Sermon 6 December 2015

Baruch 5      Philippians 1:3-11     Luke 3:1-6                                                         


The Book of Baruch is an apocryphal book, one we are to read to understand and educate but which does not form part of the development of doctrine. Baruch was the secretary of Jeremiah, writing down his thoughts and no doubt criticising them. Whole passages of Jeremiah are attributed to him.  He sounds like a fair Sir Humphrey. His writings were first used by the Jews of upper Syria.  There are other arguments about him but we won’t trouble with them now!


I’ve spoken before about the city of Philippi where the young church received one of Paul’s letters. In north-eastern Greece it was a major city of the Roman Empire sitting on the west-east trading route and the junction with the southern route to the rest of Greece and across the Mediterranean to Africa. Having been destroyed and depopulated by the Romans, they had gone on to people it from the empire. The group Paul writes to were a mixed bunch from all over the world.  What they had in common was this new faith.  They would have had old loyalties to the old countries and a pioneering spirit for the new in a multi-cultural society but in a brutal political regime.


A few years before John had begun to announce the imminent arrival of the Messiah, calling people to a baptism of repentance – a change of direction – a change to the acknowledgment of a loving and forgiving God rather than a terrible and punishing one, the people around John might have hoped as later the people of Philippi might have hoped that all this would mean that the world would be an easier place to understand and a more peaceful place to live in.


We are put in the position today, of having to decide where we stand in relation to the conduct of a group of people and what we might do about what we believe to be wrong and destructive. We view this with, probably incomplete knowledge of the facts and from a vastly different cultural base.  We are tempted to take the moral high ground but that is an unsafe thing to do given our own history and the need for redemption in God.


There is a Christian view of ‘Just War’.  That is war waged for a good and just reason.  In the Christian tradition the root of the thinking comes from St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.  The concept of Just War lays down criteria which make an act of war just such a state only able to only exist where war is the lesser evil and is preferred to injustice, oppression or inhumanity.


St. Thomas laid down four conditions:

  1. A just war must be waged by constituted authority.

  2. The cause must be just.

  3. There must be the intention of establishing good or rectifying evil.

  4. The war must be waged by proper means.


    These conditions attempt to contain the evil of war, as war must be seen as evil and essentially unholy.  Just war is not the same as holy war or jihad which is the struggle to be a good Muslim and according to the Holy Koran which says it must not harm the innocent or women or children.


                The medieval conditions are of limited help to us though.  St Thomas would have had in mind the private, local wars of his time more than the sort of conflict we have come to know in more recent centuries. 


                A proper means is difficult to define.  The blanket bombing of Germany in WW2 would not come into the bracket of proper means and the churches were much against it, notably Bishop George Bell of Chichester.  The distinction between military and civilian has become very blurred.  There is no battlefield as there was in Thomas’s time.


                We have to look at what we mean by Peace too.  In the Judeo-Christian tradition the concept of peace comes from the Hebrew idea of Shalom.  That is a fullness where need is satisfied, where life is complete under the grace of God.  It would be difficult to say that this country has peace in that way.  In the Islamic tradition peace means more what we generally understand it to be, an absence of conflict or unrest achieved by law.


                What do we hope for in the Middle East?  How critical are we of our allies, our own history and ourselves?  If IS is to be trounced what will justify the action. The government has allowed discussion in Parliament but in a rather limited way and we might hope for more.  One commenter said cynically that we don’t have the same oil interests in Syria that we did in Iraq those years ago. A decision has been made to join the military action of other countries though.


    A look at the Amnesty International website is helpful. AI makes no comments or passes judgment on the arguments justifying the use of force and it has not called for armed intervention but pushes for the international community to undertake a range of measures to protect civilians and prevent further crimes under international law, including crimes against humanity, being committed.

    International humanitarian law has as its main points:

    · To refrain from targeting civilians or civilian objects

    · To refrain from carrying out indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks

    · To refrain from using weapons which are inherently indiscriminate

    · To take all necessary precautions in attacks to spare civilians

    · To take precautions to protect civilians under their control against the effect of attacks,

    · To refrain from using civilians to render military objectives immune from attack (that is, as human shields).


    Those are not too far away from the principles put down by Thomas Aquinas.

    To quote a few word from AI:

    “Amnesty International has reported on grave human rights abuses committed by Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq, though the Syrian government is responsible for far more civilian deaths. To be effective any strategy to respond to Islamic State must take place within the context of a comprehensive strategy to deter and prevent further human rights violations and abuses across Syria.”


    Baruch and Jeremiah and Paul all wrote of peace in the context of huge political upheaval. The peace was not to be wrought round a negotiating table or on the battlefield but within people.  The fractured relation with God rather romantically portrayed in the Garden of Eden needed to be healed in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus which happens in the context of an awful foreign occupation where you could be crucified just because a religious group wanted you out of the way.


                We are left with deciding where we stand.  If I am trying to make up my mind whether military action is just or not in the case of IS I am not helped very much.  Presented to me are the pictures of countless people fleeing.  That is more complex than it at first looks. There are too many villains to be able to think it through easily.

    What did Jesus say about such things?  He did say love your enemies but that love for him meant being very forthright about their behaviour.  Resort to the OT is not very helpful as the writers often looked to God to justify invasion and even what has come to be known as ‘ethnic cleansing’.  we must be punctilious in how we live out the injunction to render no-one evil for evil if our Christian faith is to keep its integrity.


    Luke reminds us of the outworking of faith, repentance – change of direction of life. He quotes the prophet Isaiah, the unevenness of the world will be made even and we look for what gives joy to God.


© 2015 Frank Wright

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