In my secular Understanding Religion class we have just looked at the Sermon on the Mount. It is an extraordinary speech. Not only because it is so memorable and vivid in its symbols and metaphors, but also because it is such a radical message. As we were unpicking it a student asked the not irrelevant question: “why don’t Christians do any of this if Jesus said it?” I think there might be a simple answer. Jesus was single, and clearly did not regard himself a part of the nation he lived in or the values it espoused. We need people like Jesus, people in opposition to the society they live in, and who will speak out against it no matter the risk.
On violence Jesus has a very radical message.
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. (Matthew 5: 21-22)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. (Matthew 5: 38-9)
Which makes it hard to understand the attitude of some in the church during World War One, as evidenced in the papers of the day.
If those who had adopted pacifist views had sufficient imagination to visualise a ten thousandth part of the horrors that would have been inflicted upon the people of the Allied nations but for armed protection, they would understand that even Jesus Christ might be expected to lead a bayonet charge.
Rev. A.C. Lawry, 23 February 1917
The Rev. Lawry’s argument is of course quite similar to more recent arguments about sending soldiers to war.
It seems that there are those who lack the imagination to involve themselves in conflict, and there are those whose imagination has run away with them. Those who will “take a stand” on one thing, and sit down on another. It is fairly well-known what the Saudi Arabian government for example does to many of its criminals. Thanks to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch we know that in 2014 the Saudi Arabian government beheaded about 90 people. 54 have been beheaded so far this year. The sentence of death by beheading can be handed down by the judge even if the case cannot be proven beyond reasonable doubt. Women are beheaded, juveniles are beheaded, those suspected of mental illness are beheaded, “sorcerers” are beheaded. Often publicly.
It is perhaps less well-known that Key will shortly be talking trade in Saudi Arabia.
Prime Minister John Key will lead an 18-member New Zealand business delegation to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait from 26 April to 1 May.
This will be the first visit by a New Zealand Prime Minister to Saudi Arabia.
Can we expect him to take a stand, I wonder, on public beheadings? I wonder if he will have the guts to do that?
“New Zealand must play a role, along with others here today, in standing up to the brutality and extremism of ISIL,” said Mr Key.
“In the lead up to ANZAC Day 2015 and the centenary of the Gallipoli commemorations two days from now, it is timely to reflect on current challenges to international peace and security”, said Mr Key.
International Peace Conference, 24 April 2015
We could, if we liked, stand up to the brutality and extremism of Boko Haram, but we won’t because what Key is really talking about is neither guts or taking our feet it is this:
“Ultimately are we going to say we are going to be part of a club like [we] are with Five Eyes intelligence?
“Are we ultimately going to be able to rely on members of those clubs to support us in our moment of need?”
John Key, 20 January 2015
It is language that makes me think of August 1914 when New Zealand was part of another club: the British Empire. Crowds gathered expectantly in front of what is now the Parliamentary Library to hear the official announcement that New Zealand was going to war against Germany. A young woman called Ena was there:
It was a lovely, sunny spring afternoon… and thou we didn’t realise it, that was the door shutting on this quiet, innocent, peaceful colonial New Zealand. We’ve never been the same again.
Quiet, innocent, peaceful New Zealand after the Land Wars of course.
In long solid lines the people came up the white lanes of the Parliamentary Grounds with the quick step of expectancy…. His Excellency was received with loud cheers.
Evening Post, 5 August 1914
It was, of course, Arthur William de Brito Savile Foljambe who declared war for New Zealand.
He had the balls and tassels to do it, as our first Governor General: Lord Liverpool. The tone on the steps that sunny spring afternoon was very much in the spirit of the “club” as Massey and Ward made speeches to the crowd.
I paraphrase these speeches, I think not unfairly, as “Show your guts and support the club”.
By 1916 it was becoming clear that the enthusiasm of men to join up and fight was waning and the Military Services Bill went before parliament. It was widely supported, although on the matter of people who would object to being conscripted for religious reasons there was some debate as to whether they should be exempted, or made to go as stretcher bearers and the like. The views of various MPs were reported in the Evening Post of 6 July, 1916.
By 1918 MPs such as Thomas Wilford (Minister of Justice), the son of a Quaker (possibly a disappointment to his parents), had hit upon an interesting scheme to catch the shirker. Perhaps shirkers could be found at race meetings? Plain clothes police officers went to a race meeting at Palmerston North where they rounded up 590 men. After a day of document checking and interrogation doubt remained about six men. After the second day, where a further 500 men were checked, officials declared that 95% of men passed the test.
The police report recommends that regulations should require reservists to carry with them military documents that could identify them unmistakably, when questioned by the police. Lacking such documents, persons are liable to arrest.
Evening Post, 22 April 1918
This is the same Thomas Wilford:
It is a familiar argument, that in order to preserve liberty we need to give up liberty. In 1918 if you were a man you could be stopped by a plain clothes police man and interrogated about your status in the war. In 2015, of course, the agents of the government can keep an eye on you far more discreetly thanks to the digital world we live in. To fight the terrorism the Empire and then the Club have created preserving liberty for themselves we now need to allow our governments to capture everything we receive, send or search.
I am not a Christian, I just happen to have a great deal of time for Jesus. You will never find me in a church, or praying to God. The Rev. Lawry I quoted at the top of this post was probably right: “Jesus Christ might be expected to lead a bayonet charge”. What he doesn’t say is that he would refuse despite the expectation. There is no wriggle room in Jesus’ statements about hate, violence and your enemies. The correct response is the turned cheek and prayer; it is not a bayonet charge. It is something I learned watching Martin Luther King, Jnr; how much bravery is required to turn the other cheek. It is not cowardice to fight back against an aggressor, it is normal. Which is why not doing so, deliberately not doing so, is such a radical and confronting gesture.
This is not how anyone should send people into a war.
And this feels the wrong response:
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.