Jesus tells us to love our enemies. He also says which should not resist the evil person but rather to allow them to strike us again on our other cheek. If someone asks us for a loan we should give them a gift. If we are sued we are not to contest the matter. Such is Christ’s teaching.
Some few try to live like this, unprotected and vulnerable to all, but they are few indeed. For most of us it seems impossible and we are tempted to interpret the words to mean something easier, more reasonable, something we would find it possible actually to live by. We should resist that temptation. If we look to Jesus’ own example I don’t believe we can conclude anything other than that he meant exactly what he said. He really thought and taught that we should manage without possessions, without family, without protecting ourselves from the evil others would do us. That’s how he lived.
To do so would mean giving up all responsibility as parents or as citizens. To live like Jesus, to do as Jesus commands makes playing a normal social role impossible and his own closest followers accepted that. They had no homes and nothing to call their own. They depended on others and placed their trust solely in God. None of us live like that.
Today, of all days, we are reminded of that. Remembrance Day is a national day that recalls and accepts war, that most un-Christ-like of human activities. In war violence is made systematic and calculated, people become mere instruments, tools to be used to achieve objectives demanded by the attempt to make one’s will prevail by force.
When we come up against a situation where there seems to be no better option then to go to war, and I believe that such situations exist, then we are confronted in a very stark way with the impossibility of living in this world without sin. Most of you will have heard of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German theologian and church leader.
He was a pacifist, someone who insisted on taking Christ’s teaching on violence seriously. He was also a leader of the Confessing Church, the body of Christians in Germany who refused the Nazi demand that the Church conform to their ideology. Bonhoeffer was drawn into the circle of those trying, during the War, to kill Hitler and make peace with the allies and was executed for his part in the plot.
What seems clear is that even as he accepted the necessity of resorting to violence to bring the horrors of war and genocide to an end he remained convinced that this was sinful. He thought himself compelled to do what he still thought was wrong. He didn’t re-interpret Jesus to give himself a clear conscience. He repented of his intended actions even before he tried to carry them out.
This seems to me the proper attitude for Christians to take. We make the best decisions we can while accepting that they involve us in the sins of a sinful world. We do not try to absolve ourselves of the guilt we take on in doing so but we do have faith that God’s mercy will prevail and that we are not lost to evil even when we are compelled to do what is wrong. We pray that the Holy Spirit will guide and sanctify us and hope that we will be shown the way towards a closer conformity with God’s will.
That is one reason why I’m not sure any Christian can ever, in the end, be a real nationalist. Nations and the states that embody them, are always actually or potentially in conflict. States are, among other things, instruments of war. As human beings in the world as it is we need to belong to them and they need to be ready to use violence. This makes them and us sinful. Among the things we need to repent of and to pray for release from is our nationhood and our patriotism, inescapable as these are. The Christian never ultimately belongs to a nation because we recognise only one Lord, Jesus, only one Sovereign, God his Father.
And yet, and yet, God’s Kingdom has come near but we are still waiting for its full realisation. We live between the times, when the old age is passing away but the birth pangs of the new, of which Paul writes in Romans, continue. In this time between the times we cannot escape the old, we cannot throw off our belonging to the nations. We have to stand ready to answer the nation’s call because we have responsibilities to others we just can’t ignore.
One aspect of Remembrance day is to call to mind those who did answer that call and whose lives were lost in doing so. Those who discharged their responsibilities and who paid the price. In honouring them, as we should, we have also to remember that it was sinful that they had to die and that as members of the nation for which they died we are called to repent. We are called to repent of the sinfulness of the world we live in and that we make, the sinfulness that lay behind the deaths of so many.
Another aspect, alongside and as part of that, is that we have to hold onto the truth that when people become our enemies due to our belonging to a nation and their conflict with it we are not released from our obligation to love them. Even as we fight we have to love those we, or those acting on our behalf, are bound to hurt and to kill. Today that means even loving those who call themselves Islamic State. They want to harm us, they strain every nerve and muscle to injure us and we have no choice but to protect ourselves and those who depend on us. But as we do so Jesus’ words, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”, should be sounding in our ears.
Finally, even as we strive to be true both to the realities of our world and the evils that come with it, we have also to remain true to our faith in our risen Lord, who died for us and was returned to life. In this faith our response to the death of those we cherish is a twofold one. On the one hand, we mourn, we weep, we rage against that death which is the great enemy of life and love. We are right to do so, death is an outrage and a scandal, is the end of all that is good and right. On the other hand we know ourselves conquerors and more than conquerors as we participate in Jesus’ resurrection.
Even as we mourn we give thanks for God’s great gift of life and look forward in joyful anticipation to eternal life to come, to the raising of all the dead to participate in Christ’s victory.