Sermon preached as part of the 'What I want to say now' series (11 May 2014) by the Right Reverend Peter Price, former Bishop of Bath and Wells

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Sermon preached as part of the 'What I want to say now' series (11 May 2014) by the Right Reverend Peter Price, former Bishop of Bath and Wells

The Right Reverend Peter Price (Bishop of Bath and Wells, 2001-2013) asks 'can Christianity continue to sanction war?'

This sermon is part of a series of four, at which retired bishops are asked to preach on the subject 'What I want to say now'.

‘Can Christianity continue to sanction war?’ was the subject of a symposium a couple of years ago between theologians and military personnel on HMS Bulwark in which I was invited to participate. It is ‘what I want to say now,’ though for integrity’s sake, it is a question I frequently addressed in forty years of ministry.

The centennial anniversary of the out break of World War One with its raft of news stories, radio and television programmes, both factual and fictional, offer a stark reminder that the 20th century, and the beginning of the 21st, were an unprecedented period of holocausts, genocides, wars and other violent conflicts. Over each of them the mantra has been cast, ‘This must never happen again.’ But it inexorably does.

Briefly, and to a degree unsatisfactorily given the brevity of Evensong sermons, I want to address the question: ‘Can Christianity continue to sanction war?’ I want to offer some stories, a brief biblical reflection, and pose some questions for building a different kind of world in which peace is possible.

In the early centuries of Christianity the third century theologian Origen summed up the Christian view of war: - ‘We will not raise arms against other nations, we will not practice the art of war, because through Jesus Christ we have become children of peace.‘ By the fourth century, the Roman emperor Constantine sought to unite the Christian Church to the secular state, and one of his first acts was to dismiss from the army all soldiers who were not Christians.

A contemporary of Constantine was Martin of Tours. Compelled to join the army at 15, his conversion to Christianity happened when he saw a shivering beggar dressed in rags. Cutting his military coat in two, he dressed the beggar. That night he dreamt of Jesus wearing the portion he had given away.

Martin’s story is strikingly revealing as it demostrates his identification with the Christ of the poor, as well as the conviction that the way of Christ is non violence. This insight prompted him to present himself to his superiors seeking release by saying, ‘I am a soldier of Christ and it is not lawful for me to fight.’ Accused of cowardice he volunteered to go unarmed into the following day’s battle to meet the enemy in the name of Christ. He was given his discharge.

Martin may well have been the first to challenge the comity between Church and state and question Christianity’s capacity to sanction war. In essence it is an arrangement that exists to this day. The late William Stringfellow, lawyer and theologian, observed of the Constantinian compromise that ‘it is an ethos that vests the existence of the church in the preservation of the political status quo.’ And he continues that such actions have ‘caused radical confusions in the relations of church and nation, church and state, church and regime,’ and it has ‘encouraged and countenanced stupid allegiance to political authority, as if that were service to the church and a fortiori,to God.’

Strong stuff, no doubt. Along with Stringfellow I would argue that this compromise has led to an increasingly secularized Christianity, and contributed to the corruption of biblical integrity, and a denial of the precepts of Jesus Christ in relation to his ‘gospel of peace.’ A gospel that offered radical alternatives to war and violence with its injunctions to ‘love enemies,’ ‘overcome evil with good,’ ‘thinking peace’,‘avoiding evil,’ making peace by being ‘peace makers’, not retaliating and striving for reconciliation: the end purpose of which is to be the creation of a new humanity; biblically known as the kingdom of God.

I promised a few moments ago a story, Martin of Tours, and a biblical reflection. Most church goers don’t read the Bible as much as they used. A pity. So let me encourage you to read the two passages I am going to reflect on now. They are Romans chapters 12-13, and Revelation chapter 13.

Romans 13 is often quoted as St. Paul advocating submission to the emperor and his laws . Certainly Paul advocates obedience, honour, the payment of taxes and other obligations to the authorities, but he does so under a greater and over-riding obligation namely : ‘to love your neighbour as yourself,’ because ‘love does no wrong to a neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.’ This law trumps all others.

When Paul speaks about ‘neighbour’ he does not have in mind our traditional middle class view. Jewish teaching saw the ‘neighbour’ as those within your own clan,tradition, ethnicity. Jesus’ command to ‘love enemies’, was to embrace those who did not fall within those categories. St. Paul affirms Jesus teaching in Romans 12 which speaks clearly about non violence, and reminds people that ‘Christ has broken down the dividing wall’ between ‘our kind’ and everybody else.

Revelation chapter 13 was written against the background of increased persecution of Christians by the Roman empire. Chapter 13 offers stark warnings about the power and influence of empire; the dangers to the saints; warnings about taking up weapons, and a call for endurance and faith and adherence to the gospel of peace. Non violent resistance is called for in terms of worship, prayer and the practice of loving enemies, overcoming evil with good and making, as distinct from desiring, peace.

The effect of the maintenance of the Constantinian consciousness within the church has effectively ‘upturned’, the teaching of Jesus as well as brought a denial of the struggle against empire articulated in the Book of Revelation. Christian conscience has been reduced to the individual, rather than to the renewal of mind of the whole people of God.

I have deliberately not commented upon contemporary conflicts or the nature, and impact of modern weaponry. I am not someone who is unaffected by the Constantinian compromise. I publicly and vocally opposed many of the conflicts we have experienced in recent years. However, like other church leaders once the declaration of war has been made, I offered support to military commanders through prayer, active correspondence and dialogue, as well as through the pastoral care of service personnel and their dependents. Neither have I denied the bravery and sacrifice of lives in those conflicts.

No, my question is ‘Can Christianity continue to sanction war?’ Were Origen and Martin of Tours right when they argued ‘as a soldier of Christ - it is not lawful for me to fight? Was Stringfellow right when he observed of the Constantinian agreement that it was ‘an ethos that vests the existence of the church in the preservation of the political status quo - and caused radical confusions in the relations of church and state?’

Simply my answer to that must be ‘yes’. But a ‘yes’ without an alternative, however inadequate or naive such might be, will not do. Briefly, and without much commentary I want to offer some questions we need to address, some strategies for peace building, and a recognition that this is not something that can be achieved over night, but that if Christianity wants to have a relevance and significance for the future it needs not only not to sanction war, but positively to work towards the making of peace.

First the questions: What does it mean to be a human being today? How are we to live? What kind of future do we want? What are the building blocks for peace among peoples? How are we to live well, and live well together?

Second, the strategies. Three of them. One - achieving just and sustainable peace begins with listening to the voice and place of local persons in conflict. Building relationships, acknowledging common humanity. ‘I am because you are, because you are, I am.’

Two - all conflicts are local even if they have global consequences. Peace building requires the recognition that each conflict is unique. Experience learned elsewhere however, offers insights into how partnerships can be created, and barriers gradually dismantled.

Three - not taking sides, recognising that peace building is not a soft option. Military responses are often favoured because they seem to offer immediacy and answers. If peace building is to be successful, it has to be created against the backdrop of creating environments where participants have been able to do what they on their own could not do.

In conclusion then, ‘If we do what we’ve always done, we will get what we have always got.’ If ‘swords are to be beaten into plough shares’ and we are to ‘cease to learn war anymore’ as Micah the prophet has it, then we we must begin from the earliest Key stages in our schools asking and struggling with the questions I raised just now: What does it mean to be a human being today? How are we to live if this is who we say we are? What are the building blocks for peace among peoples? How are we to live well, and live well together?’

‘Christ is our peace, he has reconciled us to God, and entrusted the message of reconciliation to us.’ ‘ Or as Origen put it ‘We will not practice the art of war, because through Jesus Christ we have become children of peace.‘ Pray peace, think peace, speak peace, act peace.

‘This is what I want to say now.’