Tag Archives: war

Of Sodom

The Old Testament story of Sodom is not necessarily the most obvious choice of a text to reflect on for a Christian pacifist: God destroying an entire city because of their misbehaviour can hardly be described as helpful in speaking of a God of Peace.

And yet, when part of this text cropped up in our prayer this week, I felt it spoke into the heart of at least one of my reasons for objecting to military action in Syria.

Before the destruction of Sodom, we read an interaction between God and Abraham.

Abraham speaks to God saying “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it?” Genesis 19:23-24. For righteous, a word that perhaps doesn’t have the same power today, we might read innocent lives.

And God replies that for the sake of fifty he will not destroy it.

The dialogue continues, with the number of innocents gradually reducing until God answers “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it” Genesis 19: 32

And this is where, suddenly, the Sodom story is not so inaccessible to those of us who want to speak for peace.

Will ten innocents die?

Because if so, God’s answer is clear, even in the midst of one of the most violent biblical stories; even in the very earliest days of this people’s walk towards understanding the true nature of the God who loves them; even here, for the sake of ten innocents, disaster is stayed.

Why, oh why, do we still have so much to learn?

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An Open Letter to Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury

Dear Archbishop Justin Welby,

I am writing to you following your intervention in the House of Lords in the debate about British Military Action in Iraq. Initially, when I heard you were attending the debate and going to speak, I was extremely pleased that this was one occasion when you had made an active choice to attend a chamber in which I know you are rarely present.

While I disagree with the existence of the House of Lords, at least, so I thought, here was an opportunity for a voice to speak the Christian message of peace and justice. Imagine then my profound disappointment when the only representative of the church to be given the opportunity to inform the debate chose to speak in favour of action which, as a committed Christian, I feel is abhorrent to the faith I follow and its founder, Jesus Christ.

When will we learn? Conflict is an interminable cycle downwards into the worst depths of the human condition; of which the most vulnerable victims are always innocent civilians and from which the only real winners are the arms industry and their friends in the finance sector. I mourn for an institution which calls itself church but which puts their interests ahead of the hope of a future of peace and justice.

Your claim that “ It is the role of the church I serve to point beyond our imperfect responses and any material, national or political interest, to the message of Jesus Christ and the justice, healing and redemption that he offers.” is one with which I strongly agree. As church we are, both individually and collectively called to be prophets, holding up a vision of hope that speaks of another way being possible. But to hear it immediately followed by the words “ But in the here and now there is justification for the use of armed force” suggests that the early part of your speech was merely an empty formulation; when in reality you have chosen to ally yourself, and by virtue of your position, the Church of England, with the temporal powers of this world.

To my mind, as followers of the non-violent Christ, there is no situation, no justification which calls for us to raise weapons of war. This does not mean that I condone the activity of IS: of course I am in full agreement that their barbaric actions (along with those of other armed groups, both those we support and those we don’t) are causing a humanitarian crisis. I agree entirely that now is not a time for inaction, for closing our eyes and ears to the cries of the suffering. But I do fear for a world, and a church, which has come to believe that violent action and total inaction are the only two possible routes when faced with a difficult choice.

For me it is part of the very essence of the Gospel, and not an optional extra, that, in the face of the violent oppression of a regime which victimised the innocent, the route chosen by Jesus was neither violent action, nor passive inaction. It is a route that many in the church are still courageously trying to walk, but which your words suggest may have been institutionally forgotten. It is the route of non-violent, creative resistance, the route of sharing a hope of peace and justice, the route of making visible the pain not to exacerbate it further but to explore and understand and heal it. It is, I believe, the route along which Jesus invites us to follow him.

When Jesus told his disciples in Gethsemane to ‘put down their swords’, swords which they had raised in good faith to protect the innocent and prevent a worse act of violence, I do not believe it was a one off commandment for a given historical moment. I believe it was a commandment he whispers to our hearts repeatedly through the ages: ‘when you hear the battle call, when you see the weapons of war being raised, however good the justification might sound, you my followers, put down your swords’.

My personal church history is a varied one, and these days I hold my denominational identity very loosely, but it was the Anglican tradition which formed my early faith and into which I was both baptised and confirmed. I still hold those roots as a part, though not the whole, of my Christian identity. That said, out of all the churches with which I identify, the Church of England is increasingly the one I struggle with most. I have long been concerned about the church’s choice to associate itself both with military might and financial power; which make words spoken on behalf of the poor look all too often like hollow insincerity. It’s vast wealth and its choice of unethical investment practices, it’s support of a political system where being born into privilege is considered acceptable, and its continued support for acts of state violence, to me are all contrary to the Gospel.

Your words in Friday’s debate did nothing to allay my fears that the Church of England has become corrupted by such associations; and that those members of it who continue to share the Gospel, of whom I know there are very many, do so almost in spite of, rather than because of, the church. My condemnation of your position is paralleled by my admiration of those who continue to  courageously witness to the hope of peace in the name of the church.

I look forward to hearing your response about what drove you to speak as you did and how you are able to understand the Gospel so differently to my reading of it.

You remain in my prayers.

Yours Sincerely

Stephanie Neville

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When there are no words…

Writing the next post for this blog has been on my jobs list all week. It is now Saturday, and it is still on my jobs list.

Because I have no words.

I can’t think of anything to say right now which doesn’t sound empty and meaningless.

I have no words for the people of Gaza.

Nor for the people Of Ukraine. Of Iraq. Of Syria. Of the Central African Republic. Of South Sudan …

I have no words.

What words can I speak or write into these situations in this world which we have created? What words which do not feel like the meaningless platitudes of someone who lives a safe and comfortable life? What words that do not sound cheap and hollow in the face of the senseless pain and death which surrounds us?

But maybe this is exactly what I have to say. To acknowledge that sometimes there are no words, no simple answers, no easy clichés to cover a multitude of sins, no “it’ll all be all right in the end”s. There is just a litany of death and pain and suffering and anguish.

There are too many wounds that words won’t heal.

But in my wordlessness, in my inarticulate horror at the world outside my window, somewhere in a place in my heart that has no words, I cling to the knowledge that if it is true that there are no words, it isn’t because bombs or weaponry should be allowed to speak instead.

I cling to the hope of other possibilities inspired by those who have the courage and determination to break the infernal cycle by answering war and violence with peace, destruction with creativity, fear with a trusting hope, hatred with forgiveness.

In the midst of the harrowing crucifixion scenes, I cling to a belief in the God of resurrection and life.

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Legacy of War

At the end of last year I was deeply moved by a news article and accompanying photo which spoke to me of humanity, grief, the fragility of life and how war only ever leads to pain and death.

Soldier's Remains Returned

The photo shows a 94 year old woman from the US – Clara Gantt weeping over a coffin containing the remains of her husband, Joseph. He was an army sergeant who disappeared 63 years ago during the Korean War in 1950, and was subsequently listed as a prisoner of war/missing person. At the end of the war in 1953, returning soldiers confirmed that Joseph Gantt had been injured in battle, captured by the Chinese and had subsequently died in a POW camp of malnutrition. Only recently were his remains identified and flown back to Los Angeles for a dawn ceremony. Clara Gantt said “He told me if anything happened to him he wanted me to remarry. I told him no, no. Here I am, still his wife. Sixty-some odd years and just receiving his remains, coming home, was a blessing and I am so happy that I was living to accept him.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/12/21/clara-gantt-weeps-over-coffin_n_4485807.html)

In the Bible, John 10:10 Jesus says “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

War can never and will never bring life, joy and peace. It brings death, pain and grief and as followers of Jesus and believers in Love and another way – a way of True Peace, we must do all we can to end war and to end the manufacturing, selling and proliferation of weapons of war. While there is war we can never have life in all its fullness.


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