Weeds and wars

Matthew 13:24-30
Romans 8:12-25

Where was God in the trenches of the First World War? From Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy (Woodbine Willie) to Siegfried Sassoon, great minds have wrestled with what was effectively the first industrialised war in human history. But as we rapidly approach the centenary of the ‘war to end all wars’ we are probably no closer to understanding all that was involved. Already people are busy re-writing history. We are being told that the ‘liberal myth’ has distorted the ‘true’ record of events. Most combatants, we are reminded, actually survived the war, and the generals were not totally incompetent, blinded by aristocratic prejudice and xenophobia, lining up the squaddies as cannon fodder regardless of the cost. This was not about the elites of Europe squabbling over a few metres of squalid mud, but about patriotism and the proper defence of national interest.

These people re-writing history are, of course, neglecting the heroism of millions mobilised to defend king and country. Those who have actually visited the battlefields of France and Belgium may, perhaps, pause to wonder: row upon row of neatly tended graves stretching as far as the eye can see in a semi-industrial backwater of modern France, where you might well see an elderly relative weep for the father she never knew. But as that post war generation itself passes away, the memorials at the Menin Gate and elsewhere testify powerfully to a tragedy it is almost impossible to imagine. It is all too easy to stand by the remains of the concrete machine gun posts on what is almost jokingly called ‘the ridge’ at Passchendale and imagine the German gunners sweeping away the Allied troops in front of them. No wonder so many hundreds of thousands left no identifiable remains to be buried, so they are now remembered as little more than a name on a list that goes on and on. Thus speaks the true testimony of war, however much some insist otherwise.

Both sides, of course, passionately believed God was on ‘their side’. As Archbishop Randall Davidson blessed the battleships of the Royal Navy, a young Karl Barth was scandalised by leading German academic theologians supporting the German army. This ‘patriotic God’, for Barth, was nothing less than a contradiction of the gospel; spurring him to action. He was one of the leading thinkers behind the Barmen Declaration, a theological statement from German Christians opposing Nazism.

For Barth, who became one of the greatest theologians the church ever had, war shows only the violence of human sin; the gospel can never be conscripted into the service of the false god called patriotism. The God made known to us in Christ bids us love our enemies. The role of the Church is not to bless those who promote aggression, but to challenge them in the name of the crucified Lord.

The proper response of the Church to the reality of war is never easy to discern. Many have walked a narrow path of costly non-violence, as did many of the conscientious objectors in both World Wars. Their readiness to embrace the ridicule and anger of the majority stands as a witness to the moral cowardice of those of us who feel unable to speak out. But pacifism has its own ambiguities, as many Christians have discovered when they have been forced to choose between passive resistance and the brutality that sweeps such resistance aside. How would we have responded if we had seen the genocide of the Holocaust? I honour Christian pacifists and salute them, but I am not sure that I could join them.

Matthew, in his gospel this morning, is speaking about these very dilemmas. This parable of the weeds growing among the wheat is is all about the world being a field of moral and spiritual ambiguity. Like all the stories, we’re left to work something out for ourselves, and we’re not told who is the good seed and who is the bad seed. Do not assume it is obvious who is doing God’s work: the pacifist or the military. God alone knows. In the meantime, we can only do what we can by the grace of God, and leave the rest to God, who is compassion and mercy.

This is where our reading from Romans comes in. I know, from what people have said before, that many of us struggle to make any sense at all of Paul’s writing at best, and especially so in Romans. This passage is all about moral ambiguity. Paul has spent the previous seven chapters wrestling to make sense of the legacy of Jewish theology in the earliest says of the church, and in chapter eight, from which we read today, Paul recognises that the Holy Spirit weaves everything together into the Gods’ eternal purpose of love. The passage may be a tricky one, but the overall message is clear: the sufferings of the present time pale into insignificance alongside the transforming purpose of God.

Where was God in the trenches of the First World War? God was grieving over death and destruction. It may be easy to see futility and despair in the world, but the message of the Bible is that God in Christ will eventually overcome with love that saves and heals. God in Christ is the first and the last, there is no one else, he is the rock, the only firm foundation for understanding horror and chaos. Do not be afraid; in Christ, even all this will be overcome by love which makes all things whole.

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