Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video.
I’m standing by the SAS memorial in Hereford Cathedral. Due to the great secrecy surrounding operations, the names of those it commemorates are only on the memorial in the SAS camp outside the city. This video is released on Remembrance Day. Remembrance has surprisingly become more important in our culture as time goes on, even though the number of those still living from WW2 diminishes each year.
Accounts of Remembrance Day in my last parish in 1920’s parish magazines talk of the ‘gentle murmur of weeping’ as the names were read out. The population of the village during WW1 was only 800, and yet there were 33 names on the roll of honour! One of the churchwardens did some remarkable research and an exhibition each year put some flesh on the bones. Each name had associated photographs, details of their final conflict, baptismal roll entries and even school reports.
But many who die in war are unnamed and unknown. Our own history as Christians isn’t exactly bloodless. The Old Testament is full of stories of the wars and conflicts of the people of Israel as they established themselves as an independent nation. To my mind, these stories present us with one of the greatest challenges in commending the faith to our neighbours. What are to we to make of them, in which occasionally God himself seems to encourage violence, and what we might even call genocide. Some people’s faith has foundered over this. One 19th century aristocrat used them in an argument to dismiss the Bible in its entirety as a source of moral authority. Richard Dawkins, reading the Bible through the eyes of sceptical atheists, found there a description of a God he describes as petulant, angry and vindictive.
All of us are prone to selective readings of the Bible. We can read the Old Testament and miss out the multiple references to God’s grace and love. We can read the New and airbrush out Jesus’ frequent references to eternal judgement, hell and the need to amend our lives. But much of the violence in the Old Testament is a description of the grim reality of life 2000 years ago. Intertribal and national conflict was a part of everyday life. Some of the more blood-curdling exhortations to destruction are clearly idiomatic. A call to complete destruction, wiping people out etc. is similar to that we read in some of the Anglo-Saxon and Norse sagas. It is hyperbole. When I say I’m so hungry I could eat a horse, I don’t mean that literally!
Inevitably we read the Bible through eyes shaped by our own cultural norms. The ancient near east was not a property-owning democracy. There was a strong sense that land was held in trust, its stewardship granted by whichever deity one worshipped. To fall short of those expectations could forfeit that right of occupation. In that Israelites were no different from anyone else. They lost their national sovereignty and were taken into exile when they accumulated sufficient violations of law and justice. At that point, God thought they were irredeemable whilst they remained in situ. But we should never see God’s wrath as a sort of petulant throwing his toys out of the pram. Wrath and anger are a way of describing his settled opposition and displeasure against evil and injustice. If your human passions were not stirred at all by the destruction of the natural environment, or the holocaust, or gender-based violence, or the oppression of women in Afghanistan we would probably call you psychopathic. Why would we see God’s opposition to these things and think he should be impassive?
I try to avoid an approach to these things that minimises the severity of what happens in the Old Testament and the times when God mysteriously does indeed seem to sanction it, or even punish people when they don’t do it. But rather like Nazism, some of the ideas systems in the nations around Israel were irredeemably corrupt, involving child sacrifice and systematic injustice and oppression. The reality of defeating that didn’t look so different to the reality of confronting Hitler 70 years ago.
Ultimately, I am left with a deep mystery about these things. My response is to try to look at this mystery through the lens of what I definitely do know about God. I know that in Christ he demonstrates a love that drives him to suffer and die for a broken world. He doesn’t stand aloof but truly enters into our experience.
As Edward Shillito, a Free Church Minister during World War 1 wrote,
‘If we have never sought, we seek Thee now; Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars; We must have sight of thorn-pricks on Thy brow, We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars. The heavens frighten us; they are too calm; In all the universe we have no place. Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm? Lord Jesus, by Thy Scars, we claim Thy grace. If, when the doors are shut, Thou drawest near, Only reveal those hands, that side of Thine; We know to-day what wounds are, have no fear, Show us Thy Scars, we know the countersign. The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak; They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne; But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak, And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.’ *