It was the first Christmas after the outrage of the September 11th attack on New York and Washington DC. America and her allies had recently invaded Afghanistan and the tension was building with Saddam Hussain's Iraq. I was doing some work as a presenter of a breakfast television show and was asked to interview a well-known American church leader. As part of the interview I asked him to talk about his understanding of what the Christmas story was all about.
“Peace and goodwill to all,” he replied, “Jesus is the Prince of Peace. That's the core of His life changing story.”
“So if Jesus is the Prince of Peace and one of his key messages was love your enemies, what does that mean on a world scale?” I asked. “I think it’s much easier to understand Jesus’ message on a person-to-person level – it doesn’t necessarily apply to nation/state relationships”.
After the show I asked one of the studio crew what he thought of what our guest had said. His reply was simple, “Love your enemy, but kill them first!
I have often thought that, at any level, Jesus’ famous sound bite ‘Love your enemies’ probably amounts to, at one and the same time, the most admired and least practised piece of teaching in history. The myth that violence is the only solution to many of the world’s problems still thrives, seemingly everywhere. And, Jesus’ advice about non-violence is dismissed as impractical idealism, extraordinarily, no such charge is ever made against violence, in spite of the fact that history has proved, time and again, that war hostility and terrorism solve nothing in the long run.
Put differently, you can't kill your way to peace.
The ‘might is right’ principle seems to pervade cultures everywhere.. You only have to look at our films to see what dominates our own worldview. From Popeye to Tom and Jerry and Rambo to Batman, we are repeatedly sold the lie that violence is the only way to win and eradicate the enemy. And to add irony to insult, James Bond, the British Spy, in the service of Queen and country kills, murders, threatens, bullies, seduces, commits adultery, lies, steals, cheats, breaks the law and beats his enemies to a pulp.
But, have we actually been deluded into believing a myth that is destroying us? It was Gandhi who wrote: ‘I object to violence because even when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.’ As Carl Jung poignantly observed, “You always become the thing you fight.” Perhaps the ultimate weakness of any kind of violence is that it is a descending spiral; begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. May be violence can never stop violence, simply because every ‘successful’ violent act deepens our faith in it and this very success leads others to imitate it.
Although, at this moment, Islamic extremism presents our contemporary world with a unique threat – to which very understandably it has been necessary to respond - radicalisation is much more than an Islamic problem. It is a human problem. For instance, here in South London, more young people are enticed by the lure of gangs and guns than ever seduced by the sinister world of extremism and terror.
At the age of 14, a South London kid, became a Christian - a follower of Christ. In that moment, he felt as if his small pointless story had been caught up in a much bigger, radical vision to bring positive change to the world; that he’d joined a huge gang – a gang that was worth belonging to – with a narrative that was strong enough, compelling enough, infectious enough, deep enough, rooted enough, and radical enough to dedicate his life to.
That kid was me.
Everyone needs a narrative worth living by; one that explains to us who we are, supplies us with a sense of worth and purpose – and which offers us hope for the future. Any counter terrorism strategy that falls short of this fails to get to the heart of things.
Do governments, guns and traditional armies have a role to play in our war against terrorism? Theologians and philosophers from Thomas Aquinas to Dietrich Bonhoeffer have spent centuries wrangling over Just War Theory; attempting to find a moral response to the evil perpetrated by those who wreak violence and war on the innocent. Of course a response may be necessary. But, can guns alone finally ever win the peace? Never! In this they are impotent. Instead, in the end we must find and promote a new narrative to live by, together, that brings real change, because lasting change, arises from local communities, one relationship at a time. Every act of love is a victory over hatred. Every act of kindness, a victory over violence. There is finally no other way.
Christians see Jesus Christ as the supreme example of the power of peace – He was oppressed and afflicted, but he did not fight back. His teaching, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ has inspired countless men and women through the centuries to live as non-violent radicals. For those who have lived out this ‘upside down’, non-violent approach to life in past days, such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Desmond Tutu, or the older Nelson Mandela, there is almost universal admiration and respect.
Now the challenge before us is to articulate for a new generation a narrative that is powerful enough to bring real and lasting peace to our vulnerable multi-cultural, multi-faith communities as well as to the diversity of our wider world.
It is never enough to talk about peace. It is never enough to believe in peace. The real task, the only task, is to work at peace – As Jesus said; ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.’
And now I invite you to reflect in a moment of prayer as we hear the Oasis Waterloo Community Choir sing an arrangement of the hymn Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.
I was delighted to hear on ITV News that Steve is against selection of the brightest children to go to more grammar schools. Theresa May's plan is for yet more preferential treatment for the wealthiest and most privileged to go to the 'best' schools in the land by building more of the supposed 'best'.
I want inclusion that means that those at the bottom should get the best of everything. Bias to the poor and not the rich. The rich and brightest are well able to look after themselves.
I was also delighted to hear your excellent 'Sunday Worship' broadcast on Sunday. Steve's sermon was the very first sermon I have heard - and I am 68 years old - that specifically mentioned non-violence as the way of the Cross - as Christ's way.