Thoughts on Pacifism

I was once Chair of the Methodist Peace Fellowship. I sought to be a pacifist. I was aware that my pacifism had never been tested. Many members of the Fellowship had had their pacifism tried. At least one argued that our commitment to pacifism must be held even when there was injustice. My opinion then was that there could be no peace where there was injustice.

I was trained for ministry alongside an Anglican who had left the Army to train for the Priesthood with the intention of returning as a Chaplain. He had been disheartened by Chaplains who, in his opinion, had not known what it was like to be serving in the regular Army. He was, in no sense, arrogant. I trusted him and valued our conversations. I think my recollection is correct, that he believed that the world would never be free from war. Reflecting now I believe that we are genetically determined to enable our own survival. We are programmed to fight if we ae threatened. Biologically my friend was probably correct. To be pacifist is against our natural instinct.

The Spirit infects every word, every labour
of those who will follow, of those who will go,
through life full in step with the one some called ‘Master’,
the gentle word crafter of all that we know.

This golden tongued preacher, this living believer,
vivacious in Spirit, courageous in life,
in patient humility waited his moment,
to interpose love in the focus of strife.

And those who had heard him, and ones who came after,
would make the assertion, they’d looked in God’s eyes;
and if we can take up the challenge to follow
this Spirit will graciously love and surprise![i]

Reflecting on the gospel records of Jesus’ execution it seemed, and it still seems, to me that Jesus approach to violence was to interpose himself between the aggressor and the victim. This he did pre-eminently when his embodiment of love met those who would have him dead. He did not resist. He did not fight back. He forgave those who ‘knew not what they were doing’. To do otherwise would be a denial of the love with which he beheld his persecutors. For me this is the seemingly impossible expression of pacifism to which we are called.

It seems inhuman, who could kill
a single mother’s child?
What bitter hatred fires a man?
It seems they had run wild.

Good God, could you not intervene?
Yet once upon a cross
you interposed your human life
and suffered utter loss.

Is this the answer that you give:
use love to counter hate?
And have we courage, dare we risk,
before it is too late.

These children died as martyrs to
the violence we can spawn,
and still we pray, but will we act
to bring a peaceful dawn?[ii]

I remember a previous Chair of the Fellowship, Norwyn Denny, saying that if we were to emulate Christ we would go into wars as human shields. Emulating Christ we would put ourselves in the place of danger. The idea is utterly foolish, in no way expedient, yet I found this to be compelling. After all, the cross was not expedient.

 I pause…

I still believe in my heart that pacifism is an ideal to which I should aspire. Intellectually I would wish to be pacifist.

But I found a get out clause of sorts. Peter, the apostle, failed Jesus. This was not his intention. He said he would stand beside Jesus, yet he denied him. Jesus’ response, following the resurrection, was not to criticise or condemn Peter, but to extend peace to him and offer him a vocation. I still believe that our intention is the most important part of our Christian vocation. But we are human. We will not always succeed, We should intend to be pacifist, understanding that we will probably fail in our pacifism. Yet God will not abandon us.

And where am I now? Conscious that my own sense of pacifism is both frail and probably likely to fail. Conscience says to me that I cannot live in the political climate that pervades the world without offering some sort of resistance.

The question remains, just how passive can my response be? How long can I simply be a bystander in a world of injustice, simply writing, simply waiting? Just watching…

We hear the news in anguish to know what has been done, 
the cameras and recordists show hatred being spun, 
the sound of rockets falling fill broadcasts round the earth, 
Great God, what are we doing while children come to birth?

Our aspirations shudder, our hopes become as dust, 
through war machines are broken, dismembered, turned to rust. 
Our conversations stutter, our talks of peace – hot air, 
Great God, may acts of justice grow from the seeds of prayer.

No place is ever neutral when hatred fuels the fire, 
humanity unites us, let love be our desire.
Join hands across the barriers that other hands have made, 
until your world is mended and violence has been stayed. [iii]

[i] Andrew Pratt

Words © 2016 Stainer & Bell Ltd, London, England copyright@stainer.co.uk . Please include any reproduction for local church use on your CCL Licence returns. All wider and any commercial use requires prior application to Stainer & Bell Ltd.

[ii] Andrew Pratt

Words © 2014Stainer & Bell Ltd, London, England copyright@stainer.co.uk . Please include any reproduction for local church use on your CCL Licence returns. All wider and any commercial use requires prior application to Stainer & Bell Ltd.

[iii] Andrew Pratt 28/2/2022 Written while watching the Russian-Ukraine conflict.

Words © 2022 Stainer & Bell Ltd, London, England copyright@stainer.co.uk . Please include any reproduction for local church use on your CCL Licence returns. All wider and any commercial use requires prior application to Stainer & Bell Ltd.

Jesus – help in our time?

I sometimes wonder if we, as Christians, haven’t got it all wrong, or at least we’re focussing on the wrong thing. When I was studying biology we sometimes used microscopes, homing in on ever smaller things, an insect or the cells of a leaf. One lecturer reminded us, obvious really, that if you didn’t know which plant the leaf was from or where the insect lived you didn’t have a full picture. More to the point, you could be way off the mark in terms of any conclusions you drew.

I think we have sometimes made the same mistake with our faith. We have the whole of the Bible So let’s begin there. Think of a long bookshelf with a bookend at each end.

‘In the beginning, the earth was without form and void’. At the other end… ‘a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away’. It seems that, even in the understanding of the writers of Genesis and Revelation earth had a beginning and an end. I have an insatiable curiosity. Always have had and I’ve not grown out of it. The James Webb telescope points, not just into the distance, but back in time. The universe is older than the earth, it seems, much older. Light takes a long time to reach us from things that are further away. It strikes me, that as humanity, we are perhaps just a little arrogant. Biblically we begin with the earth. While that’s an old perspective it can limit our thoughts.

The same is true at the other end… Revelation talks of the old earth passing away…so do today’s prophets, perhaps in a different way? – David Attenborough…puts the fault at our door. There is talk of the end of the world, apocalypse. But let’s think on a bit. My sense of global warming is not that the earth will end, but that an awful lot of life on earth will end, including us. Focuses the mind just a little? Should do anyway?

Where does Jesus fit into all of this. For the moment I have no personal knowledge of life before I was born, even less of space before the earth formed. I’m content with scientific findings but they can, and do change. As to the afterlife I don’t doubt it, but humanly I’m agnostic as to its nature.

So, as I was musing, what of Jesus?

Ask people outside the church what is important about our beliefs. They know about Christmas and Easter and little else. In short-hand Christmas says that God is so intimately concerned with us as to live with us, some of the Biblical language sounds like ‘tent’ with us. Then God’s humanity – Jesus – here on earth – is temporary. Yet still we emphasise birth and death, beginning and end, bookends. Is it not time to re-adjust our focus and read the books that come between, the Life of Jesus? What can that teach us? The most important things that we can ever learn about being human, I believe. For us birth is self-evident – we are alive! And last Monday I was at a funeral – so is death. So rather than stressing the obvious would it not be best to learn from God in Jesus how to live between the book-ends of life?

There was something before the earth and there will be after, before us and after, but, as Sydney Carter once said ‘show me the good news in the present tense’! And the bottom line is, I believe this, everyone who met the human Jesus went away better for the meeting. That’s not to say they felt better – Jesus criticised bigotry and hypocrisy, but he lived love. If we hear criticism we can be better for the learning… what is significant is to find out all we can of Jesus grace, self-giving, joy, love, kindness and honesty, and to quote him, ‘go and do likewise’. That won’t, in itself stop global warming, nor postpone our death, but while we are here together, stewards of this earth, lent to us for a life-time, life will be better all round if we treat others as Jesus did, with love. Not a wishy washy love but a love that cares for our neighbours now, and the neighbours that come after us. It Involves us and those WE delegate to govern us. Christianity Is not above politics. But It should point us to choices which are not driven by self-Interest but the Interests of those with whom we live from day to day, with those with whom we share this planet and to those who Inhabit It when we are dead. This learning to live is the essence of being a disciple, a learner of Christ. It is always far more about what we do and how we live, than what we claim to believe., more abut the here – the only earth we know – than the hereafter.