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Mercy and Conflict

A sermon by The Reverend Ian Woodward, Vicar of the Close  

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Mercy and Conflict

Posted By : Ian Woodward Sunday 16th August 2015

A sermon by The Reverend Ian Woodward, Vicar of the Close


In the world of management and leadership it has become increasingly recognised that if anyone is to be better able or to be more effective at what they do they need to have a good understanding of their own personality. That may seem obvious and indeed not only has industry almost universally embraced this but so has the Church. There is a personality assessment called ‘Myers-Briggs’ which some of you may be familiar with – I can recall being ‘assessed’ as it were a couple of times ahead of new appointments and for a third time when I was an ordinand. Interestingly the results came out the same each time – which I guess shows some consistency. The intriguing thing is that there are no right or indeed wrong answers; but by means of subtly repeating questions in slightly different ways the theoretical result is that we all fall into one of 16 personality types based on how we relate to other people and the values that we have and how we live and move and have our being. The reason I mention this is that at the end of the Myers-Briggs assessment is a section of quick fire responses – one is not to dwell over the answers but to try to expose what it is that we readily identify with and what it is that we value. The question I recall each time under values was ‘which do you value more: Justice or Mercy?’ What would your answer be or would you like more time to answer?       

With all the quite proper concentration on Magna Carta this year, what flows from our experiences is the essential importance of ‘The Rule of Law’ and the ‘Power and Words’ But we need to go further. The practice of mercy is that measure of a truly caring society at local, national and international level that distinguishes us and sets us above simply an adherence to statutes inscribed on velum. It shows that we truly value the individual as well as the masses, the population; for each of us is an individual but still part of the whole. Without that rootedness we are diminished as John Donne reminds us.  But most significantly it can demonstrate the vitality of our Christian faith and shows that we are capable of forgiveness. Ed Probert, our Chancellor, reminded us in his sermon in this series on mercy a couple of weeks ago, that forgiveness flowing out of mercy is the true measure of Christian love and faithfulness to Christ. It is indeed the measure of society. Mercy is fundamental to our faith. It signifies real and practical expressions of compassion and love. The Gospel story of the Good Samaritan reminds us of this with Jesus’ question at the end of the parable “Which of these three do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers”. The lawyer (who wanted to test Jesus) answers “the one who showed him mercy.” But Jesus doesn’t leave it there. He says to the potentially vexatious lawyer “Go and do likewise”. Mercy, with compassion, forms the foundation of the communion; that relationship God wants with us and the relationship we should have with each other.

But how do we understand mercy when it comes to conflict? Or indeed warfare? The Old Testament has so much violence and seeming absence of mercy in it that we find it hard to comprehend that we worship the God, who as Jesus Christ, is the Prince of Peace? The story of Israel and Jewish history is hardly a role model for mercy; and yet there is so much reference to a Merciful God’ whilst at the same time demanding annihilation to those who oppose God’s ‘Chosen People’. It doesn’t seem so different to me to the ghastly behaviour of the extremists in ISIL in Syria and Iraq. Yet in the latter case they worship ‘Allah the merciful’ – arguably the same God we worship. So where does this leave us? The week before last we marked the 70th anniversary of the first dropping of a nuclear weapon – it was exploded over Hiroshima in Japan and with the subsequent dropping of the bomb on Nagasaki a few days later ended the war against Japan. 100,000s of people were killed and injured in the most ghastly of ways. It was commemorated yesterday in St Martin’s in the Fields and Westminster Abbey. Was ‘mercy’ on the agenda as the decision to deploy these first nuclear weapons was being considered? Were the Allies driven to such extremes, given the atrocious, unmerciful behaviour inflicted on allied prisoners who were unwilling to accept defeat, and allied casualties would have been immense in a mainland invasion defended by their fanatical captors?  Is weighing whether such extreme conflict is 'Just', or merely 'permissible' the right course? The doctrine of the ‘Just War’ can deceive a person into thinking that because a war may be just, it is actually a good thing. But behind contemporary war theory lies the idea that war is always bad. Is a just war permissible because it's a lesser evil, but isn’t it still an evil? – we might say a necessary evil – but that surely and unavoidably diminishes us. This is not the place to debate St Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or anyone else on the theory of a ‘just war’ at least not in detail – perhaps that’s for another time. But in planning and equipping for armed conflict - which we must do as a responsible nation where the protection of our citizens and our allies is paramount - we have to ask the question: Where is mercy in the planning and conduct of conflict? Do we seek to minimise the effect of engagement or ‘contact’ on our enemy? Today we are challenged that precision weapons are delivered from remotely piloted aircraft where the officer controlling the delivery of the bomb or missile is sitting at a console thousands of miles away in Arizona or Lincolnshire or oceans away in the case of submarine launched missiles. Does mercy enter the equation to release or not release the weapon? Some of you will remember the decision to attack the Argentinian warship the General Belgrano during the Falklands war in May 1982, with a torpedo from the nuclear powered submarine HMS Conqueror. The firing decision was authorised in Downing Street with the consequent loss of more than 320 lives. We may debate the ethics of this decision given that it was supposedly steaming away from the ‘Total Exclusion Zone’ at the time but argue that she could still have turned around and reasserted her threat to the Royal Navy. So was the loss of life a failure to be merciful given the inevitable consequences of the authority to press the fire button?      

As a reminder, the Christian concept of a ‘just war’ attempts to reconcile three things:

·         taking human life is seriously wrong

·         states have a duty to defend their citizens, and defend justice

·         protecting innocent human life and defending important moral values sometimes requires willingness to use force and violence

However today we have very contemporary challenges to being merciful, be it ISIL in Iraq and Syria or South Sudan today, or Japan and Germany 70 years ago.

How do we prevent and indeed change such behaviour – how do you and I make mercy infectious?

Many of you will know that we have a very long standing partnership – 43 years - with the people of the Sudans – North and South through the Episcopal Church there. Independence through the Comprehensive Peace agreement in 2011 was expected to open new opportunities for the impoverished South. Yet sadly within 18 months of independence, brutal fighting broke-out and tens of thousands of people have been killed and injured and made homeless and four million people stand in danger of food poverty which is NGO speak for starvation. The conflict, based on and driven by old tribal revenges going back generations, is breeding relentless violence in which whole communities are destroyed. Weapons are cheap and very easily available. Poorly educated and unemployed youth are pressed or recruited as soldiers and militias and are using torture and rape as weapons and there is no mercy given. A week ago we heard of seven members of the congregation in Yambio in Western Equatoria where Wimborne Deanery has a strong link, had been killed. The two leaders – the President and the former Vice President, from opposing tribes, are refusing to sign and honour a peace agreement brokered by the African Union and the international community. We, Salisbury, are supporting peace initiatives and funding trauma and reconciliation training, but the Church leadership at the highest level is not speaking out strongly enough against the conflict. Many bishops are ashamed of what is going on. There needs to be a complete change of hearts and minds. There needs to be mercy. Mercy has to be both a response and a responsibility.

Our Gospel reading this morning  is the reading set for Maundy Thursday when Jesus demonstrates his humility, his mercy, as an example for his disciples - his ‘friends’ to follow.                

Jeremy Taylor, the 17th century moral theologian and one time chaplain to Charles the 1st said this about Jesus at the Last Supper: ‘(Jesus) chose to wash their feet rather than their head, that he might have the opportunity of a more humble posture, and a more apt signification of his charity (his compassion) Thus God lays everything aside, that he may serve his servants; heaven stoops to earth, and one abyss calls upon another, and the miseries of (humanity), which were next to infinite, are excelled by a mercy equal to the immensity of God.          

To go back to the question I posed earlier: of course we need justice but without mercy we are truly diminished. If we are able to bring that sense of service and serving, of humility and humanity, of tolerance and mercy to all our relationships, we can indeed build that more loving community, nation and world that we all so much long for.