A Sermon Preached on February 27, 2022
The Sunday Next to Lent
with special readings and prayers for peace
at the Anglican Church of St Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, Crete
in the Diocese in Europe, Church of England
The readings used were Isaiah 9.1-6, Psalm 72.1-7, Philippians 4.6-9, and Matthew 5.43-end.
Well, just when we thought the past two years could not get any worse, it does. The Russian Federation invades Ukraine. The capital Kyiv is under siege, and parts of southern Ukraine have fallen to separatist and Russian armed forces. Putin and his paranoid security advisors seems bent on regime change and the Ukrainian people under Zelenskyy are putting up a brave fight.
And what are we as Christians supposed to do? What is our response to aggressive war, to the armed resistance of the Ukrainian armed forces and ordinary citizens, and to our own role as people living here in Greece, as citizens of NATO nations, as Christians?
There are at least three approaches used by Christians to war.
First is the one which sees Christians endorsing aggressive war. We saw this in the 11th century with the Crusades, and it continued in the Reconquista in Span and Portugal, in the conquests of Mexico and Peru in the 15th century, and the genocidal colonisations that all the major Christian nations participated in up until the last century. While often justified as bringing the gospel and civilization to those who were conquered, they invariably ended in oppression and exploitation, if not outright extermination. Indeed, these genocidal practices often seemed rooted in a prescriptive reading of the Book of Judges. As modern Christians we know that this is deeply problematic, and since WW II wars of aggression are seen as criminal, outlawed in the the United Nations charter and other treaties.
On might ask why it is that Christians ever came to believe that violence against others was justified. Part of it was that when Constantine legalized Christianity in the early 4th centuries and convened conferences to define doctrine such as the one at Nicaea, the Christian leaders really dd not know what to say. After going from being persecuted and martyred to being wined and dined by the Emperor, they must have felt as if the kingdom of God had finally come in some way. So who was going to criticise the great Constantine, patron of the Church, for his military actions? That said, Constantine refrained from formally joining the church through baptism until his deathbed, holding that the Christian life and the lethal requirements of the office of Emperor were inconsistent.
After Constantine church leaders became inured to state violence, especially if they benefited from it. They frequently attempted to use the force of government to their own ends, such as becoming the official religion in 380, attacking pagan religions and turning their temples into churches. They felt that the violent use of force by governments was legitimate in the name of orthodoxy. In northern Europe the militaristic ways of Frankish, Germanic, and Anglo-Saxon warriors were moderated by the teachings of the church, but not ended.
Another view is that of Augustine of Hippo, who in the 5th century formulated the basics of what is known as Just War Theory. This was elaborated by Thomas Aquinas and Hugo Grotius, and remain influential today in International Law. Just War Theory combines a moral aversion to violence with the recognition that sometimes it is necessary. There are generally four conditions that need to be met.
- The war must be fundamentally defensive, and the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain.
- All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective.
- there must be serious prospects of success.
- the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated, such as the massacre of civilians, or a breakdown in civil society.
This is the teaching of the Church of England (Article XXXVII: It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars). I suspect that this is where many of us stand. If I had been a young man in 1939 I would have undoubtedly volunteered for military service. If I were a Ukrainian in the Ukraine now I would be thinking seriously of defending my country and its democracy.
Needless to say, what looks acceptable on paper becomes difficult in practice.
War brutalizes both soldiers and civilians, and what would be considered horrific in peacetime becomes all too acceptable in wartime. War is also so very unpredictable, as both World Wars and the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria demonstrate. Political leaders and generals often overestimate their capacity to control events, and what appears to be a nice little war can metastasize into decades-long conflict.
But there is another approach.
The third Christian approach to war is perhaps the most challenging. It is the approach that is non-violent and pacifist. It is rooted in the behaviour of our Lord Jesus Christ when assailed by his enemies, who did not strike back and did not call upon an army of angels to destroy those who would kill him. It is an attitude which turns the other cheek and prays for its enemies. It is the original approach to violence, as practiced by Christians for three centuries from Jesus until Constantine. It is the practice which breaks the chain of violence. It was the practice that successfully converted up to half the Roman Empire by the time it was finally legalized (Constantine was following the crowd here, not leading it). It was used by Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu to challenge and overcome segregation and apartheid. It is the practice of small but significant denominations – usually radical Anabaptists such as Mennonites, Amish, and Hutterites, but also the Quakers. There are also Anglican Pacifists (see the website for the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship). Because it is so centered in Christ it is the one that seems the most true, but it is also the one that seems most full of suffering for Christians, and so against the strong sense of self-preservation. I wish I had the courage and the faith to be a Christian pacifist, but I find myself returning to the previous approach of the Just War Theory; I fear I may not be in the right.
We begin with prayer.
It is not my job to tell you how to think and act, but rather to convey the teachings of the church, which, as always, is complex and has multiple voices and opinions. That said, I hope you do not see yourself in the first approach, but rather are challenged by the legacy of violence in our colonial history. But I imagine you are also challenged by the second and third approaches. All violence is a sign of our broken and sinful nature, and our need for redemption and transformation. We should never become comfortable with war. The good news of Jesus Christ is that in the resurrection we see the sign that the change has already come, and that God is making all things new.
In the meantime we should pray.
Pray for the families of the soldiers who are in distress that their sons and daughters are being killed.
Pray for the people of Ukraine, that they may find a way to maintain their independence and democracy.
Pray for the people of the Russian Federation, that they too may find a way restore democracy in their country, and hold their leadership accountable for waging an unnecessary war.
Pray for religious leaders in Russia, Ukraine, and elsewhere, that they may witness to the importance of avoiding violence.
Pray for those who are fleeing Ukraine, and for ourselves, that our governments may welcome them.
Pray for those wars and conflicts we have forgotten: the peoples of Yemen, Ethiopia, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Somalia, Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and so many other places.
Pray for those who have died or will die today.
May God have mercy on us all.
Prayer for Ukraine: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prayer_for_Ukraine
Thank you for this! Its honesty and complexity at this time of high emotions are much appreciated. I would only add a few points to build on what you wrote. First, I believe that Pope Nicholas V in essence expanded the scope of the Just War Theory by introducing a category of “infidels,” into the mix, in other words, Muslims and non-Christians Indigenous peoples in Africa, distinct from Christian enemies. Then this modification was expanded by Popes Alexander VI and Julius II to include the “New World.” These modifications allowed European rulers to kill and enslave Indigenous peoples and Muslims at will across the globe without regard to Augustine’s original rules. Additionally, these actions serve to illustrate how religious and secular leaders often bend even good rules to serve their own interests, which in our time definitely includes outright lying and manipulating the public into supporting wars.
And with that, I’m going to head over to investigate that Anglican pacifist site! Thank you again for this sermon.