This is a sermon for Remembrance Sunday. The readings are: Romans 8:31-39 and Matthew 5:38-48
Ethics Can be Difficult
It is a difficult business being a human being. The events of our lives are not always as clear-cut as we might like them to be. Things do not always work out according to our plans and sometimes we are faced with very difficult moral and ethical choices.
It can be even more difficult trying to be a faithful Christian in a sinful and fallen world. As Christians, most of us would like to think that we at least want to make the right moral and ethical choices.
It is our intention to try to live in a Godly way. But what happens, what do you do, when life presents to you a series of events where the best thing that you can do is choose the lesser of two evils? What do you do when there is no option available to you that is 100% moral or 100% ethical?
I think that dealing with the morals and ethics of war as a disciple of Christ is one of these complicated situations.
Love Your Enemies
If we look at today’s Gospel reading, Jesus’ tells us that we are to love our enemies. Jesus cancels the old commandment of an eye for an eye and he gives us new examples of what we are to do as his disciples: we are to offer our other cheek to the person who strikes us; we are to give our coat to someone who asks for our shirt, we are to carry the burden the extra mile.
This might sound just about bearable in the ancient context – which seems so far away – but if we imagine these commandments enacted in the lifetime of any person in this congregation today, I can imagine that some of us might become angry or incensed.
This is truly a difficult commandment. Not just difficult – impossible; outrageous; a commandment that flies in the face of natural justice. And, what’s worse, I think it’s undeniable that Jesus meant exactly what he was saying.
We have had enemies in the 20th and 21st centuries who were genuinely evil. There were people and groups genuinely bent on destroying us. There are people and groups genuinely bent on destroying us. Yet, we are commanded by Jesus to love them.
Jewish and Greek ethicists in Jesus’ time both advocated non-resistance as a tactic for winning people over to one’s own side. The idea was basically that one would engage an enemy with non-resistance with the intention of eventually winning the person over as a friend, or at least as a neutral party.
Now, sometimes this works, but as Jesus knew and as we know, there are many times this does not work. We live in a sinful world and there are people in the world who are simply evil – for want of a better term.
But, in today’s reading, Jesus does not tell us that we are to engage people with non-resistance in order to win them over to our side. He says that we are simply to love them.
“Love”, in this context, is not an emotion, but it is a way of behaving. And we’re given these examples of what love might look like: Turn the other cheek when someone hits you, give someone your coat when he asks for your shirt, when the occupying solider exercises his legal right to demand that you carry his pack one mile, carry it two miles.
Jesus then leaves us to think of how we might behave in other circumstances. We are simply left with the impossible ethical principle: “Love your enemy”, followed by the even more impossible commandant at the end of the reading: “Be perfect – love your enemy perfectly – as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Evil and Real Life
So what does a person do in the face of pure, unadulterated evil? What does a person do when faced with their unrepentant rapist – and such people surely exist? How on earth can we love that person? My honest answer is “I don’t know”. “I doubt I can love that person, but I know I can’t do it in my own human strength.” I know that if I have any chance at all of loving such a person, it’s going to take an awful lot of prayer and an awful lot of anointing of the power of the Holy Spirit.
And what does a country do when faced with a political leader such as Pol Pot or Adolph Hitler – someone so evil and misguided that they are bent on the destruction of an entire people and society? Should the country refuse to defend itself? Pragmatically, I can understand why a country will want to defend itself. Scripturally, I can only come to the conclusion that nevertheless, Jesus tells us that this is wrong.
I’d love to be able to come to a conclusion where I could say to you, “As followers of Jesus, we can say that God approves of defensive war.” That would make my moral decision-making nice and neat and tidy and we could all go home with the self-satisfaction that we’d tied up all our moral and ethical loose ends as Christians.
But I can’t find this kind of moral and ethical solution in the teachings of Jesus.
And I can find the opposite instruction, right here in Matthew, telling us to love our enemies for no other reason than the fact that, as Christians, we are called to imitate God’s unconditional and self-giving love
This teaching comes from a man with the every-day experience of living in an occupied country – from a man who would eventually be executed by the occupier’s most painful and humiliating means. We can hardly accuse Jesus of pontificating from a comfortable sitting room; we can’t ignore him because he didn’t know what it meant to live day by day with the enemy.
Christians and Remembrance Day
And that brings us to Remembrance Day. What do we make of it as Christians?
It falls quite close to All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, and some churches bring these themes into Remembrance Day as well: not just a day of Remembrance for those who have fallen in armed combat, but a day of remembrance of all those friends and relatives who we have lost through death.
But because I think that there are some serious moral and ethical issues for Christians to consider on Remembrance Day, I think we have to be careful of sanitising the day too much. I would prefer to keep it as a day of remembrance for those who died in battle and for us to struggle with the implications of that.
Given the commandment to love our enemies, what might be a good and faithful way for Christians to observe Remembrance Day?
The observance of Remembrance day started after World War I. It was a war where very literally a significant percentage of the young men of one generation were slaughtered. It was also a war that many regarded as so needless and senseless that the world was supposed to have become sick of war – hence the term “the war to end all wars”.
So, first of all, I think that we need to take care that we do not make it a day of either nationalism or the glorification of war. I assume that’s an obvious and non-controversial statement in a Christian context. I doubt that many of us would want to do that, but I think that it’s well to keep aware that the commemoration may be used by some for such purposes. Some people may do it in an innocent way thinking that they are showing support for a loved one in the armed forces. Others may do it in not-so-innocents ways in order to stir up racism and fear and to give these sins the appearance of being noble causes.
Secondly, I do believe that we must be true to the original purpose of the commemoration: remember those who have fallen in the battlefield; mourn their deaths; mourn the sinfulness that causes human society to go to war and the sinfulness that causes us to need to go to war in self-defence; remember that every solider, sailor, airman who fell in battle – young or old, male or female – was a person fearfully and wonderfully made by God. And a person who was loved by God; remember their families and the consequences their deaths had for those who loved them.
Thirdly, we can remember the sacrifices that those of who endured war were forced to make. We can give thanks for their strength and courage. We can give thanks that they thought not only of themselves but of future generations. As human beings, we exist in relationship with each other, and relationships span time as well as space.
Finally, as Christians, we do need to remember that we are called to pray for the Kingdom and to work for the Kingdom.
In the Kingdom of God, the lion will lie down with the lamb and there will be war no more. Although we cannot bring about the final coming of the Kingdom by our own efforts, we do recognise that in the death and resurrection of Jesus, that the Kingdom is both “now and not yet”. It is the grace of God and not the rule of sin that is now sovereign in this world, and so we are called to proclaim and to live out the values of the Kingdom.
And so, as we go from this place, let us remember those fallen in battle. Let us remember and be thankful for the sacrifices of those who lived through war. But let us also pray for the strength and the wherewithal to live out Jesus’ commandment to be perfected in love and to love our enemies. Perhaps this is an impossible commandment. Pray for the grace of God to show us the way. Amen.