Fr David's Sermon
11th November 2007
Today is Armistice Day – the 11th hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month – when the guns finally stopped, at least for a short while. Out of it grew the traditions associated with Remembrance Sunday – the marches, the poppies and the wreath laying. To those of us who came after it seems a permanent fixture, something that has always been. Not true of course as 90 years ago the First World War was still raging & 94 years ago it was unimagined. What does seem to be permanent is war & violence, although the number & scale of conflicts is now less than in the past, if more immediate through the impact of 24 hour news. An ongoing day to remember the cost and sacrifices of war still seems all too necessary.
November 11th marks another day. In 397 on 11th November, the remains of Martin, Bishop of Tours were buried in his Cathedral. Today is his feast day – Martinmas. Sometimes he grants us an extra summer around this time, like Friday, more usually not.
Martin’s first call was as a soldier. Like his father before him he was a conscript in the Roman Army. Nothing particularly unusual in that but Martin was different. From an early age he was drawn by Christianity. He felt a conflict of loyalty, his allegiance to the Emperor as a soldier conflicted with his desire to commit to Christ. He thought his role as a soldier involving the often cruel upholding of Roman rule was incompatible with being a Christian.
In those days Baptism was taken very seriously. If you sinned after baptism it was felt you couldn’t be forgiven – so you did your sinning first! The Emperor Constantine who made Christianity the official religion of the Empire put off his Baptism to his death bed – after he had done his fighting.
Martin made a protest, an early form of conscientious objection that led to his imprisonment. Only on his release when he was discharged from the army was he finally baptised becoming a disciple of Hilary of Poitier and beginning his ministry as a monk, missionary and bishop. (The most famous story about him dates from this time, how he divided his cloak to give half to a beggar.)
Martin’s struggle with his conscience can stand for the Christian ambivalence about the rightness of military force. The divided cloak can stand for two traditions, that of conscientious objection and pacificism as opposed to the just war tradition.
In early Christian centuries when the church was persecuted the issue was more clear cut. To submit to the Emperor as Lord seemed a blasphemous denial of the Lord Jesus Christ, quite apart from questions of military service and the use of force. Martin still essentially belonged to this tradition even though he lived in a time of change when the state was beginning to become Christian.
Once the state was Christian the question became more urgent. How should a Christian state act? Should it defend its citizens? From out of such considerations grew the just war tradition. It is this which continues to be the basis of modern thinking in liberal democracies like our own. It is part of the process of deciding whether or not to go to war, or more cynically of justifying military action.
The just war theory has to do with questions of self-defence, legality, proportionality and most significantly outcome. Thus will military action lead to a better situation? This last is highly questionable in the case of Iraq. It is doubtful too whether the neo-con doctrine of intervention in the affairs of a sovereign state to bring about a higher good like democracy is in accordance with just war thinking either.
Whilst we might respect the stand of the pacifist, pacifism is not very realistic option, certainly at odds with our pragmatic approach of seeking to uphold national interests. The just war tradition, informed by Christianity seems to be the way forward for modern democracies. Recently two top generals have written a pamphlet exploring it afresh, so important do they see it in under pinning all they seek to do.
It is good to think of such things on Armistice Day as we recall the terrible cost of war. We recall with gratitude those who made the supreme sacrifice for our freedom. We pray for all caught up in armed conflict and for all who suffer as a result of war. We pray for the dead.
On Martinmas we recall the personal struggle of Martin with the military question. As Christians we resolve to think more deeply about questions of war and peace and to prayerfully support those in government and the armed forces who still have to deal with such difficult questions in the all too real world of events.
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