"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Archive for November 2011

Advent 1: Keep Watch

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Advent 1, November 27, 2011
Mark 13:24-37 False Hopes/False Prayers

Today is the day when we great each other with ‘happy new year’, as we stand on the first day of the Christian year, the first Sunday in Advent. Today is a day of contrasts, and we will see in the Scriptures how our faith is set against the things our culture holds up as gods – and this is no clearer in our calendars. The secular calendar ends its year with the birth of Christ, whereas the Christian calendar begins with the Saviour’s birth. As the secular world of business looks toward Christmas as their busiest sales of the year, as the tax year draws to a close, we Christians turn instead to the words from Isaiah, used by Jesus to describe John the Baptist, A voice that cries in the wilderness, prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Isaiah 40) Today we turn our hearts and minds to that preparation. Advent has been called the ‘little Lent’, and we are entering a period of preparation as significant as that we undertake prior to Easter each year, a time of reflection on the state of our lives, and our souls, as we prepare for the unmaking of the world.

It is important to realize that our Christian year does not just hinge on the birth of the Child, who was, and is, and is to come, for today we’re resting in a place outside of time. At one end we have the creation of the cosmos, and the birth of Christ; we also sit in the middle of the tale, with Christ in Jerusalem as he describes the coming tribulation; and that description does not end with tribulation, but with the coming of the Son of Man in glory to judge both the living and the dead. Amen. The watchwords for Advent are ones of preparation and waiting, as we’ve heard for several weeks now – Keep awake! Stay on guard! Be alert! Be prepared, lest the coming of the King catch you asleep!

It is almost as if Jesus is speaking to us from the office of emergency management Alberta, to prepare for a coming civil crisis…and there is a good reason for that parallel, for that is exactly what we are being told to prepare for. A voice that cries in the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. It is an important message for us to grasp, for Jesus is not telling us to look backward, to focus on that small baby in a cradle in a Christmas nativity play, but rather to focus on the eternal promise He has given to all who believe. I was here, I am here…I am coming…be ready.

We began our reading with a chapter from Isaiah which presents to us in very blunt terms what our too-human approach to our lives ends up winning us: death and despair. We ‘melt in the hand of our sin’. In the chapter just prior to our reading from Isaiah today, God approaches Isaiah in a splendid robe stained crimson…and Isaiah asks (Isa 63:2-3), “Why are your robes red, and your garments like theirs who tread the wine press?”…and God answers…“I have trodden the wine press alone, and from the peoples no one was with me; I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their juice spattered on my garments, and stained all my robes. For the day of vengeance was in my heart, and the year for my redeeming work had come.” God’s robes are stained red with the blood of his people. A nice Christmas image, no? Something to think about as we sip our red wine this season perhaps?

The verse from Isaiah ends with a question of expectation and hope, but a fair amount of uncertainty as well, “After all this, will you restrain yourself, O LORD? Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?” The answer comes in Christ’s words, but before the description of the end, he catalogues a whole series of badness of what is to come: the destruction of the temple; many false messiahs; wars and rumours of wars; nation fighting nation; earthquakes and famines; torture; brother against brother; child against parents; hatred for Christ’s name; coming tribulation which no one would survive if God did not cut the days short…not the images our culture typically associated with this season of as a time of joy, gift exchanges and evenings of ‘a long winter’s night’s rest’, sugarplums dancing, decorations, family, mulled wine, Santa Claus…you get the picture. This all contrasts dramatically with what we are preparing for: an event that will essentially reorder all of creation, born to us in the City of David. No simple birth this, for the Christ child will come to redeem and reconcile all of creation past, present and future. And so we arrive at the first verse of the Gospel for today…”in those days, after that tribulation…”

This division of tribulation from the second coming is important to note, as Christ’s description of the times we now live in is separated cleanly from his coming again. The point? All these things are but the birth pangs of the coming of Christ, and are not Christ, or God’s action, but the impact of living in a broken world. It is a highly cautionary tale for us, as one of the idolatries we love to grasp is the belief that we will remake the world perfectly before God returns. The thought is almost if we do our jobs right, when Jesus returns there won’t be much for him to do, as we’ll have done most of the heavy lifting even before those clouds heralding the return of the Son of Man start to form. Even worse is the thought that God will achieve nothing but for our efforts. We hear a clear caution against that today, and a warning as to the fruits of idolatry, of any belief that we can remake the world in God’s image using only our human wiles. Remember that this is not the way of the world, and this is not what Christ is telling us to expect – which is a right royal mess.

It is a good message to hear today, a day after the annual memorial of the Holodomor, the great famine of the Ukraine in 1932-1933. We have no idea how many people died in that period, the estimates run between 2 and 10 million people who perished through forced starvation as a part of the glorious rise of Communism in Russia. Followed by the Holocaust at 6 million dead, and the horrific Stalinist purges that happened in the Soviet Union thereafter add another 4 to 10 million deaths. The Holodomor, the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, and many many other events just like them remind us that our dream of making a paradise on earth through our own sweat is a lie. As much as I would like to think Stalin, Hitler, the genocidaires of Rwanda were evil people, I suspect the harder truth is that they thought they were trying to sculpt a better world, and accepted that they had to undertake some nasty work to get to that point…the type of rational approach we humans love.

Our history is full of such efforts that end in nothing but death and despair…and it is almost a truism that every utopia has fallen due to human weakness. It is perhaps shocking to mention this in this season of cultural joy, but it is a necessary reminder to us that we live in a brutal world, made even more so when we act because we believe that our answer is the one that will finally bring peace and joy. Our choice, too often, is to replace Christ with the powers and principalities of this world, to embrace this way of doomed living in the hopes that this time we will find the path to a human-made utopia. We get tired of waiting and decide we’re going to do it on our own. Well, there is only one answer that will bring that peace and joy – and it is Jesus, when he returns to remake the broken world into paradise. Our job? Watch, keep awake, be on guard, and be about the Master’s business, lest we be caught sleeping when He returns.

That master’s business we spoke of two weeks ago – feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, freeing the prisoners, but not because we believe those actions will fix the broken world, but because we are called by Christ to act in his image, and to live out his legacy as we are awaiting his coming again. Jesus will not change the world with the tools of power and corruption and death that we humans rely on; and he will not bring about peace with wars or rumors of wars, as we’re the only ones who do that. We’re the only ones who undertake a mission, claim it as God’s work, and then seek to bend others to our will. The world will not be saved by us finally getting our act together, but only by admitting that the world has never gotten its act together. We can’t lose sight that the church’s real mission in all this is to proclaim one message: it is only through our death in faith that we will find the promised resurrection.

What Christ does is come to tell us His way, which is not the way of this world, demonstrated with shocking finality in the conclusion of his words: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” All that is, you and I, this building, this city, are all destined to pass away. All that is eternal is the Word of God, Jesus. In fact, what Christ tells us in this Gospel apocalypse is that the only way the world will be saved is to follow the same path as He – death and resurrection. It is only in death that the remaking of all creation will be able to receive God’s gift of new life. God saves us only in our death, and all of our efforts to prove that we are alive, and that our works are alive, brings us not one step closer to that resurrection. And so Jesus calls us into a state of alertness, of waiting and watching for the signs of his return.

This is the whole focus of Advent, this time of waiting in great expectation. The danger for us is that this time of waiting will become an extended visit to the Doctor’s office, or waiting for the next bus at -30 degrees in the dark…those times when time seems to stop and we seem to be waiting forever. In a culture that specializes in quick-fix solutions to everything, this is perhaps the hardest message of all. This waiting is not the waiting of this world, standing around listening to our iPods shuffle our favorite songs, but rather a state of active waiting, being about our Master’s business as He himself has commanded. Whether you consider this as using your God-given gifts as He has told you, bringing cold water to the thirsty, or acting as a prophetic witness that proclaims to a busy world, “Behold, for I bring you tidings of great joy…” our time of waiting is not rest, but of activity, of holy waiting. For we wait not as the world waits, but as Christ has taught us to wait.

We are not called to merely stand at this bus stop in a sometimes cold and frightening world waiting for the bus to come on some future day that no one but the Father knows. We are called into Holy Waiting, that state that is described in Mark (and many other places): “Watch, therefore, for you do not know when Jesus the Christ will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning, lest he come suddenly and find you asleep.” This is the waiting to which Jesus has called us, a waiting that requires us to be active…trimming wicks and filling our lamps with oil as with the 5 wise bridesmaids, waiting for the thief to arrive in the middle of the night, waiting for the return of the master of the house who will be most pleased if he finds us working. This active waiting, this Holy Waiting, is far from passive but is about doing God’s work every day even if we do not know what will come tomorrow.

This then is what we are all about for the next few weeks and indeed our entire lives as Christians…Holy waiting for this revealing. A Holy waiting that calls us to be very much about our Master’s business while we wait…to keep his household so that when he returns he “may find in us a mansion prepared for himself” (cf. an old prayer). And so we wait, not as the world waits, but as Christ has commanded us to wait. As we move through the season of Advent, may God again teach us how to stay awake and on guard for the coming of the Christ. Amen.

The Christian Year
by Blessed John Keble

AWAKE—again the Gospel-trump is blown—
From year to year it swells with louder tone,
From year to year the signs of wrath
Are gathering round the Judge’s path,
Strange words fulfill’d, and mighty works achiev’d,
And truth in all the world both hated and believ’d.
Awake! why linger in the gorgeous town,
Sworn liegemen of the Cross and thorny crown?
Up from your beds of sloth for shame,
Speed to the eastern mount like flame,
Nor wonder, should ye find your King in tears
Even with the loud Hosanna ringing in his ears.
Alas! no need to rouse them: long ago
They are gone forth, to swell Messiah’s show:
With glittering robes and garlands sweet
They strew the ground beneath his feet:
All but your hearts are there—O set to prove
True confessors in faith, worst hypocrites in love!
Meanwhile he paces through th’ adoring crowd,
Calm as the march of some majestic cloud,
That o’er wild scenes of ocean-war
Holds its still course in heaven afar:
Even so, heart-searching Lord, as years roll on,
Thou keepest silent watch from thy triumphal throne.
Even so, the world is thronging round to gaze
On the dread vision of the latter days,
Constrain’d to own Thee, but in heart
Prepared to take Barabbas’ part:
“Hosanna” now, to-morrow “Crucify,”
The changeful burden still of their rude lawless cry.
Yet in that throng of selfish hearts untrue
Thy sad eye rests upon thy faithful few,
Children and childlike souls are there,
Blind Bartimeus’ humble prayer,
And Lazarus waken’d from his four days’ sleep,
Enduring life again, that Passover to keep.
And fast beside the olive-border’d way
Stands the bless’d home, where Jesus deign’d to stay,
The peaceful home, to zeal sincere
And heavenly contemplation dear,
When Martha lov’d to wait with reverence meet,
And wiser Mary linger’d at thy sacred feet.
Still through decaying ages as they glide,
Thou lov’st thy chosen remnant to divide;
Sprinkled along the waste of years
Full many a soft green isle appears:
Pause where we may upon the desert road,
Some shelter is in sight, some sacred safe abode.
When withering blasts of error swept the sky,
And Love’s last flower seem’d fain to droop and die,
How sweet, how lone the ray benign
On shelter’d nooks of Palestine!
Then to his early home did Love repair,
And cheer’d his sickening heart with his own native air.
Years roll away: again the tide of crime
Has swept thy footsteps from the favour’d clime.
Where shall the holy Cross find rest?
On a crown’d monarch’s mailed breast:
Like some bright angel o’er the darkling scene,
Through court and camp he holds his heavenward course serene.
A fouler vision yet; an age of light,
Light without love, glares on the aching sight:
O who can tell how calm and sweet,
Meek Walton! shews thy green retreat,
When wearied with the tale thy times disclose,
The eye first finds thee out in thy secure repose?
Thus bad and good their several warnings give
Of His approach, whom none may see and live:
Faith’s ear, with awful still delight,
Counts them like minute bells at night,
Keeping the heart awake till dawn of morn,
While to her funeral pile this aged world is borne.
But what are heaven’s alarms to hearts that cower
In wilful slumber, deepening every hour,
That draw their curtains closer round,
The nearer swells the trumpet’s sound?
Lord, ere our trembling lamps sink down and die,
Touch us with chastening hand, and make us feel Thee nigh.


Written by sameo416

November 28, 2011 at 2:46 am

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Geoff Parker Memorial Award Presented

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The first recipient of the Colonel Geoff Parker Memorial Award is Signals Officer Captain James Lindsay. The award was presented to Captain Lindsay on 17 Nov 2011 at the RMCC Fall Convocation.

The Colonel Geoff Parker Memorial Award is an academic award instituted in the memory of Colonel Parker that recognizes the unique characteristics and enduring leadership traits embodied by the late Colonel Parker who was killed in action in Kabul, Afghanistan in May 2010. This award serves to inspire the same traits in other military members.

Captain Lindsay displayed outstanding leadership, character, professionalism and perseverance in the pursuit of academic excellence, while completing his sponsored post-graduate studies in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at the Royal Military College of Canada. His MASc thesis (Nonholonomic Consensus in Cooperative Robotics, A Game Theoretical Approach) looked at different ways that teams of autonomously controlled robots could work together, without any robot being a leader. This research could someday be expanded upon to enable teams of robots to look for IEDs without any human involvement. Further, as a post-grad student, Captain Lindsay sought to be an active role model for the Officer Cadets while teaching several Control and Robotics classes to under-graduate students and participating in the Cyber Defence Challenge as the Operations Officer for the RMCC team.
Congratulations to Captain Lindsay, and thanks to all those who made this everlasting tribute to Colonel Parker and his leadership traits possible.

Written by sameo416

November 24, 2011 at 5:18 pm

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A Soldier’s View of War

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From the book “Jarhead” by Anthony Swofford, 2003, page 114.

“I told her quite confidently that our war was important not because of duration or the number of dead and tortured and burned, but simple because we’d been there and only so many men know the horror of war and the fear, and they must suffer it, no matter the war’s suspected atrociousness, because societies are made, in part, by the men who have fought. I told her that the importance of a war is never decided within years and certainly not within months, but rather in decades, or even centuries. After V Day the vision of the victors is obscured by champagne and skirts and parades, increased profit, decreased loss, and joy, for the war is over and the enemy dead. The war is over and the enemy dead. I said, “The value of every war is negligible.”

[She told me I was full of sh-t.]

“I told her that the problem with believing your country’s battle monuments and deaths are more important than those of other nations is that the enemy disappears, and it becomes as though the enemy never existed, that those names of dead men proudly carved on granite monuments cause a forgetting of the enemy, of the humans who died and fought in other cottons, and the received understanding of war changes so that the heroes from one’s own country are no longer believed to have fought against a national enemy but simply with other heroes, and the war scar is no longer a scar, but a trophy. The warrior becomes the hero, and the society celebrates the death and destruction of war, two things the warrior never celebrates. The warrior celebrates the fact of having survived, not of killing Japs or Krauts or gooks or Russkies or ragheads. That large and complex emotional mess called national victory holds no sway for the warrior. It is necessary to remind civilians of this fact, to make them hear the voice of the warrior.”

My experience of soldiering, is that most I worked with would be considered pacifists by most definitions (although a soldier would not think in those terms). No one person understands the cost of warfare better than a soldier who has entered that fog. The drive to remember, in a soldier’s mind, is not to glorify battle or death but to continue to ‘do their duty’ to stand by their buds once again…their buds who did not return, while they continue to draw breath. That remembering is no less sacred to the soldier, than her or his duty to stand on the firing line in combat, supporting their buds.

The real danger (which we are seeing too much of today) is that the warrior becomes mythological in the eyes of the civilian population, and the permitting of the warrior to work his craft eclipses the horror that is brought forth when societies go to war. As Swofford states, war becomes heroes battling with other heroes, a Disney experience where no one bleeds, and all return home to tell tales of the great battle around the firepit. Nothing is further from the truth.

Written by sameo416

November 17, 2011 at 11:17 pm

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Pacifism – 6

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There is a bunch of work ahead of me, as I want to spend some more time engaging the early church record on this, as well as some of the more radical reformed tradition teaching on the question. I’ve done much of this already, and I have not been convinced that the arguments are that compelling, or that the early church witness is that compelling. Ultimately, my primary source is the Scriptural witness, and it fails to convince me that absolute pacifism is a Godly commandment.

My friend Tim asked me off-line, why I felt a need to respond so directly. Part of it is truth-telling on my behalf, but the main reason I continue to talk on the question is because I continue to have absolute pacifists tell me that “Christians do not join the military or become police.”

If those absolute pacifists took a position similar to, say, the question of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist, on the question of the Christian witness on violence, I would not feel any need to respond.

What do I mean by that? In my parish, we have all perspectives present all the way from extreme Anglo-Catholicism to extreme Protestantism on the question of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist. I would not be surprised to find out we have some that maintain transubstantiation is the correct perspective. This seems to me to be a good reflection of the Scriptural witness, as I can’t see that Christ has done anything but command me to participate in Communion. All after that point is derived teaching, and we seem to be able to dwell together quite well under one roof.

It leaves me wondering why on the question of violence, I am being told (by many sources) that “real” Christians do not become soldiers. I see a similar lack of Scriptural witness (and early church witness) as I do for the question of the real presence in the Eucharist, and yet the result on the question of violence is an absolute prohibition.

If I regularly had people telling me that the Eucharist was only a memorial, there was no real presence, and I was not a “real” Christian for believing so…I expect I would be writing much more about Christ’s presence in the Eucharist.

I am concerned when fellow Christians believe it necessary to condemn other Christians for their beliefs. So, you have to understand that when you say there is an absolute prohibition on military service, that statement actually strikes to the very foundation of my being as a Christian…the reason I joined the military was a vocational call from God to be a peacemaker. You can’t condemn the soldier without condemning me personally, along with every other Christian who has worn a uniform. If the message was presented as, we believe a path of non-violence is incompatible with military service, I might be more receptive, but rather I see quite absolute statements. Perhaps I am left wondering why my universe of belief has considerable room for the Anabaptist witness, but theirs seems to have little room for mine.

My final reason for speaking out is my training as a warrior grounds me fully in the practical concerns of living in a nasty, brutish world. Theological debates are fine, but I’m ultimately left asking the question – but what does this mean to me, after 36 hours on duty without sleep, when I have to make a decision whether or not to use violence to accomplish my mission? A philosophy that does not help with that decision has little that makes it compelling.

As an example, consider the situation faced by Canadian soldiers in the former Yugoslavia (this was documented in a book about the operations there, the title escapes me at this moment). They were only permitted to engage armed combatants, they had no authority to enforce the law, and there was no usual civil authority in place. Their role at that time was to observe and report (much like Dallaire in Rwanda). Those soldiers experienced standing outside homes while the soldiers of one side raped and murdered women and young girls from the other side, and were barred from intervening by their orders.

It would seem to me that this might be counted as a success for pacifism, as the soldiers were well capable of intervening and protecting civilians by using force, but could not by law (because of lawful orders against their intervening).

To be credible and compelling, any philosophy which tells me that I must follow an absolute prohibition on violence needs to explain how such a situation would dealt with, and what you would tell those soldiers about their inability to act to protect the weak.

This is the point at which all of the pro-pacifism reading I have done fails, in that there is never a satisfactory answer as to the cost to the weak of the decision to not use violence. To be credible, any pacifist philosophy has to answer the question of cost. That answer has to dwell in the same world as those soldiers, to explain to them why they did right or wrong by following their orders.

Written by sameo416

November 14, 2011 at 9:14 pm

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Pacifism – 5

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It strikes me that this debate is probably a doomed one, and I realized speaking to groups this week on the “way of the soldier” that part of the problem is a complete lack of understanding of soldiers and soldiering. That’s the reason I take every opportunity to speak about soldiers, as the citizen in a democracy needs to understand the impact of a civilian decision to send men and women into harm’s way.

LCol David Quick (at the time Major), wrote his staff college paper on the question of the impact of killing on the soldier. It is a fascinating personal reflection of a warrior who has starred into the fog of war, who returned and dedicated considerable reflection to the question. A copy is at: http://www.cfc.forces.gc.ca/papers/csc/csc35/mds/quick.pdf You might get a flavour for this deep divide when you read his thoughts – and it is interesting to ask how you react to his analysis of killing? With horror, fascination, despair? It says something about your perspective on the issue.

When I read his paper (and LCol Grossman’s excellent two texts on the topic) I understand better some of the burdens I carry with me from my service…and why my training to kill others has left me a different person (even though I never personally pulled a trigger). It also illustrates for me why there continues to be a difference between me and between non-soldiers, for I have looked into the face of my own death, and causing the deaths of others. It makes a difference.

George Orwell wrote in an essay about Rudyard Kipling in 1942, “[Kipling] sees clearly that men can only be highly civilized while other men, inevitably less civilized, are there to guard and feed them.” And in his ‘Notes on Nationalism’ (1945) Orwell wrote, “Those who ‘abjure’ violence can only do so because others are committeing violence on their behalf.”

Orwell’s discussion includes ‘and feed them’ which is an interesting post-script. I’ve seen a number of Workers’ Compensation claims out of meat processing plants, which tell me that those who work in those places are truly doing a nasty job on my behalf. I think about them (many recent immigrants) everytime I eat meat or poultry – but for their endurance of that job (inevitably less civilized than mine) I would have no pork ribs for my family dinner. It’s a bit like the life of the soldier, civilians, those on the outside, have no idea whatsoever what is going on…but still ask, through their government, to send those soldiers into harm’s way (as most of us enjoy steak with no thought of those who prepared it). Perhaps our lack of understanding of the food supply chain is an analog of the lack of understanding of the way of the soldier, for those who have never looked into the face of violence?

I’ve often thought the only person with the moral authority to object to hunting is a vegetarian…as all meat eaters particpate in the killing of animals even if it is only by purchase and consumption. But I digress…

Here are the words of LCol Dave Grossman, a retired US Army Ranger who has made his life’s work the study of violence (and strongly objects to the promotion of first-person shooter games because of their power to condition people to enjoy violence).

“If you have no capacity for violence then you are a healthy productive citizen, a sheep. If you have a capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens, you are an aggressive sociopath, a wolf. But what if you have a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens? Then you are a sheepdog, a warrior, someone who walks the hero’s path. You are able to walk into the heart of darkness, into the universal human phobia, and walk out unscathed.”

Grossman’s use of the phrase, ‘capacity for violence’ just unlocked something for me – and I realize that is perhaps why this gulf is so wide. Perhaps those I debate with over the place of violence in Christian thought, lack that ‘capacity for violence’, and therefore have no ability to understand many of the things of which I speak. Along with my prior oath to serve my nation and to protect the weak (an oath I still uphold now in my life as a civilian), it marks a gulf in thought that I’m not sure can be easily bridged.

When I took that oath of service, I decided I was ready to die to fulfill it, and that decision changed me (and continues to inform my life today). Perhaps that is what makes the difference.

And perhaps the real question is not if Just War theory is valid, but if we Christians are doing enough to ensure that our soldiers are just in their use of violence. Perhaps the greatest Christian witness about combat is to enter the fray, and to hold steadfast to Christ’s teaching, showing mercy and compassion in the midst of having that ‘capacity to do violence’.

Written by sameo416

November 11, 2011 at 11:01 pm

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Aftermath, Siegfried Sassoon (1920)

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(from a poet who was there, and who knows)

HAVE you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same–and War’s a bloody game…
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz–
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench–
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack–
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads–those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.

Written by sameo416

November 11, 2011 at 9:01 pm

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Pacifism 4

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I wrote this when I was feeling particularly frustrated (and a bit persecuted) over the question of pacifism. My friend Tim (see the comments) took this as a personal attack, which it wasn’t. When I re-read it through his spectacles, I realized that it sounds like an arrow shot directly at him. Mea culpa. I’ll leave it up, as it has a bit of a prophetic sense about it, but with an introduction that forewarns of the strong language. It reflects an event which happened some time ago, in a different place and time, and caused considerable damage to those I was caring for. It also reflects a clear point of serious conflict for me – my call to serve as a soldier was as clear a vocational call as my call to the priesthood or to marriage. To accept that “Christians do not join the military” leaves me having to either renounce that call, or to conclude that God calls us into sin at times…both which are theologically unsupportable positions.

I see several major difficulties with the position of absolute pacifism. To be clear, an absolute pacifist is one who believes an absolute prohibition on violence is a commandment of God. That is, the Christian who deliberately commits an act of violence against another, is committing what a Roman Catholic would consider to be a mortal sin. There is a position I consider more balanced, which I might call a pragmatic pacifist, which is where I would find myself. A pragmatic pacifist is one who acknowledges Christ’s teaching against violence, but acknowledges that in a broken world this side of the parousia there is sometimes little choice but to use violence to meet the second Great Commandment, to love thy neighbour.

So, those difficulties…

• The Scriptural support for absolute pacifism is a derived moral teaching, as it cannot be demonstrated as a direct command of Christ. That there are lots of other things that fall into that category (like prostitution) does not alter the logic – those who claim Christ issued an absolute prohibition against violence do so by inferring that from related teachings. It is a derived moral teaching, not a command of Christ (and not anywhere near the same class as ‘love your neighbour’).

• Christ does not prohibit killing, but murder (through his affirmation of Torah), which is a different act of ending another’s life. Also, if you look at the Greek behind Matthew 26:52 “all they that take the sword, shall perish with the sword”, the verb (lambano) is a verb that implies the action of drawing the sword. That is an act of aggression or vengence – drawing the sword to stike back at a perceived wrong – which I would contrast strongly with an act of defence of neighbour. The context of that passage is a condemnation of those who would take up swords to attack those who were there to arrest Christ. That ties into a number of other passages (submission to the secular authorities for one) but I do not think the language supports an absolute prohibition.

• When I was in high school, I had two clear vocational calls from God. These were crystal-clear, and time has done nothing but confirm that God was the source of those calls. One was to marry my wife. The other was to become a soldier for the purpose of bringing peace. Unless you call me a liar, or misguided, or not a “real” Christian, I’m not sure how a godly vocational call such as mine supports an absolute prohibition.

• The ultimate failure of the pacifist position comes in the question of our response to horrific violence being done to the weak, to our neighbour. Hays offers the standard response to those questions, like what about ending the Holocaust, what about stopping the Rwandan genocide. The standard answer is…if “real” Christians had been involved, those things would not have happened, which is no response at all…I might equally glibly state that if Eve had not eaten the apple we would be in paradise right now, and while a nice thought it does nothing to forward the discussion as it has no basis in reality. We live in a broken world, a world where sometimes people seek to do great harm to others. If we have the means to protect our neighbour, and we refuse because of some higher moral command, I would suggest that we are failing to follow Christ’s will.

• Absolute pacifists are very quick to avoid answering that question directly, and it detracts greatly from their moral stance. If the answer to, what about Rwanda, is we did the right thing by not sending in troops to do violence and stop the killing, I would like to honestly hear that. If the answer to, what about the Holocaust, is we should never have sent troops overseas because to do so was a great sin, and we can trust God to care for those heading to the ovens, I would like to hear that directly and clearly. If the absolute pacifist prohibits all violence, even that which might save their family from a violent home invasion, I would like to hear that, directly and honestly.

• It is easy to have an absolute pacifist position living in a first world country where the vast majority of us will never even have a serious car accident, let alone a violent encounter with a criminal. It is easy to say “Christians do not become police officers” when there are people willing to be police who maintain that rule of order which allows us to live in safety and security. As Mennonite Ron Sider (www.cpt.org) points out, this is nothing but pure hypocrisy, as it relies on other people sending their sons and daughters into harm’s way to protect those who sit back and critique their actions.

• The position of absolute pacifism requires that the lessons of history be ignored, as it would argue that wars do no good whatsoever…or do so much evil that any possible good is lost. So, to support the moral belief of absolute pacifism, one must be prepared to assert that not stopping the Nazi machine in WW II would have had no impact on the world either way. Allowing the Nazi rule to continue would have left the world no worse than it is today, and might even have left it better. This is nonsense (because if you do not argue war does no good, and accept history shows some wars may have done much good, you’re right in the place of a pragmatic pacifist).

• The reason why the absolute pacifist position fails with me is because I have seen little evidence that those who so boldly proclaim that as “The” teaching of Christ have any inclination to place themselves in harm’s way to demonstrate how strongly they believe. It is one thing to courageously state your beliefs in a debate in a church in Canada, quite another to go and stand between combatants in a foreign land and risk real harm or death. If you are not willing to demonstrate love of neighbour by protecting them with force if required, are you willing to demonstrate that love by dying for your neighbour? The answer, all too often, is that the pacifist is unwilling to risk their own life to save another. As a soldier I took oath to defend the weak, even if it meant my death – are you willing to do the same? Will the pacifist serve his God with the same unlimited liability with which I served my country? In this, actions speak far louder than rhetoric.

• Finally, stating to a group of Christians, many of whom are veterans themselves, or ex-police, or spouses of veterans, or family members of veterans, that “real” Christians do not serve in the military or the police is one of the most horrific personal attacks cloaked in Christian teaching I have ever personally heard. If you have made such statements, you probably won’t hear about it, as you’ve condemned those individuals to silence (at least around you). I’ve dealt with the pastoral fallout of those statements, and it leaves those Christians deeply wounded – the worst impact is on the spouses of veterans who have died, one of whom asked me, “Does this mean my husband wasn’t a Christian?” That sort of teaching is no different than the rationale used to persecute fellow Christians that has been trotted out throughout history (and there is more than a hint of irony that it often comes from the Anabaptist perspective, given the degree that the Anabaptists were persecuted by other Christians). That an absolute pacifist is willing to so quickly cause such harm to fellow Christians does not lead me to see God behind their conviction, but only power.

My main problem with absolute pacifism is that it demands that I stand by and watch while my neighbour is slaughtered. While I make the moral decision to safe-guard my own holiness, at no cost to myself, my neighbour bears the cost by dying.

In the Good Samaritan, the blessing of being called a neighbour goes to the one who showed mercy to the wounded. Christ teaches that showing mercy, being a neighbour, trumps the previous absolute rules about purity. My understanding of Scripture is that my choice to be a neighbour to the weak, by sometimes using force, similarly sometimes trumps Christ’s teaching on violence.

Until I see absolute pacifists willing to die to support their moral position, I am afraid it is just another voice in a sea of voices. On November 11th, I will remember the soldiers who spoke their belief in blood, on beaches and in forests or desert in far away lands.

Written by sameo416

November 11, 2011 at 8:58 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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