The Menace of War

A hundred years after the outbreak of the First World War and we are forced to ask ourselves whether we are on the brink of the Third — or has it already broken out in a thousand different places, in a thousand different guises? We look at North Africa, the Near and Middle East; at parts of subSaharan Africa, the Indian subcontinent; at Malaysia and even further afield; and then are brought up short by reflecting that even here, on our own streets, there is violence and the threat of violence, talk of radicalisation and extremism. Parliament’s recall to discuss British participation in air strikes against IS is widely regarded as a rubber-stamp exercise. Pope Francis has spoken eloquently about the cataclysm enveloping us; President Obama has ratcheted up his rhetoric a notch to condemn the ungodly nature of the brutal killings that are the IS trademark; but ordinary people, you and me, what do we make of it all?

We live very near the headquarters of the SAS and are very aware of the brave men and women who are sent to perform extraordinarily dangerous tasks in order to protect us against various threats, both here and overseas. But we are also aware that the nature of war is changing. It is now much more diffuse, much more hidden. It takes place in shopping malls and subway stations; it targets the civilian as much as, in some ways even more than, the military. The legality of air strikes against IS in Iraq is, to the layman, much clearer than the supposed grounds on which Mr Bush and Mr Blair led us into the last Iraq conflict. The measure being put before Parliament today is hedged with all kinds of qualifications, some of them no doubt intended to ensure that Mr Milliband cannot rock the boat, but still there is fear of mission creep and the inevitable backlash.

The truth is we are faced with an impossible choice. Whether we act or do not act, people are going to die. In earlier posts I have written about the conditions that need to be met for what is called a just war. We cannot pretend that we are not involved in what Parliament decides today. We cannot say, ‘Not in my name’ and thereby distance ourselves from the consequences of that decision. The men and women stationed in Cyprus know very well that within a few hours half a dozen British Tornadoes may be taking to the skies with the aim of inflicting as much damage as they can on IS forces. However ambivalent we may feel about the use of violence, however torn, we have to face up to the fact that we are not dealing with people who are open to reason. Many innocent people have already died terrible deaths at their hands. Let us pray that IS may be stopped from inflicting even more death and destruction. At the same time, let us also pray for the courage and determination to bear the consequences of what promises to be a long and bloody conflict, not only ‘over there’ but also over here.

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Rejection

Unless we have lived charmed lives, we have all experienced rejection in one form or another. We know how painful it is to be rejected, literally ‘thrown back’, by someone we love or in whom we had placed hope and trust. Not getting the university place we had set our heart on or that job we wanted so badly can be crushing. We are left feeling inadequate, a failure. We plumb the depths of self-doubt, perhaps even despair. I wonder if that is how John the Baptist felt on the morning of his execution.

The liturgy blithely assures us that the Beheading of St John the Baptist, the feast we celebrate today, was a glorious martyrdom — and so it was, but perhaps not quite in the way we often assume. The Forerunner experienced an unjust death just as Jesus Christ was to do. But I wonder whether the feast is more helpful to us if we consider not John’s triumph, but the loneliness and fear that must have accompanied his final days and hours. He had longed to prepare a way for the Messiah. He had burned with love for his fellow Jews; but, ultimately, he was made to pay the price for honesty and integrity.

It isn’t difficult to make a splendid sacrifice in front of the cameras, so to say; it isn’t difficult to stand up for what one believes when the microphones of the world are turned in one’s direction; but to remain steadfast in the darkness and dirt of a Palestinian prison, when there is no one to hear and apparently no one to care, is much harder. All at once the martyrdom of St John the Baptist takes on a very contemporary quality.

I think we honour his feast best by praying for all who speak the truth and must pay the price for it: those silenced by the regimes they live under or ridiculed and abused into submission. Let’s pray also for those who experience another kind of rejection: the three million Syrians who have fled the war in their home country; the Christians and other religious minorities who have been forced out of Iraq; all who know what it is to live in fear of death at the hands of those close to them.

 

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The Destruction of Christianity in the Middle East

It is one of those beautiful Sunday mornings England seems to do so well: sunlight streams across wet grass and the air is filled with the busy chatter of sparrows and the sweet, milky smell of the calves across the way. In hundreds of churches people will be gathering, as we ourselves will gather, to sing the praises of God, ask his intercession and celebrate his sacraments. It is a world away from the horrors of war and exile; but war and exile is precisely what many people are experiencing. There are over 50 million refugees in the world today, and yesterday their number was increased as Christians fled Mosul, Iraq, and those who could, fled northern Gaza.

I find it heartbreaking that we as a nation are standing by as the ancient heartlands of Christianity are ripped apart and destroyed. Whatever may be happening elsewhere in the world, Christians in the Middle East are disappearing fast. It will not be long before the only ones to be found in Syria and Iraq, for example, will be foreign visitors. That matters, and I, for one, am appalled that the British Foreign Office, to the best of my knowledge, has STILL said nothing — although it has said a great deal about Russia and Ukraine in the past 72 hours.

Why should we be concerned? The first reason is that we are talking about human beings who have a right to life and liberty being driven from their homes by the ISIS campaign of terror and by other militants who want to see Christianity destroyed. That is indefensible. The second reason is more complex. The destruction of Christian holy places, the desecration of ancient sites, the profanation of holy things, bites into the soul of every Christian in ways we do not always admit. We are not all spirit: we are flesh and blood, and we need signs and symbols to help us along. People come to the monastery here because they know they will find enfleshed, so to say, a way of prayer and seeking God that has centuries of lived experience behind it. The Christians of the Middle East enable us, through their very presence in the ancient holy places, to draw close to the sources of our belief and practice. They have given life to the Churches of the West, but now they themselves face death.

At the risk of repeating myself, I want to ask again a question I have often posed. If one man’s death diminishes us, how much more that of a whole people?

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The Christians of Mosul

It is sometimes forgotten that there were Christians in what we now call Iraq long before there were Muslims. By noon today, however, it is expected that there will be none left in the city of Mosul, where Isis has faced them with a deadly ultimatum: convert to Islam, pay a tax or die. See this BBC news report for background.

This item of news didn’t make the front page of today’s BBC web-site (it is buried deep inside), yet it represents a sickening attempt to violate the consciences of thousands of people and the very real possibility of mass murder. It highlights the difficulty we in the West have in dealing with the religious dimension of conflicts in the Middle East. Part of the problem is that many of us no longer take religion seriously enough to consider how it motivates people and are woefully ignorant both of its teachings and its history. Most of us can’t get inside the mentality of Isis and its particular understanding of Islam so tend to dismiss the kind of ultimatum posed to the Christians of Mosul as mere posturing. We believe in freedom of religion, we say, by which we mean the freedom to worship according to our own beliefs. There are a few limitations on such religious freedom. Human sacrifice, for example, is not permissible, but by and large, we follow the principle of ‘live and let live’. If you want to follow some cranky religion, you do so; just don’t expect me to follow suit. That is not how a member of Isis would see things. It is not how things are in Saudi Arabia. So what do we in the West do?

We know perfectly well that at an international level what ‘we’ do is determined by our respective governments and the political and economic interests of the moment. That is not always as cynical a proposition as it may sound (think energy supplies and European winters). What we do at a personal level, however, is just as important. We have to pray, and we have to protest. We simply cannot stand by mute and uncomplaining when our Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq are being chased from their homes and threatened with death. Or can we?

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Dilemmas

I imagine every Western politician woke up this morning wondering what to do about Russia and the Crimea. Last month it may have been Syria or North Korea. Before that, Egypt. We tend to deal with difficulties and problems sequentially, dropping one when another looms into view. It is not that Iraq and Afghanistan have been ‘dealt with’, but we are collectively great believers in ‘moving on’. We have other countries in our sights now. The trail of death and destruction is one we prefer to ignore because ultimately it is traceable back to those who gave the order to mobilise the troops or clamoured for something to be done. That qualification is important because it reminds us that in a democracy we all bear a measure of responsibility, whether active or passive. We can’t distance ourselves from it simply by saying ‘not in my name’.

I mentioned a few days ago that I had been thinking about the Crimean War of the nineteenth century. I have also been thinking about the symbolic importance of Ukraine to the Russian people, about gas pipes and oil lines, and the way in which Western politicians tend very easily to assume that an uprising or protest movement will usher in something better than before. If it doesn’t, it can be forgotten, or at least allowed to slip from the headlines, e.g. Libya. Unlike many political commentators, I have no suggestions to make regarding the dilemma we face. I have only one constructive tool to offer: prayer. To some, that will seem laughable; to others, an admission of failure; but I think myself it is the most powerful thing those of us who are not movers and shakers in the accepted sense can do. Indeed, prayer has a way of upsetting the usual order of things. It can bring hope and peace out of the darkest situation. Let us pray that it does so now.

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Another War?

As predicted, the language of Western politicians is becoming more bellicose. Whatever the findings of the U.N. team now investigating the use of chemical weapons in Syria, there is a disturbing sense that President Obama’s talk of a red line being crossed is going to lead to a missile strike or more. While some are  busy beating the drum about its being ‘the right thing to do’ (arguable) and lamenting the terrible loss of life in Syria (undeniable), I wonder how many are asking themselves one simple question: who gains from this? On the face of it, using chemical weapons was not only murderous, it was crazy. Neither the Assad regime nor its opponents are stupid. Perhaps we should be looking beyond Syria to some other more shadowy figures who stand to gain from the West’s being plunged into yet another war, and pray with all our hearts that another catastrophe may be averted.

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