Inevitably this year we look back on the First World War.
Thinking about it, even briefly, fills me with sadness: sadness at the events that led to it, sadness at the way it was conducted, and sadness at the loss of life—in round figures, 2 million from the British Empire, 4 million each from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany, and approaching 5 million from Russia.
That sadness soon turns to anger. I find it hard to see WW1 as anything other than gangs of arrogant, inbred, white men strutting around, boasting “mine’s bigger than yours”, and demanding the sacrifice of lives they consider expendable for the sake of their pernicious playground politics.
Let’s move on 100 years.
Can those images be applied to contemporary affairs? You bet they can—all of ‘em. We see pettiness, squabbles, lies, evasions, egocentricity, showing off, and a refusal to accept that actions have consequences.
Why do we humans behave like this?
We do so in part because we’re too attached to polarized thinking, right/wrong, either/or. This is rarely healthy. Even in science, where you would think ideas are either right or wrong, it doesn’t always apply, especially for things that are very small or very large. Rather than either/or, thinking both/and can be more helpful: inclusive rather than exclusive.
The problem with right/wrong thinking is that if we are certain we’re right, we feel no need to learn anything new. We stop being curious. We lose the sense of wonder. We stop being open to other viewpoints. We surround ourselves with attitudes, possessions, money. We become addicted to them. We retreat behind metaphorical electric gates that we think protect us, but that in truth constrain us. We become obsessed, like Gollum in Lord of the Rings. In the words of Psalm 17 we become “inclosed in our own fat, and our mouth speaketh proud things.”
We provoke fights to prove who’s top dog. We become fearful of people that are not “one of us”. Demagogues know that fear lasts longer than hope, and is more powerful, and that with fear on their side, they can get people to believe anything and do anything. We start to regard others as less human than we are, and so fair game to be bullied, abused, killed. We become as those for whom might is their god.
In chapter 10 of Mark’s Gospel, there’s a story about Jesus talking to a man who wants to do the right thing. Jesus tells him to sell what he owns, and give the money to the poor—that is, don’t let possessions rule his life. But the man, despite his goodness, can’t let go of wealth, power, status—things that people fight to hang on to. Jesus challenges him to try to liberate him from attitudes that will destroy his personality and his ability to enjoy life to the full.
I ask you to contrast the closed-mindedness and fearfulness of so many adults with the open-mindedness, intellectual vitality and fearlessness of the young. I wonder how things might be different if there were more young decision-makers—people who have a vested interest in the future. I wonder why the church is run by yesterday’s men and women for a future they won’t be alive to see. I wonder why the country is run by yesterday’s men and women.
I’m one of the old men, of course, but these comments are based on experience. I have the honour of being Chaplain to Burton Air Training Corps. For 30 years I taught young adults in medical schools, and although I was born in 1950, I feel as if I‘m six. As always, I’m delighted to see young people here. Let’s applaud them and their commitment to the Services in all sorts of ways.
What’s the solution to the arrogance, fearfulness and closed-mindedness that so easily leads to war?
In the first reading we heard Prophet Micah telling his people that the Lord doesn’t need to be placated by gifts and sacrifices. All he asks is for each individual to work for justice, to be compassionate, and to be humble. Don’t get that word humble wrong. It doesn’t mean grovel. It doesn’t mean being “ever so ‘umble”: that’s merely inverted pride. It means to be aware of your own strengths and weaknesses. It means having your feet firmly planted on the ground—to be earthed (humus). It means remembering that we’re all in this together.
If we—each one of us—heeded this advice, the world would be a better place. If we all meant what we said and said only what we mean, if we were honest, if we were compassionate and recognized that not one of us is perfect, if we refused to lord it over others, then the world would be transformed. Yes, we need armour, as the second reading tells us. We need to protect ourselves. We need to be ready to fight—but fight for justice, fight to rid the world of oppression. Fighting for justice is love in action. The trouble is we see injustice and we do nothing, and that nurtures resentment, and resentment breeds extremism.
The answer to pernicious warfare does not lie with someone else. It’s not the responsibility of “them over there”. It’s the responsibility of every single one of us—you and me as well as them.
When we go to war—and the Second World War shows that there are times when we must—let’s be sure that mendacious and malignant swaggering plays no part. If those in power insist that they are right and everyone else is wrong—and recent history tells us that there are such people—then let’s strip them of office: after all, we still live in a democracy.
Our duty is to fight for justice, for without justice there will never be peace.