The War that didn’t end war ...the 100th Anniversary of the First World War:
Preacher: Canon Neil Thompson, Precentor
20 July 2014, 10:30 (THE FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY)Might and right among the nations:
What part do justice and peace play in the road to war?
The temperature has soared these recent days with the golden, bleaching sunshine punctuated by periods of violent storm and beating rain.
Just as the weather systems are for ever changing day by day, so the world’s political temperature and systems develop and change, sometimes with periods of calm and sometimes overcome by the ferocities of war and violent divisions.
As we remember the days of a hundred years ago that led to the
First World War, we should truthfully ask ourselves what have we learnt and how have we grown and changed since then?
Technologically and socially we are so very different; the great changes that science and wealth afforded 19th century Europe and North America have continued in a dazzling way and transformed the possibilities of health, welfare, comfort, work and leisure.
And the map too has changed radically with new empires and blocs waxing and waning. Over the century, another world war, the Cold War, countless conflicts and crises including the crumbling of Marxist-Leninism and the Iron Curtain, the emergence of a militant and fundamentalist Islam and nation states fighting for identity and stability against the tides of tribalism, blood, religion and naked greed and ambition.
So this morning, our world is engrossed by the political fallout and implications of the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines' plane over the Ukraine last Thursday, the invasion of Gaza by Israel, the establishment of a caliphate by Isis in Iraq who also claim parts of Syria and Iran, the seizure of the Crimea by Russia, the atrocities of Boko Haram in Nigeria and the radicalisation of the young by Al Qaeda in Syria and perhaps even in some of Britain’s mosques and schools.
It is a complicated and volatile cocktail which can explode and lead to greater threats and conflicts.
We have not learnt from the First World War that war can end war.
And this morning as the first of three sermons on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War, we are looking as Christians at the realities and concepts of might and right among the nations and the part that justice and the precious flower of peace play in the road to war.
Let’s start with might and right.
From an early age, human beings naturally assert themselves using their physical size and strength and unrestrained this results in the bully and the victim.
To the physical realm of might we bring the moral world of right and wrong, where our minds can inform our bodies and our behaviour to live together in harmony for the wellbeing of all.
Each one of us is unique and therefore different so there is always a tension in this world where our variety in physical form and personality can lead to conflict.
How are might and right to be resolved?
The Bible itself is a graphic panorama through thousands of years of how the creator’s values and purposes are to be lived out in individual lives, in the formation of societies and of the transformation of instinct and law by grace, and love and forgiveness.
In June and July 1914, Europe was a coiled spring or a cocked gun in terms of might and right.
The British Empire was still dominant and profitable. It was envied by the newly born nation states and particularly Germany.
At the same time France and Russia held a common interest in curbing the aspirations of Germany in acquiring some sort of place in the sun whilst the old unwieldy and outdated Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire, the ‘sick man of Europe’ created an unstable chemistry as ethnicities and peoples sought to express their character and independence in political and geographic terms.
Might and right were hopelessly confused in the balances and rivalries of alliances and positioning,
And in all this, justice and peace became casualties just as they always have.
Justice in terms of global power can only be secured by a common law and integrity and this moral force we have found by experience is only ultimately secured by threat and force of arms.
Similarly, peace is too readily accepted as just the absence of hostilities rather than the positive moral, physical and social welfare of all peoples.
We fight because we think it can bring peace and justice; we fight because right has to be secured by might.
And that is where we are today.
At the end of the First World War the League of Nations was born in attempt to prevent future wars but it was doomed by the flaws and failure of the 1918 peace settlement. Its successor, the United Nations, reformed and strengthened as a practical and effective agency to secure international peace and security struggles still as our daily news bulletins bear witness.
And so to our Bible passages this morning: St Paul in his letter to the Romans recognises that God’s creation groans because it has been subjected to futility. However, this futility is not without meaning and outcome, because the crucified One has obtained freedom for the children of God.
This is some claim and has enormous implications in our attitudes, interpretation and implementation of God’s justice and peace.
Recently we have been debating in this land ‘British values’. The Prime Minister says that “they aren’t optional, they are vital”. And Michael Gove, when Minister of Education, introduced new rules that gave him the power to close free schools and academies with governors who did not demonstrate "fundamental British values".
Are these the values of right, and peace and justice? Where do they come from and where can we find them clearly expressed?
I think that we need to understand and recommit to the values and culture on which our society and our nation are established.
Those values come from a shared experience of the sanctity of life found in the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
For us Christians this is developed more radically in the challenge to read the world and serve it in and through Jesus – who was himself betrayed, and tried and executed: condemned and killed by religious and secular charges.
Today’s Gospel reading brings God’s perspective to our unjust and warring world. Jesus’ parable places our lives and our commitment within God’s time and judgement.
This is not an excuse to do nothing nor is it an opt out of our responsibilities as citizens of both nation and the world.
However, it does place our predicaments, frustrations and anger at the cruelty and injustices that seem to triumph and prosper, in the context of God and his eternal truth.
Every human soul is accountable to our creator – and God is both judge and redeemer. Politics and economics must be practised with the humility that comes from this truth.
Here at the altar of God, Jesus promises to come to us today to heal us, feed us and lead us in his ways.
Let us pray that we will have the courage to be his voice today in the councils of this world. Christians must exercise an active and participative role in politics and public life.
The inability to stop the advance of war in 1914 is as real today as it was then.
And the world is more volatile and dangerous today. We need to speak and live the values of God in terms of might and right, and peace and justice.
It is not our normal everyday language and in the face of materialism and fanaticism, it us,…yes, even the Church of England (!), who must be explorers, innovators and pioneers of the Kingdom.
Our MP’s and leaders must hear this voice and this message: “let anyone with ears listen!”
To end, I am going to read a poem from one of my favourite poets, R. S. Thomas. His spare and challenging lines invite us into that world where we die to the familiar and comfortable and live closely in the disturbing oxygen of God’s mystical presence.
It is from there that we must speak and live in this world.
The new explorers don’t go
anywhere and what they discover
we can’t see. But they change our lives.
They interpret absence
as presence, measuring it by the movement
of its neighbours. Their world is
an immense place: deep down is as distant
as far out, but is arrived at
in no time. These are the new
linguists, exchanging across closed
borders the currency of their symbols.
Have I been too long on my knees
worrying over the obscurity
of a message? These have their way, too,
other than a prayer of breaking that abstruse code.
‘They’ – R.S. Thomas
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