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Bearing Witness and Bearing the Sword in a Time of Violence

Tuesday, 8 December 2015  | Matt Wilcoxen

Back in August I was tasked with preaching in our church’s November topical series on justice and compassion. The sermon title I was assigned was “On War and Violence”. Such is the life of an associate minister. What text was I to preach from? Isaiah 2:1-5, which paints a beautiful vision of warfare ceasing? Exodus 15:3—“The LORD is a warrior; the LORD is his name”?  Or should I look to Jesus’ commandment in Matthew 5:43-48 that his followers are to love their enemies? I could go on; the Bible does not shy away from the reality of human violence, all the while looking forward to its abolition.

Eight days before I was to give the sermon, the Paris attacks happened. Eight gunmen stormed into the international consciousness by mowing down one hundred-and-thirty-seven people in ‘The City of Light’. The leaders of France and other European nations inveighed against this “act of war”. There were questions about whether NATO’s Article Five would be invoked, obliging twenty-eight different nations to respond in cooperation with France. Within a week, the fifteen power-brokers on the United Nations Security Council came to an extremely rare unanimous vote condemning the attacks and vaguely calling on its members to use “all necessary measures” to fight the so-called Islamic State. Talk of war was suddenly in the air. What was I to say “On War and Violence” in the midst of this?  

Aristotle writes in his Nicomachean Ethics that pusillanimity is a far more common and more dangerous vice than vanity. The Christian preacher should take this to heart. I recognised this small-mindedness in myself in my desire to sidestep the entire issue of speaking from scripture directly to the threatening escalation of violence after the Paris attacks. After all, what does it matter what I say to our church here on Sydney’s Northern Beaches? It isn’t as if I’m a policymaker, and the people I preach to certainly aren’t either. So why not skip the issue of the physical conflict going on in the world, and skip right into speaking about the spiritual battle that Christians face? Yet the sermon title and the events of the world wouldn’t let me take the easy way out. Whatever I said would have to address the world concretely, but pass as a good-faith attempt to speak God’s word to the congregation. 

One of the many biblical texts I pored over in my desperation was Romans 13:1-7. The tension of the situation made this previously dormant text (to me, anyway) come alive. While in context Paul is speaking about how Christian citizens of the Roman Empire were to relate to their own government, I was struck in a new way by Paul’s seemingly trans-historical statement on the nature of government per se. “[T]he one in authority is God’s minister for your good…They are God’s ministers, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Rom 13:4). Oliver O’Donovan writes of this verse, “That is an assertion, as Paul is aware, which will surprise Christians taught to see themselves as free members of a perfectly governed society, ‘Sons of the Kingdom’” (The Desire of the Nations, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 148). For here Paul does not merely make earthly government a ‘necessary evil’, but rather he gives a positive affirmation of government. Every government has a divinely-given mission to allow for the flourishing of peace, and to be an agent of divine wrath against those who threaten peace. As Bonhoeffer writes: “The mission of government consists in serving the dominion of Christ on earth by the exercise of the worldly power of the sword and of justice” (Ethics, New York: Touchstone, 1995, p. 335).  

This concept of the government’s divinely-given mission formed the nexus of my sermon “On War and Violence” eight days after the Paris attacks. For, I said, while the church bears no sword, and has the supreme task of reconciliation (Cf. Matt 26:52; 2 Cor 5:19-20), the government rightly wields the power of force. Neither Paul nor Bonhoeffer would have expected us to be naïve to the way governments are all too often co-opted for projects of terrible injustice. The governments of the world can represent the sinfulness of humanity in exponential form, but this is precisely where the church is to address the government prophetically. To quote Bonhoeffer again, the church is to “with all due deference address government directly in order to draw its attention to shortcomings and errors which must otherwise imperil its governmental office” (Ethics, p. 345). It is the responsibility of Christians to address governmental powers as to what is just and to how they should perform their function.  

The idea that the church should speak to government is readily accepted by evangelicals today when the issue is how the government should distribute foreign aid, or how it should treat refugees, or how it should take action on environmental issues, or how it should refrain from the use of force. Rightly so. Yet, the admittedly dangerous and controversial line of enquiry I sought to raise in the minds of my hearers is this: are there times where the church might need to use her voice to call governments to bear the sword more literally against forces of evil? The rise of the so-called Islamic State has led to hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, three million refugees, and six-and-a-half million internally displaced people. The group has grandiose ambitions for expansion, and appears determined to attack innocent civilians abroad. Might this be a time for the churches to call our governments to commit itself not to retaliation or mere self-protection, but to the long, hard task of establishing a just order in the region? 

I realise that many people will find this problematic. I did not and I do not presume to give a definitive answer to this on my own—but rather to raise the question for prayer and critical biblical and theological reflection. If the church is to speak thusly, she must never echo those right wing voices of racism and xenophobia that bubble perpetually within every society. But neither can she adopt the paralysing premises of some on the political left with their reductionist accounts of evil and the malaise that comes from an implicit moral relativism. Instead, as evangelicals, we must self-critically recommit ourselves to “the one word of God that we have to trust and obey in life and in death” (Barmen) and speak the truth to the powers that be, always remembering that the point is not to win but to bear witness.

Matthew Wilcoxen is an associate minister at All Saints' Anglican Church in Balgowlah, and a PhD candidate at Charles Sturt University.


Doug Hynd
December 9, 2015, 9:26PM
Matt raises a number of issues that are worthy of careful conversation. One relating to the suggestion of Church addressing the state on going to war, a second the substantive issues about a specific application of that judgement with respect to current conflicts in the Middle East.

There is a third issue sitting in the background that needs to be addressed in an Australian context that might make the exercise by the Church of a voice on the issue of going to war meaningful. That relates to the current process of government decision to go to war.

In Australia this is a straightforward exercise of executive power. Parliament as the elected representative of the people is not consulted. No formal space is given in Parliament for debate on the issues at stake.
Furthermore no process is available to enable Parliament and the public at large to undertake a post facto assessment of such decisions by the executive.
For example there was not a debate on the Iraq War, let alone an assessment of the basis on which Australia went to war and the outcomes and implications of that decision.

I note in contrast that in the UK the Parliament at least spent ten hours publically canvassing the issue of participating in military action in Syria . I also note that in the UK the decision to go to war in Iraq has been the subject of the extensive Chilcott inquiry which hopefully will eventually see the light of day.

What might be productive would be for the Christian churches to join in a current campaign to require the executive to bring the decision to go to war to the Parliament and further make the outcomes of the decision to go to war and the outcomes and conduct of the war reviewable by Parliament. That might provide a meaningful space for Christians to share their discernment on such decisions.

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