it is seen as treason.
In this, and so many ways, war is an evil that is bigger than all of us.
War almost never ends in peace: at least, not in the kind of peace where two former enemies embrace one another and sincerely wish one another well. No, war must end in defeat for one and victory for the other. Even externally brokered truces or ceasefires are usually only a chance to regroup and rearm; to fight again another day, until eventually one of the sides gives up, falls apart, and can no longer fight.
A war might end when BOTH sides lose – as in both being too exhausted to continue. I would love to hear of a case where both sides WIN, but I know of none.
Once a war has begun I, as a citizen, have very few choices: I can help my side win, or I can help the other side. 3 Or I can run away (which in the long run helps the other side). The evil of war is so great that I am forced to fight or to betray. 4 There is very little middle ground.
Basically, since the true Christian duty of forgiveness is denied me, I must choose between two evils, and support the side which has the most good and the least evil.
The Individual perspective:
The interesting thing about Christianity is that Jesus seldom, if ever, commented about public policy and affairs of state. In both Islam and in Judaism, our two sister religions, there is considerable direction in the foundational documents about governmental policy – but not in Christianity.
Jesus refers to war once, and He does so only to illustrate a point, when he said that a king would be foolish to pit his armies against a more powerful foe. 5 Then, on trial in front of Pontius Pilate, He apparently said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were of this world, then my followers would be fighting to protect me.” 6
Jesus – who is the foundation of all Christian moral teaching – spoke of individual morality, not national policy.
As a result, all my life I have approached matters of war and peace on an individual and very personal level. Maybe I cannot make peace with the enemies of my nation, but perhaps I can make peace in my individual and personal conflicts. And, I do believe that if I am a person of peace, perhaps the people around me will ‘catch’ peacefulness – like a beautiful infection – and become persons of peace themselves. And maybe it'll spread wider and wider.
I also believe that if the church is not a place where peace is practiced and promoted, it (the church) has lost its way.
So, how do you and I practice peace on a personal level?
First, I try to make it a practice never ever to do something with intent to hurt. No matter what the provocation. To a person’s face or behind their back. This includes gossip.
And, because I am a sinner, and sometimes do act or speak with intent to hurt, an associated requirement that I must follow is to apologize to the person and to God. 7
Second, I must learn to tame my own reaction to others. The Golden Rule is useful here: “Treat others as as you want them to treat you.” Suppose someone makes me angry: if it had been the other way around – if I had made them angry – would I have wanted them to say, “You IDIOT!?” or would I have liked it if they had started to gossip about how annoying I am? No, I would have hoped for a calm word, in private: “I got upset when you did that.”
Jesus says that when someone offends you, pray for them; call down God’s blessing upon them. 8 It is hard to ask God to bless a person unless you yourself wish good things for that person, so this is a good exercise.
And, I should be willing to go first: to extend the hand of forgiveness and friendship, again and again and again.
The Christian is first and foremost a person of peace. If caught up in the evil maelstrom of war, the Christian must choose the side which has the least evil, and then must act with courage. The best of these are celebrated on Remembrance Day: those who gave their lives for the benefit of others; who struggled to uphold the greater good and resisted the greater evil. But our calling is to be persons of peace, turning the other cheek, loving our neighbour as ourselves and loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.
© 2009, Tony Harwood-Jones
You are expected to contact me for permission to reproduce this sermon in whole or in part.
1 Deuteronomy 6:5, NRSV.
2 1 Peter 1:6-7, NRSV.
3 It is not insignificant that the person who chooses to help the opposing side is called a “traitor” by his/her compatriots, and a “freedom fighter,” or “The Resistance” by the the other side.
4 The example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is important here: by anyone’s standard, he was a true saint, but he chose to support those who would assassinate his country’s Head of State, (who was, of course, Adolph Hitler).
5 Jesus said, “Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand?” Luke 14:31, NRSV.
6 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” John 18:36, NRSV.
7 A possible exception to this is if the person I have hurt has no chance of finding out that I have acted to their harm. This is very rare, since the grapevine usually ensures that sooner or later they’ll find out.
8 “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Luke 6:27-28, NRSV.