‘There will be wars’: Remembrance and Jesus’ apocalyptic teaching
by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
I went through a ‘pacifist’ phase as a teenager. Wilfred Owen’s angry words summed up my feelings at the time. His familiar poem ends with a description of a soldier’s death in a mustard gas attack, and concludes that any witness to that awful scene
… would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Owen’s poem challenges and undermines the idea that dying for one’s country in a patriotic war is sweet and glorious. I went further – I even had doubts about my country as an entity worth fighting for or dying for. It was the era of the cold war, American nuclear weapons stationed in the heart of England, the Falklands conflict – for me at that time Remembrance Day was embarrassingly jingoistic– in fact I couldn’t see how Christianity could be in any way compatible with the military.
I was a Christian but was perhaps paying more attention to my own brilliant ideas than to the Bible and the wisdom of the ages. Looking back I realise that the suspicion of unthinking aggressive patriotism and the gut horror at violent conflict may have been godly, but my attitude to those involved in war was not. My pacifism may have owed more to ignorance, arrogance and cowardice than to noble principles. Remembering past wars does not have to be a proud praising of the nation and its military power while ignoring the plight of the poor and suffering. It can have real psychological and spiritual benefits, for humility (reminding us of how sinful human beings are, and how courageous and selfless they can be), and community (motivating us to resolve conflicts and seek peace).
But also in war there is sometimes a genuine case of right versus wrong. Assisting those desperately defending their land and homes against unprovoked aggression, and preventing the global triumph of an evil philosophy – did Jesus’ command to “turn the other cheek” apply to that? Maybe its not so simple.
Jesus taught about war his sermon by the temple in Jerusalem, in the last week of his life. This is looking at Luke’s version (chapter 21).
Firstly, human beings will always fight. He said “wars and uprisings…must happen” and “nation will rise against nation” (v9-10). Perhaps he had in mind the rage of the nations of Psalm 2, as he foresaw how much of human history would involve war. At the end of the 19th century many genuinely believed that science would solve humanity’s problems and a utopia would result. Two horrific global conflicts followed, within 50 years. In 1992 commentators proclaimed ‘the end of history’ after the collapse of the Soviet empire and the apparent triumph of liberal capitalism. Less than ten years later the ‘war on terror’ began, and continues to this day. There will be war because of human sin.
Secondly, there’s a sense that war is reflecting a wider unseen conflict in the spiritual realm. Verses 10-11: There will be wars, earthquakes, famines “and great signs from heaven”. Jesus goes on to give descriptions of the persecution of the church which started soon after his death, and the destruction of Jerusalem (40 years after his death), and he sets these events next to talking about global disasters and strange things going on in the sky. The terrible evil that’s unleashed in war is part of the groaning of creation that’s a constant battleground between God patiently working out his purposes, and Satan and his invisible forces trying to disrupt them and cause as much havoc as possible.
Third, war is an outworking of God’s judgement. “There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people” (v23). The appalling picture of pregnant women and nursing mothers “falling by the sword”, and Jerusalem being “trampled by the Gentiles” does not negate the fact that in some way that we cannot fully understand, even the worst situations are under God’s control and part of his just purposes. Unless one takes the view that violence is always wrong, most would accept that there are some circumstances when military force is necessary to defeat evil, such as fighting against Hitler or ISIS. In such cases there is collateral damage and innocent people suffer. Jesus seems to be saying that the same happens in “the time of punishment” (v22). While we may rebel against this idea of God’s wrath against evil, the alternatives are not consistent with the Bible’s descriptions of God – that he is nowhere to be seen when there’s a war, or that he is sitting with the suffering and dying but powerless to do anything about the conflict and its outcome.
But then all through this passage, where Jesus sees various kinds of conflict and suffering and natural disasters over the centuries ahead, there is good news! There will be an end to war when Jesus will return and all sin and evil will finally be removed and destroyed. In the meantime, God is going to look after his special people. Those who are faithful to Jesus will be safe even if they die physically (v16-18), and today we have constant reminders of the terror faced by Christians in many countries across the world, and are challenged and uplifted by their faith. Cataclysmic events will be a sign of the end, of redemption drawing near, a time to stand up and lift up the head (v28). The process leading to the event that brings about this salvation, the death of Christ on the cross, begins shortly after the conclusion of Jesus’ sermon.
I’ve never fought in a war. I have never had to face what soldiers on active service or civilians caught up in war have faced. For those who have fought, war must dominate their thinking for the rest of their lives. Honouring the great courage and self sacrifice of those who have fallen in war is an essential part of our humanity. But according to Jesus, its not how much we have suffered or how much courage we’ve shown in the face of war that matters ultimately. Rather it’s how we face that day of judgement, whether in the heat of battle, or in a civilian life of partying and “the anxieties of life”. The words of Jesus are sobering: “be careful” because that day will come – pray that you will escape the worst suffering, but whatever happens, make sure you can “stand before the Son of Man”. That depends on our faith in him, not on our courage on the battlefield or any other good works.
The time of Remembrance reminds us of many lessons for our discipleship: the value of putting oneself on the line in defence of others, the reality and imminence of judgement, the good news of God’s sovereignty and the promise of his complete protection for those who trust in Christ, and the need to be prayerful, spiritually like the soldier who is always “on watch”.
See also: From Remembrance to Faith and Hope (2014) by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream