Monday, September 02, 2013

Evensong Sermon - Just War

I preached at BCP evensong on Sunday evening and oddly I focussed on the Psalm

Psalm 119.81-96
81 My soul is pining for your salvation; • I have hoped in your word.
82 My eyes fail with watching for your word, • while I say, ‘O when will you comfort me?’ 83 I have become like a wineskin in the smoke, • yet I do not forget your statutes.
84 How many are the days of your servant? • When will you bring judgement on those who persecute me?
85 The proud have dug pits for me • in defiance of your law.
86 All your commandments are true; • help me, for they persecute me with falsehood.
87 They had almost made an end of me on earth, • but I have not forsaken your commandments.
88 Give me life according to your loving-kindness; • so shall I keep the testimonies of your mouth.
89 O Lord, your word is everlasting; • it ever stands firm in the heavens.

Turning to this evening’s readings I was captured most, somewhat unusually by the text of the Psalm, particularly the psalmists words of lament:
84 How many are the days of your servant? • When will you bring judgement on those who persecute me?

As I feel these words reflect how many in Syria might be feeling right now. The reading we heard from Isaiah too talks about the way you might view others either as those who are unfamiliar or those who are part of God’s creation:

No longer will you see the insolent people, the people of an obscure speech that you cannot comprehend, stammering in a language that you cannot understand. Look on Zion, the city of our appointed festivals! Your eyes will see Jerusalem, (Isaiah 33)

At the time of first writing this sermon, the vote in the Houses of Parliament was yet to be taken. We were on the brink of a decision. Now we know that the commons voted against approving future military action by UK troops in Syria. I don’t know how you feel about that decision and most of us are probably fortunate enough that we will never have to make a decision which would affect so many thousands of people yet if we were called to make that decision, how as Christians would we do so?

I’m sure like me you have been disturbed by the images of those injured by what sources strongly suggest are chemical weapons, you may have been aching with compassion at the idea of 1 million child refugees fleeing from Syria so far. We may feel compelled that we or the government and international authorities should do SOMETHING. Yet what should that something be? Should this lead to war?

Fortunately for us, many wise Christians over the years have thought about war and the moral decisions involved with it. Even in the very early years of the church, St Augustine of Hippo spoke about the idea of a just war. He argued that war is something fought for the sake of securing peace, saying: “Better, I say, is war with the hope of peace everlasting than captivity without any thought of deliverance.” Augustine went on to talk about the justification of war for the sake of safety or honour. He goes on to explore the alternative to feeling the need to wage war:

“But, say they, the wise man will wage just wars. As if he would not all the rather lament the necessity of just wars, if he remembers that he is a man; for if they were not just he would not wage them, and would therefore be delivered from all wars. For it is the wrongdoing of the opposing party which compels the wise man to wage just wars; and this wrong-doing, even though it gave rise to no war, would still be matter of grief to man because it is man’s wrong-doing. Let every one, then, who thinks with pain on all these great evils, so horrible, so ruthless, acknowledge that this is misery. And if any one either endures or thinks of them without mental pain, this is a more miserable plight still, for he thinks himself happy because he has lost human feeling.” The City of God (Book XIX) chapter 7

Thomas Aquinas writing some 800 years later reflected further on Augustine’s ideas.He begins as he often does by saying exactly why war is totally unconscionable and then goes onto describe circumstances in which it might be acceptable after all. He says that three things were necessary:
• That the war be waged by someone with proper authority
• That there be a just cause for waging war
• That those waging the war are doing so for the right reasons.

The Just war principle has been expanded over the years from these early ethical theologians. In addition to those three, modern Just War principle also argues that:
• all other avenues of diplomacy must first be explored and only after they are exhausted should war be considered as a final option
• Another important modern principle is the likelihood of success
 • Some also add the condition of comparative injustice – is what is being done to cause the war worse than the war proposed Just methods of waging war have also been added which insist that a just war is one in which
• non-combatants are not targeted deliberately and
• restricts attacks on military targets which might involve collateral damage to non-combatants. Just war theory also dictates that
• only the minimum force required is used and
• that weapons (such as the chemical weapons described as possibly being in use in Syria or nuclear weapons) are not used and
 • that prisoners of war, as those who are no longer combatants, are treated humanely.

These are the principles which, as Christians we could use to make the decision about going to war. My hope and prayer is that our government will work with others to explore further avenues of diplomacy to secure the safety of the people of Syria. It is not our decision Yet other decisions do face us.

What are we to do in response to the crisis in Syria. Will we donate money to the Disaster Emergency Committee? Will we pray for those people in Syria and those making decisions? Will we put ourselves out in any way?

More than 20 years on I am proud of my, now departed, mum who on seeing the news of the war in the former Yugoslavia, picked up the phone to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees and asked what she could do. They were able to tell her of a charity nearby and our church then collected clothes, sanitary products, food and other items specifically requested and volunteers delivered these to a depot 20 miles away for shipping to refugee camps.

This week, each of us will face decisions which affect people's lives in small or great ways. As we do so,let's remember and pray for those who make big decisions and in our own decisions, we may not have Just War principles to help us for whatever those decisions might be; how we deal with our neighbour moving our bin or our family switching the channel on the tv. We may not have such a clear checklist as that for a just war but let's remember what our God teaches us about how we should treat others, loving them as ourselves and loving God with all our heart mind and soul.

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