SINCE last August we have heard rather a lot about the Great War
SINCE last August we have heard rather a lot about the Great War, first the centenary of its outbreak and then that of the Christmas Truce on the front line in France. It is impressive how balanced, responsible and serious these reflections and the commemorations which accompanied them have been, both in this country and in Germany. At the beginning of May we shall be remembering the 70th anniversary of the end, in Europe, of the Second World War as well. No doubt in June partisan military historians will be discussing whose regiment actually struck the decisive blow at Waterloo in 1815, on the assumption that the French did not win the battle anyway! And then in October it will be 600 years since Agincourt.
The reflections on the awfulness of war and on the responsibilities of all governments to try to avoid it have been genuine. Tensions nevertheless continue in the world and the situation on the eastern borders of Europe and the barbarism being practised in the Near East, ironically in the name of God, give increasing cause for concern. Where should governments draw the line between the acceptance of aggression and the use of force to resist it? Where does the convinced Christian, believing in the doctrines of loving one’s neighbour and turning the other cheek, stand in this?
Fighting and the use of force is inherent in the human condition. Countless young men going into battle treat it as a game until, too late, they realize their mistake. Warfare though appears to be in flagrant defiance of the Christian Gospel. Discussions among theologians and philosophers on the concept of the Just War are almost as old as warfare itself. For some people the solution lies in Pacifism. There can be nothing but profound admiration and respect for the person who is prepared to surrender his or her life to an assailant, or to suffer cruel mutilation, without any attempt at self-defence. But the refusal to use force to defend those whom one has a responsibility to protect is another matter. The father and mother who will stand by and see their children slaughtered in front of their eyes without any attempt to protect them are acting not only unnaturally but in defiance of any moral law. Extend that to the defence of others for whom one is responsible. Extend that further to the State whose prime duty is to protect its citizens. It is difficult sometimes to draw the line but the line must be drawn. Thus states have armed forces.
The profession of arms â?? the ordered application of force at the behest of a lawful government in the resolution of a social problem â?? is a calling resembling the priesthood and the practice of medicine in its dedication. The Christian soldier has to be prepared to kill. Throughout the history of warfare attempts have been made to civilize the uncivilizable. The concept of chivalry between enemies grew out of this. Lawyers have codified the rules of war into the Geneva Conventions. Mercifully time and time again humanity intervenes at a personal level on the battlefield. Professional soldiers respect those on the other side of the line. They are all in the same business and suffering the same hardships, dangers and fears. It is no coincidence that the Christmas Truce of 1914 took place between those who were still mainly professional soldiers, before the majority of new raw volunteers or conscripts had arrived in the trenches.
Jesus sometimes had harsh words for lawyers, tax inspectors and tradesmen; he was surprisingly gentle with soldiers. It was of a soldier that he said “I have not found so great faith, no not in Israel.” Those who know their Greek will realise that when Jesus said what has been translated in the New Testament as “Do not kill” his words meant “Do not murder”. He said as well “Love your Enemies”. Take that one outrageous step further. “Love your enemy even when you are killing him”. Shocking perhaps â?? but the soldier who hates the enemy whom he is killing is no better than any other murderer. Think about that this week.