Friday 30 April 2010

Pro Deo et Patria? On Remembrance Day

As a follow-up to our discussion of Anzac Day, here's Kim Fabricius' sermon from Remembrance Day 2009

On 1 November 1988, All Saint’s Day, I took part in a service celebrating both the 500th anniversary of the translation of the Bible into Welsh and the brand new translation of the Bible into modern Welsh. The service took place at Westminster Abbey. It was the first, and indeed the only time, I have ever been to this most distinguished of English church buildings. Before the service began, the Dean of the Abbey took us through the protocol, including what we should do when the Queen arrived. “When, and how, should we bow?” it was asked. As a Free Churchman, I was duly impressed to hear the Dean’s answer: one does not bow to the Queen in the Abbey; in the Abbey, before God the King, royalty has no prerogative over commoner: before the Lord, you might say, all lances are of equal length.

Which image – the military image of a lance – got me to thinking again about Westminster Abbey. What a magnificent architectural testimony to centuries of British culture, tributes to poets and scientists. The Abbey also, of course, has been the site of the coronations of kings and queens for almost a thousand years. And there are monuments to prime ministers. But also woven into the exquisite tapestry of the Abbey is the glorification of the warrior. Behind the high altar, for example, is the Order of the Bath, dedicated to various knights, which includes a display of flags and swords. Above all, there are the two monuments that are the cornerstones of the entire structure. At the east end of the edifice there is the chapel dedicated to the Royal Air Force, honouring the courage of Churchill’s so few who were owed so much by so many. And at the opposite, west end of the Abbey, the revered Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, commemorating the one who “gave the most so that man might serve God, king, and country.” Part of the inscription is taken from John’s gospel (15:13): “Greater love hath no man than this.”

I am always deeply moved when I stand before war memorials. And yet the awe I felt in Westminster Abbey, the respect I feel before war memorials in any church, is always finally displaced by a deeper sense of disturbance – particularly when I look at the inevitable plaque on which are inscribed the words: “Pro Deo et patria”. The brilliant Great War poet Wilfred Owen, in “Dulce Et Decorum Est”, bitterly called it “the old lie” (the translation is “It is sweet and right / To die for your country”). Nor should it be overlooked that Owen took his famous line from an ode by Horace, the Latin poet, the Laureate of Rome – Rome, the great pagan empire and war machine, one of whose procurators, known as Pontius Pilate, sent our Lord to torture and death for the threat he posed to the way that all states do business when push comes to shove: namely, they lie to their own people and they kill people in other states.

That is what is so profoundly disturbing about Westminster Abbey and other churches: they honour people who kill other people, including other Christians, and they do it in the name of Britain or America – or Germany, for example – that is, they do it in our name, which is disturbing enough, but they also do it in the name of God, assuming that God is on the side of Britain or America – or Germany, for example – because God is always “God with us” – or in German, Gott mit uns. Or has any nation ever gone to war without assuming that God is on its side? But in a church, where God is not just any old deity, and certainly not the tribal deity of any nation, but the God and Judge of all nations (and who is the God of all nations but the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ?), is that not profoundly disturbing?

The biblical inscription in Westminster Abbey – “Greater love hath no man than this…” – it goes on: “that a man lay down his life for his friends.” “But what such monuments miss is the rest of the story: the Jesus we praise in our places of Christian worship is the Jesus who did not seek to kill his enemies, but to love them. The Jesus we exalt taught us not to destroy our enemies, but to pray for them. The Jesus we adore demonstrated his bravery not while taking the life of an opponent, but while laying down his life for the good of those who hated him” (Lee Camp).

I mean no disrespect to those who have gone to war for any nation, let alone to those who have “paid the ultimate sacrifice”. I will not disrespect men and women who, in good conscience, have become soldiers. I am well aware that, despite society’s valorisation of the warrior, most soldiers find the killing fields to be wrenching dislocations from their own moral geography (which is why nothing produces peace activists like warfare, veterans being among the staunchest). I will not even disrespect Christian men and women who, in good faith, have become soldiers.

And as for presidents and prime ministers with their pompous pronouncements about the “national interest” and “our great cause”, well, yes, I seethe when they send away people – always young people, usually poorer young people – to kill or be killed; and as for the “enemy”, they don’t count, and the civilians are, literally not even counted. But, on the other hand, what else should one expect from statesmen who, prodigally, fashion armies and perfect weapons of mass destruction as if they will not, eventually, use them, and who deploy propaganda, disingenuously, as if mendacity and mayhem weren’t bloody blood brothers? No, finally, it’s not the soldiers, and not even the statesmen, it’s the church that drives me to despair – and to shame.

The church: until the fourth century the church was pacifist, not only because soldiers of the empire had to take oaths of loyalty to the emperor, and Christians were forbidden to pledge their allegiance to anyone but Christ – Christ alone was their Caesar – but above all because Christ, as the early church father Tertullian put it, “in disarming Peter, Jesus unbelted every soldier from that time forth.”

The church: with the conversion of Constantine in the fourth century, the church became the church of empire, and with the birth of nations in the sixteenth century, the church of this state and that – the word is “Christendom” – such that the church became the spiritual wing of temporal power and wealth, and, worse, itself took on the accoutrements of temporal power – coercion – and wealth – corruption.

The church: when dissenters spoke out against this abrogation of the practice of Jesus and the early church, when during and after the Reformation they formed communities of the non-violent – the Anabaptists, the Mennonites, the Quakers – they were marginalized and martyred by Catholics and mainline Protestants alike.

The church: and now, in the West, here we are, enterprises in the business of selling the commodity of religion, with all the usual concerns of shopkeepers – packaging the product, luring the punters, keeping them happy, outfoxing the competition – and the state is delighted as long as we keep the enterprise a private enterprise and don’t dare let it interfere with the public enterprise of Realpolitik. And here is the irony: exalting the nation that guarantees our “freedom” in the marketplace of religion, we maintain the religion we are free to practice – how? – precisely by setting aside the way of Jesus in whose name we practice it.

So no, I will not disrespect soldiers, or be inordinately shocked by unscrupulous politicians, or even by the international dealers in destruction who operate on the cynical principle that “War is good business: invest your son”. For how should these people know any better when they have been baptised into churches that have colluded in chiselling that chilling inscription – Pro Deo et Patria – on war memorials all over the world, which is engraved in most people’s minds, too, like stone? No, it is to the church, and the church’s leadership, which this morning I represent, that I will say, “For shame!” For we have failed you by not radically problematising war – all war – and by not firmly fixing your faith on Jesus of Nazareth, the man who stalks the pages of the gospels, unmistakably and indefectibly preaching and practicing the way of non-violence, and who, as Risen Lord, continues to call, “Follow me!”

Jesus is the bearer of a radical new way of being human: free from the compulsion of being in charge, of thinking that we can fix things by breaking things; free to be obedient rather than effective, and effective only as salt, not steel, is effective; free to believe that little flocks of sheep, and not big packs of wolves, are the bearer of God’s purpose for the world; and free, finally, to see that the question of non-violence is not “Is it realistic?” but simply “Should it be?” And then to trust that “if it should, then God can,” and that “whether we can depends only on whether we believe and obey” (John Howard Yoder, adapted).


Paul Tyson said...

Timely, clear and persuasive Kim. I recently read a piece by Mat Tan (“Eucharistic worship and peace making”, in CASE, no. 22, 2010, pp 24 -27, CASE is the quarterly magazine of the Centre for Apologetics and Religious Education, New College, UNSW) wherein Mat points out that the way space and time itself is envisioned shapes how we see power and control. That is, the Eucharist is a powerful political alternative to the nation and the empire. Eucharistic space and time transcends the immediate temporal and special categories which nations and empires kill and die for. It occurred to me reading Mat’s piece that if only Augustine had thought the Eucharist through a bit further in these terms, then he may well have not gone down the just war pathway.

Pamela said...

On Anzac Day, our minister used psalm 46 as the basis of his sermon "He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth". My hope is in this belief.
Maybe on the margins, and not pandering to the establishment,is the best place for the church to be in this time when so many countries are in conflict and war. By "radically problematising war" we can once again truly follow the way of Jesus.

roger flyer said...

A bow (and a hug) from Minnesota (USA colony), dear Kim. Profound and very thoughtful.

Jonathan Keith said...

Your last paragraph goes some way towards answering questions I have had about pacifism. My concerns have all been about practical matters. Here are two:

1) There is an awful hypocrisy in telling Christians to avoid military careers, without being able to offer a practicable plan for running a democracy without arms.

2) A consistent pacifism would seem to demand not only avoiding careers that involve the use of force, but also a rejection of political structures and offices that depend on the threat of force.

Perhaps I begin to glimpse, however, how one could be a pacifist even with such concerns.

Karl Hand said...


LOL until I figured out it was a quoted sermon... I was totally baffled about when you may have been a "Free Churchman", Ben!

Paul said...

Very powerful, Kim. Thanks for sharing.

It's all the more ironic that Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are all featured in the gallery of martyrs at Westminister Abbey. All ardent Christian pacifists.

kim fabricius said...

Yes, Paul. Damn, even though Martyrs Corner hadn't been constructed when I visited WA, I wish I'd thought of that for the sermon! I'll stick it in if I ever preach it "again" (even the same sermon is never the same again).

Highanddry said...

Thank you Kim, an elegant and persuasive sermon.

It is interesting that this sermon has not generated the same volume of responses as Ben's first piece. You seem to have silenced the critics. :)

Anonymous said...

Okay, let me offer a critique, I will make it in point form. Let me first say that I find this a more nuanced reflection than Ben's ANZAC piece, and your position/points are well made, certainly elegant...


- Christians down the ages have wrestled with the question of war & faith and sincere and thoughtful believers have come out either side,
so we need to be careful about proclaiming this as a cut and dried issue.

- Just War has as part of its make up a commitment to peacemaking initiatives, in fact, war is always and only ever 'the last resort', thus Just War and pacifism are theological cousins, not complete strangers as they are so often purported to be. The fact that the analysis of 'last resort' in any given situation is bathed in subjectivity, does not render the principle any less compelling and important within Just War theory.

- Theologically and ethically, we have to take seriously the plight of those who cannot defend themselves and are under attack. How many more people would have died at the hands of Hitler and his henchman if no-one had intervened? What would the world look like today? How many more lives could have been saved if intervention had come earlier in the 1930s when Germany was still relatively weak?

- There's something ignominious about pious pronouncements from any of us who enjoy the freedom that (at least some) wars have helped create. We need to acknowledge this situation up front and deal with its complexity if we are going to preach pacifism.

- In a pacifist world view, we must also ask whether it is also then appropriate to have Police Forces which employ violent tactics to deal with difficult situations.

- We must be more thoughtful regarding distinctions between wars which are (at least in the first place) defensive responses to unprovoked agression, and those which appear to have more politically motivated ends. I agree that the church should be radically problematising all war, but this should not preclude harder theological/ethical analysis regarding the different natures of particular conflicts.

So there we are to get us started. No knock down arguments by any means, but realities we must thoughtfully engage with as Christians.

And incidentally, Bonhoeffer took part in the plot to kill Hitler.

Mike E

Justin said...

"And incidentally, Bonhoeffer took part in the plot to kill Hitler."

Along with Gandhi's use of the term "passive resistance" (which he instantly regretted and spent the rest of his life disclaiming), possibly the most mis-used artefact in modern debates on nonviolence.

The only thing we should take from this action by Bonhoeffer is that when our own political leaders wage wars against defenceless people, we might have to consider how we will stop them too, or to use Bonhoeffer's phrase how we will "put a spoke in the wheel of war".

Are you proposing we try to assassinate the next George W Bush, Tony Blair or John Howard?

P.S. Great sermon Kim.
P.P.S. For a similar reflection from a young Oz Christian activist, see Jarrod McKenna's blog post on ANZAC Day, including another important Bonhoeffer quote "Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence".

Anonymous said...


Apart from it being in incredibly poor taste to equate any or all of the three political leaders you mention with Hitler (not to mention historically absurd), what are we supposed to say about Bonhoeffer's engagement in the plot? I'm not making an argument that Bonhoeffer was not a powerful peace/pacifist advocate, he certainly was. But his actions reveal the dilemma of the pacifist position. What do we do when we are confronted with tyrants who will stop at nothing until their malicious agendas are fulfilled? What is your answer to this?

Mike E

kim fabricius said...

What do we do when we are confronted with tyrants who will stop at nothing until their malicious agendas are fulfilled? What is your answer to this?

Justin will answer for himself. I would simply point out that the question would include Caesar Augustus - and my answer would refer to Jesus of Nazareth.

Btw, on the appeal to Bonhoeffer, I would make two points. First, as is well known, Bonhoeffer joined the plot to kill Hitler acknowledging the sinfulness of his action. Second, taking up Justin's point about how we stop tyrants, it is crucial to remember that the plot against Hitler failed; indeed, if anything, it exacerbated Hitler's murderous frenzy. People who use Bonhoeffer to justify violent action as a last resort usually forget this uncomfortable fact.

When fires are raging and people are desperate to do something to put it out. Still, that can of petrol is probably not a good option.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kim,

Thanks for the sermon and the reply. I really liked your RD reflection, though obviously with some caveats.

It seems to me that you are still avoiding the crucial point in relation to Bonhoeffer and war in general. The argument about the plot failing is ultimately moot as it was military action that was the instrument which stopped Hitler. No-one can deny this. In that sense, the plot to kill him was simply the logical extension (or microcosm) of what was already succeeding in changing things. I am aware of Bonhoeffer's reflection on his part in the plot, but you must surely acknowledge that something convinced him that there would be some (or even a great deal) of good to be gained by engaging, whatever the conflicts in his own mind. Why would he have otherwise?

I say again, imagine the consequences for the world if Hitler had never been confronted. How do you reflect on this?

If I understand your argument correctly, we should not employ police forces who must use violence to protect others under attack.

What are your thoughts?

Mike E

kim fabricius said...

I think that there are fundamental, structural differences between war and police action - and there are also, btw, distinctions to be made between all forms of organised violence and personal self-defence (on both of which issues the views of war-and-peace pacifists are divided). May this monkey refer you to the organ grinder himself? See, e.g., Yoder's The Politics of Jesus (pp. 204f.) on the former, and his What Would You Do? on the latter.

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