A sermon preached on Sunday 15th November in response to the terrorist attacks on France last Friday. Bible readings were Romans 12:9-21 and Matthew 5:38-48. The readings had been separated by a video of the ABC interview with Diane Foley following the assumed killing of Mohammed Emwahzi, who had killed her son James.
Earlier this year in the run up to the election the leaders of all three major political parties launched Easter messages. David Cameron was the only one of them who identifies himself as a Christian. You can see his video on YouTube. The central message is that the United Kingdom is a Christian country and that we should be proud of this and celebrate it. It made me wonder how a Christian country should respond to the outrages in Paris earlier in the weekend.
You might expect a Christian country to look first to the Bible. The Bible, of course, is a complex book, or collection of books. All too often we struggle to find a simple message to guide our actions. I thus often choose quite different passages to shed light on a common topic from different angles. On particular themes however a clear and consistent message is presented and today I’ve chosen two extremely similar passages to emphasize this. The first we’ve heard is from Matthew’s gospel. It is part of the Sermon on the Mount. Few biblical scholars believe that this was ever preached by Jesus as a single sermon. Most think it more likely that this is collation of Jesus’s sayings from throughout his ministry. As such it is generally an excellent starting point to try and explore Jesus teaching.
The second reading is from Paul’s letter to the Romans. It was written between about 55 and 60BC, about 30 years after Jesus teaching. It was written at a time when Christianity was spreading rapidly through the Mediterranean region. This is, of course, indicated by the title; it is a letter to the Christian community in Rome. In this respect it is quite different to the Sermon on the Mount. If the Sermon on the Mount is a collection of Jesus sayings abstracted from the context in which they were originally delivered then Paul’s letter is to a very specific community at a very specific time. Its contents are practical advice for how to live in the context that the Christians found themselves in. An important part of that context was that the Christians were a persecuted minority who felt powerless to respond to the forces that persecuted them. We read this from verse 14: “Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse”.
Mourn with those who mourn
Perhaps the most important starting point in applying these passages to the present situation is verse 15, “mourn with those who mourn”. We are called to empathise with those who have suffered loss. In many ways it is difficult to have any other response given the immediacy of the television news over the last two days. Given those harrowing pictures it is almost impossible not to feel the pain. The pictures go further and reinforce this international mourning process. We started our service this morning with the picture of a woman in lighting candles in the shape of a question mark outside the French embassy in Prague. There have been candlelit vigils throughout the world. The Sydney Opera house has turned into a tricolour as has the Taipei 101 building, the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio, the walls of the old city in Jerusalem, the Oriental Pearl tower in Shanghai, the Brandenberg gait. This is a truly modern phenomenon, expressions of global grief unknown before the century within which we now live and sending a powerful message to the French people.
But is our mourning selective? By the latest estimates of the Nobel Prize Winning American group, Physicians for Social Responsibility, 1.3 million civilians have died in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan since the start of the war on terror. This carnage isn’t something of the distant past. It is the day to day reality of life that is being lived out by millions of people throughout the Middle East. Where is the outpouring of grief, where are the symbols of international solidarity for these people. Why do we choose to grieve for some people and not for others? How would the foreign policy of a country that grieved with all victims of terror throughout the world be different from that of a country that only chooses to grieve for the people that it has most in common with? How would a truly Christian country react to the reality of the modern world?
Do not take revenge
The second message that I want to focus on that is common to these two passages is the rejection of revenge as a motive. Paul says this explicitly in verse 19 “Do not take revenge”. Jesus says it implicitly “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”. It is interesting that the section of the Sermon on the Mount that exhorts us to Love our enemy is preceded by the statement over-ruling the old teaching of an “eye for an eye, or a tooth for a tooth”. We have to remember that that was originally a statement of limitation. Where there is no law, disputes readily escalate if the reaction of a crime is out of proportion to the crime itself. There is a strong argument that the American reaction to the events of 9/11 is just such an example. The old demand that the reaction to crime should be in proportion to the nature of the crime helped to stable society. But Jesus and Paul both go further. They both want to remove any motive of revenge from our response. Let God take care of revenge, let us explore how to respond in love.
The reactions to the killing of Mohammed Emwazi amongst the relatives of the people he killed have varied greatly. Many have expressed relief, a few have expressed satisfaction, but, as a Christian, the one which spoke most deeply to me was the response we have heard this morning from Diane Foley. The emotion she expresses is one of sadness. Sadness that yet another individual has been destroyed by conflict. Sadness that something awful has transformed an ordinary young , who was remembered this week by his previous teachers as hard working and proud of his educational success, into a pathological killer. Her son, she says, would have wanted to befriend him. I don’t know what religious background Dian Foley comes from, I don’t know what motivated her son, but I do know that his actions and her words embody in the twenty-first century what both Jesus and Paul were talking and writing about 2,000 years ago.
Yet both David Cameron and Francoise Hollande, following in the pattern set by George W Bush after 9/11, have promised revenge. Both have promised to pursue the perpetrators “without mercy”. Is this the response of a Christian country? Micah reminds us that what God requires is that we, “Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God”.
Overcome evil with good
The response of a Christian country, I believe, is encapsulated in the last two verses of the reading we have heard from Romans:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink … Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
In our response to this weekend’s events let us not try and respond to terror with ever more terror, let us not demand a tooth for a tooth or an eye for an eye. Let us seek to overcome evil with good.
The American war on Iraq has been calculated to have cost America 1.1 trillion dollars. That is just the American contribution and is limited to Iraq. According to the Ministry of Defence the UK contributed a further £8 billion. We spent even more money on the war with Afghanistan (although the Americans spent less). To put this in context, the Americans spent more on the war in Iraq than they would spend on their total budget for overseas aid for the whole world for 35 years.
Just imagine if instead of waging a war with weapons that the Americans had listened to Paul and had chosen to wage a war of love. Just imagine if instead of funding all those bombs that they had chosen to offer the same money to build schools. Instead of sending troops to kill and control they had sent doctors and nurses to care and to heal. If they had beaten their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. If they had seen that their enemy was hungry and fed him, if they had recognised that their enemy was thirsty and given her water.
I know that this appears totally unrealistic, that it is an aspirational vision that can never be achieved. It’s not at all clear how America could have acted like this while Saddam Hussein was still in power. But isn’t that what our faith is about? Isn’t our faith about taking a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven and offering it to the world? Isn’t it about looking at the world and saying, “yes this is how things are, but let’s imagine how they could be”? Isn’t it above all about praying, “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.”