Archives for posts with tag: Matthew 5

By Hugh Bryant

I attended recently a most interesting discussion where a currently serving bishop said, in the context of nuclear deterrence, that he has ‘lost faith in violence’.

The question I am interested in is whether a particular type of violence, the threat of nuclear retaliation for deterrence, still works, and whether Christians can support it.

The terrible effects of weapons of mass destruction, not only nuclear weapons but also non-nuclear violence such as carpet bombing of cities, for example at Dresden, Hamburg and Coventry, where war extends to include indiscriminate attacks both on combatants and non-combatants alike, surely raise serious questions whether such destruction is ever justified.

In relation to nuclear weapons, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD) is supposed to have kept the peace and avoided world wars since the end of World War II.

The Christian attitude to war seems to me to be in two parts, what Jesus said and what Christians have interpreted that to mean in succeeding years. What Jesus said is easily stated. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5), ‘Love your enemies – turn the other cheek – do good to those who hate you.’ And, of course, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Later on, in C4 CE, in his ‘City of God’ Book XIX, St Augustine put forward the so-called ‘just war’ theory, which was a Christian concept relating his perception of what he believed Jesus would have said with classical Greek and Roman philosophy (in Aristotle’s Politics and Cicero’s De Officiis).

Anti-nuclear campaigners argue that it is wrong to spend money on nuclear weapons, as the state will be depriving citizens of benefits which they would otherwise be able to enjoy if the money were not being spent on nukes. The reason for this is that these weapons will never be used. If they were used, this would be the end of the world as we know it and calculations of public utility would become completely pointless as there would be nobody left alive to receive whatever benefits there might be.

It is said, just as with the other sayings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, here again what he is advocating is just not practicable in real life. It’s all very well for us to give up our nuclear weapons but, if so, how do we answer an aggressor such as Vladimir Putin? It is also clear that MAD is at work in relation to the current crisis, the war between Russia and Ukraine.

On the face of things there are a lot of parallels with the situation in 1939. An aggressive dictator has invaded a neighbouring country and there is a risk that, if steps are not taken to resist, in this case by operating a so-called no-fly zone, the neighbouring country will likely be overwhelmed and there is a risk that further aggression will take place against other neighbouring countries. In 1939, following the invasion of Czechoslovakia and when Poland was invaded, we declared war on Germany and the second world war began.

Now we and the other NATO countries are refusing Ukraine’s request that we join their fight against Russia. The reason for our refusal is said to be that, if NATO aircraft come into conflict with Russian aircraft this would probably trigger a third world war with a risk of nuclear conflict. This last element seems to be the factor which is making a difference when the situation is compared with what happened in 1939.

Putin has expressly threatened to use nuclear weapons if he is attacked by NATO and, apparently, his threat is being believed. But would the officer tasked with launching the apocalyptic weapon follow orders? Two Russian officers, Capt. Arkhipov during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, and Lt Col Petrov in 1983, both in effect refused orders to launch nuclear weapons, and are said to have saved the world each time.

Clearly, the logic of MAD (if one can put it that way) is that the opponent cannot risk calling the other’s bluff. And I am not suggesting that only Russian officers would prefer to save the world rather than press the nuclear annihilation button. For instance, I understand that Royal Navy nuclear submarine commanders study moral philosophy. Whether that might make them less willing to press the nuclear launch button, one cannot know – but it might help.

If one forgets the nuclear weapons for a moment, what we are talking about is dispute resolution. You and I disagree about something. We can’t persuade each other who is right, whose view is to prevail. But it’s something very important to us. We can’t just let it go. It’s not something we can go to court about. So – do I beat you up? Shall I fight you, and by defeating you, force you to do what I want? Or, more realistically, perhaps, if you start to attack me, do I fight back?

In that context, of course whether one of us will win depends upon our fighting ability and the calibre of weapons each of us is using. That is where armed forces, nukes, and MAD, come into the picture. But surely this is rather like some kinds of bee sting. If the bee stings you, it may kill you – but it will itself die.

St Augustine said that even war is waged in order to bring about peace (City of God, Bk XIX, ch 12). But MAD doesn’t fit with this. If war is waged – if the nuke is launched – it cannot bring about peace, unless a fiery descent into nothingness is to be counted as peace.

So are we, in nuclear deterrence, relying on a strategy which is irrational, which in fact does not even aim at achieving an objective which we would want?

In that, in waging war, we are forcing someone to do what they do not want to do, we are perhaps acting in a similar way to a parent chastising a child, or perhaps, in a grown-up context, we are paralleling the operation of criminal legal sanctions.

What is punishment, in the context of the criminal law? It is a mark of victory. The criminal has been defeated. Then, instead of being beaten over the head, they are punished. What is the purpose of the punishment? Among other things, to protect society, to stop the criminal from doing their crime. And deterrence, to deter others from committing the crime.

That looks like a rationale for waging war against an invader. But ‘What would Jesus do?’ On the face of it, he was not against the invading Romans – although one of his disciples was Simon ‘the Zealot’, a resistance fighter. Turning the other cheek doesn’t chime with fighting to the death against someone. On the other hand, Jesus respected the Jewish Law; ‘I have not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfil it’ (Matt. 5:17). By extension that might imply that he supported the Rule of Law.

This could mean that, in dealing with an invader, the defending state has to abide by international law. That would allow the defenders to use violence (force) in self-defence, provided that they obeyed the rules of the Geneva Conventions (roughly equivalent to the rules of the Just War ‘jus in bello’ – rules governing conduct in a war, as opposed to principles to justify whether to wage war at all – so-called ‘jus ad bellum’).

But – none of this bears on the question whether MAD really works. Just as criminologists argue that it is the likelihood of getting caught which deters criminals, rather than the length of prison sentences, so are unjustified aggressors like Putin actually deterred by our having nukes?

MAD, as understood by Russia, involves the ‘no first use’ principle, (although NATO has not accepted this). So it could be argued that Putin’s threat to retaliate, against NATO use of non-nuclear force in support of Ukraine, does not fit the paradigm of MAD. It could be argued that Putin is expressly threatening first use: and therefore, by the operation of MAD, inviting nuclear destruction.

Either way, surely NATO could in fact respond to Putin and intervene, and at the same time robustly state that his threat of nuclear ‘retaliation’ would amount to a first use. Both sides would shy away from ‘going nuclear’. But a no-fly zone would be feasible, and that would be likely to bring about a ceasefire.

Surely that is an argument in favour of nuclear deterrence? I don’t think so. Even in this Ukrainian case, nuclear weapons are ultimately pointless. If the pilots of Russian warplanes see that NATO targeting radar has locked on to them, they will not fly over their erstwhile targets any more. That will have had nothing to do with the availability of nukes.

Hugh Bryant is a Reader in the Church in Wales.

An edited version of this article was first published on the CRCOnline website, https://www.crconline.org.uk/.

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent, 17th March 2019

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18, Philippians 3:17-4:1, Luke 13:31-35

As we woke up on Friday, to hear the news about the terrible shootings in the mosques in Christchurch in New Zealand, the New Zealand Prime Minister, Mrs Ardern, made a moving statement about the fact that it seems clear that the 50 people killed were the victims of a racist, Islamophobic terrorist. Mrs Ardern said, ‘Many of those who will have been directly affected by this shooting will be migrants, they will be refugees here. They have chosen to make New Zealand their home and it is their home. They are us.’

A bit later on, a picture appeared on Twitter [reproduced above] of a man who, if I can say this, did not look like a Moslem, but rather like Andy Capp in the cartoons, in a flat cap, standing smiling outside a mosque in Manchester with a placard which said, ‘You are my friends. I will keep watch while you pray.’

Terrible atrocities do sometimes seem to bring out beautiful and uplifting thoughts, like those of Mrs Ardern and of the man in the flat cap outside the mosque in Manchester.

In our Lent study groups we are going through the Beatitudes, the ‘blessed are they’ sayings which Jesus spoke at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5.

The second one, perhaps the right one at a time of tragedy, is ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.’ This is one of those short sentences that contains impossibly dense and complicated ideas. On the face of things, for somebody to be mourning, to be sad, to be heartbroken, is not in any sense the same as to be fortunate, which is what the word translated as ‘blessed’ means.

How lucky for you that you are heartbroken; what a wonderful thing it is that you are in floods of tears. Clearly there’s something which doesn’t add up. Try telling the distraught people that were on the TV from New Zealand that they were in some way blessed or fortunate. But really it means, as it says, that those who mourn will be blessed, will be comforted in future: and that is a message of hope after all.

St Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, condemns those who live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Earlier in the chapter we had as our reading, he identifies the people that he condemns. He says, ‘Beware of those dogs and their malpractices. Beware of those who insist on mutilation – I will not call it ‘circumcision’’. Beware of people who tell you you have to become a Jew in order to become a true Christian.

Nevertheless, Paul was proud to tell everybody that he had been circumcised and that he was an Israelite of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born and bred, and a Pharisee [Phil. 3:5]. He’d thrown it all over, after his Road-to-Damascus experience, and in his letters, for example to the Galatians and to the Romans, he made the point that, in the kingdom of heaven, there is no difference between Greeks, (Gentiles), and Jews.

The Israelites had been the chosen people of God, and the others, the Gentiles, the ‘nations’, were the great unwashed. But St Paul’s mission was to bring the good news of Jesus precisely to those Gentiles, to those who were not circumcised. He said, ‘Our citizenship is in heaven.’ Ordinary nationality doesn’t apply in heaven.

But originally, Paul – and Jesus – were Jews, sons of Abraham, descendants of Abraham. The word of the Lord came to Abraham and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars; because that’s how many your descendants will be.’ The sons of Abraham. They were Israelites, the chosen people of God.

The gunman is supposed to have said that one of his reasons for shooting Moslems was because he saw them as strangers, ‘invaders’. At the beginning of this week in morning prayers we were reading from the Book of Deuteronomy, where Moses speaks the words of the Lord, a prophecy about offering sacrifice of the first fruits of the land, the land of milk and honey, which the Israelites have been led into, the promised land. Moses tells them to say in their prayers that they are descended from ‘a wandering Aramean’, or from ‘a Syrian ready to perish’, that they have been led into Egypt and then eventually out of Egypt again, as strangers in the land. Even they, the chosen people, started out as strangers.

There are many passages in the Book of Deuteronomy, and in the Jewish Law generally, which St Paul would have been very familiar with, which impose on Jews a duty to care for a stranger that is within their gates, to care for strangers along with orphans and widows. That is the spirit that Mrs Ardern has so eloquently reminded us of. It is not a spirit of antipathy towards immigrants and refugees, not against strangers, not against people who are different from ourselves.

This is such a difficult area. There are so many apparent paradoxes. The Jews, refugees, made it to the promised land; they went to the holy city, Jerusalem, and set up the temple there. ‘Jerusalem the golden, with milk and honey blest’.

But Jesus points out that, because that is where the council, the Sanhedrin, is based, it is only in Jerusalem that he can be condemned, and that Jerusalem is a city that kills prophets, that throws stones at people who are sent to it.

Mrs Ardern was one of those world leaders, like Mrs Merkel in Germany, who has dared to extend a welcome to refugees. She still extends that welcome. But what about us? The challenge to us today is surely not to be fixated with ‘taking back control’, with restricting immigration and upholding national identity, however important some of those things might seem to be at first.

Jesus said, ‘Strive to enter in at the strait gate. Struggle to get in through the narrow door. For I tell you that many will try to enter and not be able to. You may stand outside and knock: say, ‘Sir, let us in.’ But he will only answer, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ [Luke 13:24]

Where do we come from? You could say that Jesus makes getting into the kingdom of heaven seem like a refugee trying to come ashore in Italy, or trying to get through at the Hungarian border or even being caught up in our own Government’s ‘hostile environment’ at Heathrow today. Contrast that with what Mrs Ardern said. ‘ … They will be refugees here. They have chosen to make New Zealand their home. It is their home. They are us.’

The challenge for us as Christians is to raise our sights above the earthly ghastliness which stems from narrow nationalism, and to seek what is truly heavenly. ‘Blessed are those who mourn, because they will be comforted.’ Let us pray that, with God’s help, we can become channels of peace, so that we too can say that they are our friends, and that we will keep watch while they pray.

Sermon for Evensong on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, 13th January 2019

Isaiah 55:1-11; Romans 6:1-11

What difference does it make? You know, being a Christian. We are past the lovely Christmas baby-fest. Now what difference does God-with-us, Emmanuel, make?

Isaiah is saying to the Israelites, come back to the true God. Don’t follow pagan idols. 

‘Why spend money and get what is not bread,

why give the price of your labour and go unsatisfied?

Only listen to me and you will have good food to eat,

and you will enjoy the fat of the land.

Come to me and listen to my words,

hear me, and you shall have life:

I will make a covenant with you, this time for ever,

to love you faithfully as I loved David’ [Is. 55:2-3, NEB]

Salvation is coming. The Messiah will come. He will not be what you expect – he will be like a suffering servant, even – ‘ despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief’ [Is. 53:3f]. But ‘all we like sheep have gone astray’. You can hear Handel’s ‘Messiah’ in it – but you mustn’t be seduced by the beautiful music into not hearing the Bible underneath.

It’s the major theme of much of the Old Testament. The chosen people, the Israelites, ‘like sheep have gone astray’. They have worshipped false gods. Isaiah asks, ‘Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labour for that which satisfieth not?’ 

We can recognise ourselves a bit in this, even though it was written nearly 3,000 years ago. Your eyes will probably glaze over if I say this. Yeah, yeah. Of course we shouldn’t get hung up on new cars and posh extensions to our houses. But – we do. What harm does it do? Worse things happen at sea.

Well, Isaiah said to the Israelites, according to some scholars about 700BC, that they needed to ‘Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near:
Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord.’ It could still be valid for us today.

Because what the Israelites were doing was sin; they were sinning against the one true God. But he offers them a second chance. ‘Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.’

Sin is, in a sense, doing bad things. But underpinning that is the reason that something is sinful. It is, that it shows that the sinner is turning away from, is separated from, God. So if you steal, or envy someone their things, or elope with their wife, those are bad things, but they are also sins, because you are going against God’s commandments. ‘If ye love me, keep my commandments’ [John 14:15f].

But in our other reading, from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we have flashed forward 700 years from Isaiah, to the time of Jesus, and St Paul. Isaiah’s prophecies have come true. The Messiah has come. This morning in our services we were marking the Baptism of Christ. Christ meeting the last of the prophets, John the Baptist. You might perhaps think that because of the story of Jesus, there isn’t any need to bother with the Old Testament, with 60+ chapters of Isaiah and things, any more. But remember that Jesus himself said, ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am come not to destroy, but to fulfil.’ (Matt. 5:17). So when the dove came down on Jesus after his baptism in the River Jordan, and the voice from heaven said, ‘Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased’, it was a pivotal moment, joining the prophetic time with the incarnation of God on earth.

Paul made powerful use of baptism in his preaching to non-Jews. Baptism was a ritual common in Greek cults as well as in Christianity. ‘To his pagan converts it appealed as a sacrament parallel to those of the Greek mysteries’ (C.H. Dodd, 1950 (1920), The Meaning of Paul for Today, Glasgow, Wm Collins Sons and Co, p.130). In the Greek mysteries, by performing sacramental acts ‘spiritual effects could be obtained’ (Dodd).

Running through St Paul’s letters is the idea of the Christians being ‘in Christ’, intimately bound up with Christ. So, in a sense, Christ’s baptism was a symbol of being dead and then resurrected; going down into the water and then rising up out of it.  By being baptised ‘along with’ or ‘into’ Christ, Christians were symbolically sharing in his death and resurrection. 

At the same time, there was a problem: even after being baptised, Christians were still human, they still did sinful things. Paul said that we need to be ‘dead to sin’ in the way that Jesus was. That is, as Jesus died, he couldn’t be prey to sinful influences. He was ‘dead to sin’.  So as a Christian, if I am ‘alive to Christ’, baptised, sacramentally dead and resurrected with him, I too should be ‘dead to sin’. 

But it isn’t magic. It’s a sacrament. The essence of a sacrament is that it is ‘an outward visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’, as the Catechism in the BCP puts it (p294 of the Cambridge edition). It’s worth reading this bit of the Catechism. Things aren’t as fierce today as they were in the 16th century, when the heading to the Catechism in the BCP was ‘an Instruction to be learned of every Person before he be brought to be confirmed by the Bishop’. That is, learned by heart, at about 10 years old… 

Anyway, if you’re up for it, this is what you have to learn about being baptised.

‘Question.

How many parts are there in a Sacrament?

Answer.

Two: the outward visible sign, and the inward spiritual grace.

Question.

What is the outward visible sign or form in Baptism?

Answer.

Water: wherein the person is baptized, In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

Question.

What is the inward and spiritual grace?

Answer.

A death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness: for being by nature born in sin, and the children of wrath, we are hereby made the children of grace.

Question.

What is required of persons to be baptized?

Answer.

Repentance, whereby they forsake sin: and faith, whereby they stedfastly believe the promises of God, made to them in that Sacrament.’

‘A death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness’. That’s what you get in Christian baptism. But just as sin doesn’t just mean doing bad things, so conversely, being a child of grace doesn’t mean just going with the flow, being baptised and doing nothing in consequence of it. You need repentance, μετάνοια, change of mind, as a prerequisite.

Paul has posed the problem, the puzzle. Why is there still sin around, or rather, can we still get away with committing sins, after we have been baptised? Indeed, he starts with a rather nerdy argument that sounds as though it has come out of a philosophy essay, to the effect that we need to carry on sinning in order to demonstrate by contrast the weight of grace which we have got. It’s almost like saying you can’t understand what it is to be black unless you have white as well.

Paul answers his puzzle not philosophically, but by explaining how we are joined with Christ in the sacrament. Dead with him; dead to sin.  Alive, resurrected, with Christ. So, I come back round to my original question. ‘What difference does it make? You know, being a Christian. We are past the lovely Christmas baby-fest. Now what difference does God-with-us, Emmanuel, make?’

This is tough stuff. It really means that, if we put our heads above the parapet and let people know that we are Christians, it should be evident in what we do, evident in how we behave. 

It means that in business, if we say that our actions are dictated solely by the need to make value, or profit, for shareholders; or in public affairs, if we say that we would like to do something good, but that money, or the market, dictates otherwise; if we see poor people risking their lives to escape poverty and danger, and try to keep them out instead of giving them a place of refuge; in all those cases, we will show ourselves as still not being dead to sin and alive to Christ. 

Think of Jesus’ teaching. God and mammon: the good Samaritan; the prodigal son; giving and not counting the cost. As Jesus said just before he was baptised, in St Luke’s Gospel, ‘The man with two shirts must share with him who has none, and anyone who has food must do the same.’ It’s not enough – although it’s a good start – just to go to church. Think what you have to do, to really do, in order to be really dead to sin.