Sermon by Rev Ian Lowell at Gulval Parish Church
So they came outside the camp. The liturgy of a regiment departing had been sung. Empty wet parade ground. A camp-warden, some unfit men and other details loiter, dribble away, shuffle off like men whose ship has sailed.
The long hutment lines stand. Not a soul. It rains harder: torn felt lifts to the wind above Hut 10, Headquarter Company; urinal concrete echoes for a solitary whistler. Corrugated iron empty — no one. Chill gust slams the vacant canteen door.
And so it began for every soldier, leaving the last patch of Blighty behind — the training camp, the endless drill, the transformation from civilian to military man. And for every soldier, double that with a sailor, and triple it with an airman, and then quadruple it for a merchant navy man. And also add the families left behind, the crowds who in 1914 waved the soldiers off, and then tried to carry on a life that was no longer normal or usual or the same old same old. Old certainties soon begin to die as much the sailors in the sea sunk by the enemy and soldiers across no man’s land.
But that will still be the future for the beginning of August 1914. Now it is all hope that it will be all over by Christmas and we’ll give a bloody nose to Kaiser Bill. Now it is the professional men of the British Army, the Royal Navy, the Merchant Navy and the Royal Flying Corps preparing to do what they have been trained for. Conscription, Pal’s Battalions, the lines of opposing trenches, the horrors of the gas attack, the trauma of shell shock, mechanical monsters worthy of an H. G. Wells’ story — tanks — are not yet experienced or known.
But we know, we now looking back to that fateful day in August 1914. And what are to make of it — the deaths, the destruction, the great swathes of Belgian and French land criss-crossed with trenches. But also the open plains and mountains, on the eastern and southern front lines, the fighting at sea, the U-boats and the merchant ships, the deserts of Arabia and North Africa, the lands of colonial Africa, the marshes of the Persian Gulf. The Great War was a world at war.
Turning to our major resource, the Bible, provides no easy answer. The Old Testament is full of wars — the archetypal biblical hero, King David, is himself praised as a warrior. And the prophecy of Joel has God extol (3.9-12)
“Proclaim this among the nations, declare a holy war, arouse the warriors; draw near and go up, all you men of war.
“Beat your plough-shares into swords and your sickles into spears; let the powerless say, ‘I am strong.’
“Gather together, and go in, all you nations round about; be gathered there, and let the meek one become a warrior.
“Let all the nations arouse themselves and go up to the Valley of Jehoshaphat, because I am going to sit in judgement on all the nations round about.”
This ‘Valley of Jehoshaphat’ may not be a literal place, for the word means ‘The Lord Judges’, and the time that this is to happen may not be in the contemporary, but rather the prophet is seeing it as a moment of end-time. But quite clearly it is momentous, it judgemental and it is to be seen as final!
And Joel is deliberately reverse the hopeful imagery of our First Reading from Isaiah, and a similar message from his contemporary prophet Micah (4.3)
“[God] shall judge between many peoples! and shall refute mighty nations far away; and they shall beat theirs swords into plough-shares, and their spears into sickles; no longer shall nation lift up sword against nation, no longer shall they learn war any more.”
There is much debate about the precise time when Joel lived and prophesied, but it is clear that he lived after the time of the prophets Isaiah and Micah, turning their hope of peace and an end of war within their time into a final apocalypse.
The Old Testament, therefore, provides with the same divided opinions about war in general, and indeed the Great War of 1914-1919. It does however create the idea of what we will call the ‘Just’ War.
This was a legacy inherited by Christianity, with many theologians, and, later, lawyers and moralists arguing for and against the basis of such a view. Today there are seen to be seven criteria to judge whether a war is just or not.
The first of these is to ask whether the reason for the conflict is in itself just. It cannot be based on ‘tit for tat’ or ‘an eye for an eye’ an so forth. It has been summed up in this statement: “Force may be used only to correct a grave, public evil, i.e. aggression or massive violation of the basic human rights of whole populations.” (1993 US Catholic Conference)
The second criterion is sometimes still disputed — is about comparative justice. The injustices suffered by one side must far outweigh those suffered by the other side.
The third criterion is the need for competent authority. This is defined as: “A just war must be initiated by a political authority within a political system that allows distinctions of justice. … A just war must be initiated by a political authority within a political system that allows distinctions of justice.” This is a summation of the thoughts of the theologians Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas.
The fourth criterion is right intention. Might in itself is not right, nor is profiting from the conflict.
The fifth criterion is the probability of success — warfare at any cost is not better than none.
The sixth criterion is last resort. War is to be entered into only after every other means of dialogue, reason and efforts for peace have failed.
The final criterion is proportionality. Are all the consequences of waging war proportionate to the terrible things that will happen during its course?
Those of you who listened astutely to our second reading or who have looked ahead to the last quotation on the service sheet will recognise that these last three criteria— the first four are also implicit — are effectively summed up in the words of Jesus of Nazareth as recorded in the Gospel of Luke (14.31-33):
“And what monarch, journeying to engage in war with another monarch, will not first sit down and consider, if he is able, with ten thousand, to encounter the one coming towards him with twenty thousand. And if he can’t, then while the other monarch is still a long way off, he sends an embassy and asks for negotiations for peace.”
But, interestingly enough, Jesus is not talking directly about the ethics of war in this context, but rather the demands of discipleship. It follows from a saying about a man wishing to build a tower, and whether he has the wherewithal to do it. Jesus is asking his disciples: Have you got the will and the spirit to follow through your discipleship. In fact, he states baldly before these two parables — “whoever does not carry their own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.”
So where does that leave us, in our reflection and commemoration of the start of the Great War, as we have gathered together to do so in this service?
First of all, I believe, it means we have to learn to look at this past moment with dispassion as well as passion and compassion.
We need to look at it coolly as to how and why it started, and to then judge whether it was a just war or not.
We then need to look at it within the context of our spiritual feelings, our faith, and indeed the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
And finally, we need to look at it with compassion, and identity as fully as we are able with all who suffered within that conflict. Those who served in the various armed forces, those who served in the merchant navies, and those who suffered as civilians, whether as intentional or unintentional victims.
By August 4 2014, Austria-Hungary had declared war on Serbia, and Germany had declared war on Russia and then France. Germany had also invaded Luxembourg, while Belgium had declared itself neutral. All neighbouring states had agreed to respect Belgium’s neutrality, but on the fourth day of August German troops marched into Belgium. The British Government, having remonstrated with the government of Germany at this breach of an international agreement, received this reply from the German Chancellor — the treaty was un chiffon de papier — “(merely) a scrap of paper”. This country declared war on Germany.
Jesus, according to Luke, accepts that war is as much a part of the human condition as a man building a tower without the resources to complete it. He neither commends it nor condemns it. Indeed, in the same Gospel Luke has Jesus clearly state (22.37):
“… now let anyone who has a purse take it, and the same with a bag; and anyone who doesn’t have a sword should sell his cloak and buy one. For I’m telling you that this Scripture passage must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was reckoned with the lawless’; you see what is written about me is nearing accomplishment.”
They said, “Lord, look — here are two swords.”
He said, “It’s enough.”
And yet, within a short while, when one of his disciples uses one of these swords against those come to arrest Jesus — he responds, “Let them be; that’s enough!”, and heals the injured man.
Jesus almost lives out the parable he told — he could attack his enemies (although not effectively with only two swords) — but instead he submits. This is a demonstration for his disciples, he is willing to carry his own cross.
We will demonstrate our compassion for those who have died on the date that marks the Armistice — the eleventh day of the eleventh month at the eleventh hour.
The true end of the Great War came in July 1919, with the signing at ratification of the Treaty of Versailles, after over six months of effective world government, mainly controlled by France and Great Britain.
Although the League of Nations ultimately failed, its agency the World Health Organisation has continued. And also there arose a concern among certain people about the plight of
starving children. One campaigner for this, Eglantyne Jebb, founded in 1919 ‘Save the Children’ and raised a million pounds. Ironically, the then Archbishop of Canterbury felt he could not condone such a venture, and yet, in writing to the Pope, Eglantyne Jebb received the first commendation from a Roman Catholic spiritual leader in support of a non-Roman Catholic charity.
On August 4 1914 nobody knew that the beginning of these hostilities would take the shape they did. No one could conceive the disruption caused by the death, the destruction and the scale of the warfare. And nor did anyone suspect that, over four years later, there would be plans for a new world order, a new sense of internationalism and an understanding that ‘overseas’ charity is much more than supporting missionaries, it is a means to ensure the most vulnerable in all societies are shown respect and care, and that they have a right to good and healthy life.