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"A just war"- sermon

A just war??
Text: The religious leaders watched Jesus and sent spies, who pretended to be honest, to trap him by what he said, so as to hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor.
They asked him, ‘Teacher, we know that you are right in what you say and teach and that you show deference to no one, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’
But Jesus, perceiving their craftiness, said to them, ‘Show me a denarius; whose head and title does it bear?’ They said, ‘The emperor’s.’
He said to them, ‘Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’
They were not able, in the presence of the people, to trap him by what he said; and being amazed by his answer, they became silent. (Lk 20:20-26)

Reflection: Many regard this text as affirming the view that church (‘God’) and state (‘Emperor/ Caesar’) should be separate.
This view leads to the conclusion that Christians should pay taxes to the state. Jesus suggested it, didn’t he? More generally, this view asserts that Christians have a number of God-ordained duties and responsibilities owed to the state.
It was within this world view that the ‘just war’ theory developed. It was an attempt to delineate under what conditions Christians should take part in war; it was an attempt to reconcile gospel values with the harsh reality of war.
This notion of participation in fighting the wars of the state has held sway in the Christian church for 1,600 years.
However, it was not always the case. Things are not always as they seem. Christians are required to dig a little deeper and ask probing questions.
For example, in the passage above from Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ intent is unlikely to have been blessing the payment of taxes to Caesar, whose presence was, after all, a sign that the Jews were a subjugated people.
Without directly asserting it, Jesus suggested the opposite - that people not pay taxes to Caesar. When he commended ‘giving to the emperor what was the emperor’s’, many of his listeners would have understood his meaning, ‘those things that rightly belonged to the emperor’ were precisely nothing. Nothing, including tax, was owed to the Roman emperor because everything was owed to God.
Things are not always as they seem. Let’s apply this same approach to ‘Just War’ theory…
For the first three centuries of its existence, members of the Christian church were pacifists. They discerned no duty to fight for the Roman Empire. They did not accept the ultimate authority of the state. They observed three hundred years of Christian non-violence.
That changed, however, in the early 4th century when the Roman Emperor, Constantine, converted to Christianity.
What led to Constantine’s conversion is instructive. In 312AD at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Constantine engaged the army of his rival, Maxentius. Before the battle, Constantine had a vision. He saw a cross, emblazoned with the message, ‘In hoc signo vinces’ – ‘In this sign you will conquer.’ Constantine had the cross placed on the shield of every one of his soldiers. The next day, his army, which was smaller than that of Maxentius, won the battle.
Please note that Constantine’s embrace of the cross as a symbol of military victory represented a complete upending of its meaning. Jesus had been crucified on a cross; he had lost not won!
In Constantine’s eyes, however, the cross enabled him to destroy his opponents and win.
This victory led Constantine to initiate a process whereby Christianity was ultimately embraced as the religion of the Empire. Once disinterested and at times enemies, church and state began a courtship.
Out of this new situation, perhaps unsurprisingly, emerged the Just War theory. It was first promulgated by Augustine in the early 5th century and later reworked by Thomas Aquinas. It represented a significant break with the previous pacifist stance of the church.
While I appreciate the positive intention of Just War theory and the context in which it arose, I see significant problems in its application:
1. Wars are fought to be won. Wars quickly gain their own violent momentum; military commanders are not swayed by the dictates of Just War theory in the midst of battle. For example, the saturation bombing of German cities during WW2 was seen as strategically advancing the Allied cause yet it clearly contravened the requirement of discrimination - not to attack civilians.
The Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix, said in 1916, ‘a war which was just in the beginning may become unjust before it is over.’

2. With Just War Theory well-embedded in the Catholic tradition and Christian consciousness, church leaders became rather too adept at blessing war. In Australia at the outbreak of WW1, church leaders promoted the righteousness of the cause before they ascertained what was happening. That the British Empire was at war seemed sufficient justification. In the analysis of eminent church historian, Diarmaid MacCulloch, ‘all sides (to the conflict) excitedly coupled the theme of Christian faith with national unity.’ That this coupling involved killing other Christians apparently presented no problem to church leaders.
When Pope Benedict XV released comprehensive peace proposals in 1917, the Bishop of Birmingham responded, ‘If we accept the terms proposed by the Pope the hundreds of thousands of men would have died in vain. It would imply the overthrow of what the British Empire regarded as the cause of righteousness.’ War had gained such traction in the Bishop’s mind that the only way forward he could see, to justify the deaths of the hundreds of thousands already killed, was to throw more men into battle, to likely death and injury.
As late as 2011, the chaplains at the US Strategic Air Command, based at Vandenburg Air Base in California, taught pilots and aircrew that dropping nuclear bombs was justified because it was consistent with Just War Theory!
Church leaders have too readily blessed war.

Unfortunately, 1,600 years of Just War theory has left little room in the imagination of people of faith to contemplate other options. The words of G.K. Chesterton are perhaps apposite, ‘Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and not tried.’

The witness of the Early Church demonstrates that there is another way.

- Rev Michael Barnes, 21.4.’16