100 Days to the centenary of the Armistice
Readings: Isaiah 2:1-5; James 4:1-12; Matthew 5:1-10
100 years ago yesterday, Sunday 4th August 1918, there was a special service at Westminster Abbey. It was exactly 4 years since the outbreak of war, and King George V had asked the nation to join in a day of prayer. 100 days later the war ended. Some of the churches have asked people to make the 100 days leading up to the centenary of the Armistice a time of prayer for peace.
We certainly need it. We have the tense situations around Iran, North Korea etc., and the border tensions between China and Japan; the terrible war still going on in Syria; the violence in Israel and Palestine; fighting in South Sudan and other places in Africa; and the threat of terrorism everywhere.
The Bible gives us visions of a time when war shall be no more, when swords shall be beaten into ploughshares. Can this ever be? Some Christians say that because this is a fallen world, peace in this world can never be achieved. In fact, they say, the Bible tells us that the world will get worse and worse until Christ returns. The “wars and rumours of wars”, the “nation rising against nation”, are the signs that Christ is coming to end this world as we know it. Only then, beyond this world, will there be peace. So, they say, all this talk of universal peace is unrealistic and un-biblical. All this activity of well-meaning, politically minded Christians, trying to achieve peace in this world, is barking up the wrong tree. We should be concentrating on preaching the gospel and saving souls. At this point in the argument, government ministers often join in the chorus too!
What do we say to this? It depends what parts of the Bible we read. Those things about the end of the world were written in desperate situations. But other parts of the Bible speak of hope for this world. Jesus taught us to pray: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. We must beware of thinking that the Bible is a book of predictions. It doesn’t give us a straightforward account of what is going to happen from now till the end of the world. I think that perhaps the future of the world is not fixed at all. Perhaps God is still working it out, with and through us. What will happen to this world is still an open question. And so the question is not “will there be peace?” but “can there be peace?”
In the last century a lot of Protestant theologians used to argue fiercely about whether it was possible for us in this life to become completely sanctified, i.e., perfect. This may seem a rather pointless question to us now, but it exercised people’s minds greatly a century or so ago. Spurgeon had a simple answer to it: I don’t know whether it’s possible for me to be perfect, but I do know I can be better than I am! Simple, and true. The same is true of this question of peace. We don’t know whether the world will ever be completely peaceful, or can be. But we do know it can be more peaceful than it is. And we know that has something to do with us.
What can we do about it? As we live in a democratic society, where the influence of the citizen has some effect, and where our rulers are still ultimately dependent on our votes, we can campaign for policies that will make peace. We can campaign against the things that lead to war.
- The supply of weapons
We need to rid the world of nuclear weapons. There is some slow progress being made. But apart from that there is the conventional arms trade. Britain is one of the leaders in this. We often sell arms to both sides in a conflict, or to regimes that use them to kill their own citizens. I read these words of an arms dealer in 1994, and I don’t think things have changed:
“As for guilt, it’s not part of my philosophy. If it were I would be better off in another job. When you sell a shell you don’t think what is going to happen with it. If you sell a car it’s the same – someone might get run over. Some dealers don’t even get to see the weapons; to them it’s just a transaction on paper … No, guilt is not a way of thinking in this game. You are involved through choice. If you start thinking like that you should … do some form of humanitarian work.” [New Internationalist, November 1994]
Do we really want our standard of living to be based on this shameful trade? Is it enough to salve our consciences by saying that if we don’t provide the means for people to kill each other, others will?
Today there seems to be more bitterness and lack of understanding than ever in many quarters: panic about immigrants, hostility to foreigners, labelling of all Muslims as terrorists, insulting people who disagree with us. Social media often bring out the worst in people. They make people feel they can say things on line that they would never say face to face. We need to speak up for Christian charity, and face the roots of war within ourselves.
Visiting China some years ago, I was impressed by the friendliness of the people. It started me thinking: if the natural instinct of people all over the world is to be friendly, why is there war? War is made by poor people who are desperate and have to fight to survive. It is caused by the unrest produced by poverty. It is also made by the governments of rich countries wanting more power over resources. But those governments are voted in by us. They try to provide what they think the people want.
So is comes back to us: we want peace, but we also want the things that we think only war can bring, or the things that can only be got by impoverishing other people and creating unrest. We want more and more luxury goods, and we want them cheap. We want constant oil and electricity to fuel our unsustainable way of life. We want an ever-rising “standard of living”. We want more than our fair share. So let’s not just go on talking sentimentally about “peace on earth”, but look at our way of life and ask whether it feeds war or peace.
That is the challenge, and the cost, of being Christians in today’s world. It’s not enough to call ourselves Christian, and certainly not enough to shout about defending our ‘Christian’ civilisation. The challenge of Jesus is clear, in the Beatitudes and many other places: the meek shall inherit the earth, those who hunger and thirst for justice will get it, the peacemakers are God’s children, and we must be prepared for opposition, slander, mockery and persecution if we follow the way of Jesus. But it is the only way to peace.