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A Christian’s Reflection on War

It has become a worldwide tradition at this time of the year to remember those who have served in the military, and especially those who have died in war.

I come from a long line of soldiers. Among my ancestors was Sir Simon Fraser [the Patriot], who was captured fighting alongside William Wallace for the liberation of Scotland, and executed with great cruelty by Edward I in 1306 (and ever since then we have been against the English government). In more recent history my grandfather fought against Germany in Two World Wars.  My Father joined the South African Air Force during WW2. I in turn joined the South African Air Force when I left school, and became a military instructor.

So this war thing is in my blood. For a long time I believed that being a soldier was an honourable profession. I believed that “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.[1]  I believed that we had a right to self defence and that we had a duty to protect the weak and the innocent. This is fairly straightforward, because it is easy to understand that God calls us to defend our family and our faith.

Until we discover that those we fight believe the same thing too. For example both the soldiers of Adolf Hitler and of Winston Churchill called on God’s help to win WW2. Closer to home, I served in the South African military in the mid 1970’s and we prayed for God to help us win the war on our borders: only to discover that the freedom fighters I was opposing also had chaplains who led prayers for God to help those were fighting to liberate South Africa – from us.

And suddenly it becomes far more complicated. When two opposing forces pray to God, who does God support? The undeniable fact is that every soldier would like to think that God is keeping him or her safe. And every soldier wants to think that their war is righteous! But somewhere in the back of my head I knew that I needed to deal with the fact that a human life is precious – from the womb to the grave.

I remember the day God’s Spirit convicted me that life is sacred. I was a shooting instructor, and I was teaching recruits to shoot at the shooting range. They had RI rifles and were lying on the ground aiming at targets. When the target came up out of the ground they fired, and my senior officer thought to encourage the skill of the troops by shouting at them. The words he used were “Shoot the bastards”. I looked at the targets and for the first time it dawned on me that the targets were drawn as people, and the Officer was encouraging the troops to shoot people. And I knew that I could not do that job any more.

At about the same time I read a story about Jesus in Matt 26: 47-56. Jesus had been betrayed into the hands of his enemies. The people who were arresting him were planning evil for him. And John’s Gospel tells us that the disciple Peter decided to do something about this. Peter defended Jesus with his fishing knife. I know that the Bible says a sword – but read instead a wicked fish gutting knife and you will see that Peter was probably formidable with a blade. Now Peter had every right to defend Jesus. This was an evil, unjust thing and Peter was doing the right thing. Except that Jesus disagreed with him. Matthews account has Jesus saying: “Put your sword back…all who take the sword will die by the sword” Jesus did not take the life of his enemy, but instead he offered his life for him. I find this hard, because my human inclination is not tuned in to this. I would rather kill my enemy than serve her or him. Yet Jesus never offered easier teachings if we did not like the hard ones. This is one of the hard teachings. It was hard at the time – and Peter did not like it. And it has been hard ever since. In fact Jesus goes even further: This is the same Jesus who a few chapters earlier had said  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” [2] He also said “leave your gift at the altar and go at once and make peace with your brother” [3] and “do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you.”[4]  It is clear that Christian people are called to make peace not war.

Let me say this one thing: “It is never God’s will that people should go to war against one another” because God does not rejoice in people being killed – and neither should we! The fact is that every life lost in war is tragic. Every life lost in war touches family somewhere: there are wives, husbands, parents, and children who grieve. Our weeping should strengthen our resolve for to pray for, and work for peace.

Having said this I will admit to the unanswered questions in my own life: If someone broke into my home and threatened my daughters, I doubt that I would stand by and pray for the person. And if I saw someone beating up an old lady in the subway I do not think I would quietly ask the person to stop. And by extension if a country becomes a bully, and crushes the weak and the helpless, I find it unhelpful to say to the crushed and broken people: “Don’t worry – we are praying for you”. So what will I do? I do not know. But this strengthens my resolve to try everything in my power to resolve conflict peacefully. Let us do everything possible to avoid going to war. War is the consequence of failed peace making. Let us be people who work for peace.

Some people suggest that the best way to avoid war is to prepare for war. It is suggested that if I have bigger guns than you then you will not go to war with me. But if we put as much effort in creating a world that did not need war as we do in selling arms and instruments of war – we might have less violence and warfare.

For example:

  • Every time we care for abandoned children we work for peace, because those children will not grow up into violent angry adults.
  • Every time we provide a home for the homeless we work for peace, because those rootless people will not go to war for a stable future
  • And every time we create work for the jobless we work for peace, because we will raise people who have a stake in our economy

I am inviting us to begin now: let us work for peace by creating a world where war is not needed. This begins in our hearts and personal attitudes, and is then expressed through our actions within our communities.

[1] John 15:13

[2] Matt 5:43

[3] Matt 5:24

[4] Matt 5:39

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“To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” Finley Peter Dunne (1867–1936)