Homily on not killing people

We all know, I am sure, that one of the 10 Commandments says “You shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13), but many people tend to think that this only forbids murder, whilst killing people in a war, or executing criminals is OK in certain circumstances. This is because for thousands of years, the Church not only seems to have accepted that such things were OK, but actually executed criminals and waged war herself ; as well as sending her priests as army chaplains to support the soldiers, and often to argue that God was on the side of whichever side they happened to be on!

None of this was envisaged by the first Christians, because they were a small group of people with absolutely no power or influence of any kind. St Paul in our 2nd Reading, (1 Cor 9:16-23) when he speaks of making himself weak, of making himself as a slave, echoes the teachings and actions of Jesus who said “Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” and  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:38-44) Jesus then goes further, and puts this into action, allowing the soldiers to arrest him, and saying, as he dies on the cross “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34) Here is the ideal, which as in many other areas of morality, we rarely achieve.

For the first Christians however it was an ideal they could achieve unless they were actually a soldier, because they were not involved in war in any way; and so it only became a problem in the 4thC when more and more Christians were soldiers or held positions of power. It was then that reconciling Christian teaching with the realities of political and public life actually hit them. The first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine (273-337AD) actually fought a war in the name of Christ to win his throne.  However, he solved this problem by not getting baptised until he was dying, which shows us how strong at that time the pacifist teaching of the Church was.

Faced with this difficulty, it was some 100 years later that the great theologian St Augustine first began to lay out clearly what kind of war a Christian might be justified in fighting. This Just War Theory, as it is called, was then further developed by St Thomas Aquinas some 900 years later. The problem with the just war theory today is that it was developed in a time when war was largely limited to armies fighting one another with swords and bows and arrows and fairly primitive guns. The theory can thus say quite easily that only soldiers can be attacked, and that civilians must not be involved.

Anyway most Christians went to war in the past, as they do today, without considering how difficult it is to fight in a war and be a Christian. Modern warfare of course actually makes fighting a just war almost impossible, as it includes what is called “collateral damage” – a polite way of saying that when you bomb a place innocent people get killed! But one good product of the Just War theory is the understanding in modern secular society that war can go too far, that soldiers are not supposed to attack or kill ordinary unarmed people, and that loot and rape and other horrific acts are never justified. War crime has thus become something for which people can be tried and imprisoned, and it all stems from the Church ancient teaching on war. It has also meant that those countries like the UK do try to fight war as ethically as possible, particularly to limit, as far as possible, this “collateral damage”. But it still takes place, and so, strictly speaking, makes any war at all un-Christian – except perhaps for the limited resistance warfare as waged by those who fought against apartheid in South Africa. Our Catechism thus says  “The Church insistently urges everyone to prayer and to action so that the divine Goodness may free us from the ancient bondage of war.” (Se Paras 2307-2309)

As I said when I began, the other area where Christians sometimes justify killing, is in the execution of criminals. The Catechism (Paras 2266-2267) says that “The Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor” but it goes on to say that for the modern world “Cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” I am always struck by the sad fact that some people who quite rightly proclaim that abortion is wrong, will go on to argue strongly for the execution of criminals. The Church says that all life is sacred, and that taking any life except in grave necessity must be avoided at all costs.

Few of us, thank God, have to make the difficult decisions about life and death that I have been talking about today. But as with all other areas of Christian morality, Jesus sets the ideal even higher so that it actually affects all of us. So he says “You have heard that it was said… ‘whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment” Faced with that, we all know that we fail to some extent to follow this teaching, and God who is aware of this knows that sometimes we have to do the best we can in less than perfect situations, be it anger, or abortion, or capital punishment or war. As Christians we follow Jesus. We always aim for the best, yet recognising how often we fail. The problem is that some people seek to justify their failures instead of living with them in the knowledge that God is all-merciful and full of compassion for the difficulties we face in our fallen human world. Aiming high requires us to really believe in a forgiving God.

 

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Homily on Christianity and War

It is fine to say, as I am sure we all do, that war is wrong. Yes, we can say this when we are speaking about war a long way off, as in the Middle East or Ukraine. Yes, we can make grand moral statements about how dreadful it all is, and ask why they cannot stop fighting and killing one another. But it all becomes different if we feel that someone is attacking us. So may I suggest that we need to try to think what we would feel like if an army or terrorists were threatening our homes, our shops, our security! Then I suspect we would feel things in an altogether different way.

I am reading a book[1] at the moment about the history of conflicts in Europe for the last 500 years, and what has struck me most is that war and conflict is usually created not by an actual attack by an enemy, but by the fear that we will be attacked. A decision is then made on these grounds to attack first, before our homes and our lives are devastated by an enemy that appears to be about to descend upon us. So as we remember with sorrow and sadness today the beginning of the 1st World War 100 years ago, we need to remember the fear in the minds of those who were the enemies of Britain then, who thought that Russia from the East or France from the West might encircle and enslave them.

The question then is “What does our Christian faith say about all this?” We know that people on both sides in our European wars of the past have claimed as Christians that God was on their side. You may not know however that when the 1st World War broke out the Pope at the time called, as Pope Francis is doing now on Israel and Palestine, for the war to stop, and for everyone to look for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Then, as now, such appeals from the Pope, and from many other people, appear to have made no difference. Once people are in fear of their lives, all reason seems to go out of the window.

This is all very depressing isn’t it? As are all the present wars and conflicts that we hear reported every day. But what it reminds us very forcibly is  that we humans need to be aware of how easily we fail in our relationship to others as soon as we are under any pressure. It also reminds us how easily we blame others rather than ourselves when things go wrong. Jesus told us to love our enemies, and to leave judgement to God, but it isn’t something we find at all easy to do, is it.

This is precisely why the Church stresses our need for God, our need to constantly turn to this power of goodness and love to help us on the hard road of being a good human being. Today our Gospel (Matt 14:13-21) is not just about a few thousand people being given bread to eat. It is actually much  more about the fact that God can support us and feed us spiritually if only we will turn to him for help. Our 1st Reading (Isaiah 55:1-3) is on this same theme, as the great prophet Isaiah tries to remind people that God is longing to help them in their desperation. “Oh come to the water all you who are thirsty…. Listen, listen to me… Pay attention, come to me: listen and your soul will live.”

Yes, if we are to overcome our fear of strangers and greet them as friends, if we are to overcome our own anger against those we think of as enemies, then we need constantly to turn to God for help. Work for peace and against war has to start with each one of us. It is no good saying “They” should do something about it, whatever it is. It is no good passing the buck or the blame to someone else and thinking that we are OK. That is not the Christian way.

So here we are at Mass precisely, I hope, because we know of this need to turn to God regularly and to receive his support, his grace, for our journey through life.

Today, amidst all this very challenging stuff about war and violence, both afar and in our own hearts, we need also to hear a word of comfort. So I hope you heard it in our 2nd reading (Romans 8:35-39) Let me remind you. “Nothing can come between us and the love of Christ, even if we are troubled or worried (And we are!) or being persecuted, or lacking food or clothes, or being threatened or even attacked…….  Nothing can ever come between us and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord”

May that message be one that we do not just hear on the surface, but hear and receive deep in our hearts, so that we may do our bit to work for peace and love and understanding in our sad and troubled world.

 

[1] Brendan Simms : Europe The Struggle for Supremacy 1453 to the Present

How to interpret the Bible

What would Jesus have said about the death of Osama bin Laden or any other terrorist? Well, some Christians, especially in the USA, clearly think that he would have whooped with joy! But how do they come to this opinion? The answer is that they misread the Bible, especially that part of the Bible referred to in our Gospel today (Luke 24:13-35) “the Scriptures” – the part we normally call The Old Testament. There, there are lots of stories of the people of God killing their enemies, and rejoicing and praising God for their victories.

I hope we Catholics know better!  Certainly a spokesman for the Vatican said clearly that Christians do not rejoice over the death of any human being, but I fear that quite a few Catholics join in such rejoicing and ignore the teaching of the Church. They too may have followed their Protestant friends into using the Old Testament to justify such things, probably pointing out to anyone prepared to listen, that since we have a reading from the Old Testament at most of our Sunday Masses (except in Eastertide) we ought to follow the teaching we find there.

I suppose it is not surprising that so many Christians misunderstand how to use the Old Testament given that the disciples misunderstood it too. Despite all that Jesus had taught them whilst he was with them, they didn’t realize that as the Christ of God, he had to die and only then to rise to glory. His confrontation with evil was one they found hard to follow. “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.” And then, when faced with the ultimate enemy as they nailed him to the cross, he said “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Now I am not saying, and nor does the Church, that Christians should never go to war, or stand up against those who are evil, but we should certainly be reluctant to do so, and should never rejoice over anyone’s death. Pope (now Saint) John Paul II apparently only got really angry twice, once in Sicily about the Mafia, and once when the war against Iraq was about to start, when he said “War doesn’t resolve anything. I have seen war. I know what war is.”

The Church, you see, always reads the Old Testament through the teaching of Jesus. We see it today in our Gospel. Listen first to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus getting it wrong, “Our own hope had been that he would be the one to set Israel free.” Clearly by that they meant that they expected Jesus, in some marvellous way, to defeat the Romans and any other enemy, so that they could rejoice! The risen Jesus is pretty tough on them. “YOU FOOLISH MEN! So slow to believe the full message of the prophets.” And then he explains the scriptures to them.

Thus the Bible is never to be read direct, as if it were a text book of how we should behave, but always and only through the teaching and example of the risen Lord Jesus. That’s why Catholics believe that the Bible must be explained within the Church, because it is here that the risen Jesus promised to be, and we, and especially our Bishops exist to do the will of Jesus, to expound the Scriptures as he did on the road to Emmaus, and also to show that the full revelation of who Jesus is comes not just from the Bible, however important that set of Books is, but more fully in “the breaking of bread” – what we now call The Mass.

Some say, “But why read the Old Testament at all, if it I so full of bad ideas”. The answer is that to understand Jesus we must read the texts that were fundamental to his self understanding. Look at St Peter today expounding our Psalm (Acts 2:22-33) . Jesus sang the Psalms all the time which is why we do. And equally we cannot understand this talk about Jesus as the Lamb of God (1 Peter 1:17-21)  unless we know about the Passover Lamb from the Old Testament.

So, if you meet fundamentalist Christians, as you may well do, who pick up the Bible and quote random texts at you to assert some position they hold, you might remind them that to meet the risen Lord Jesus, the Bible is no good by itself. For although those two disciples said that their hearts burned within them as Jesus explained the scriptures to them, they would never have realized who he was, and never realized how to interpret the scriptures correctly, had he not revealed himself to them in the breaking of  bread.

It is as we gather as a Church and meet him at Mass that we learn together the right way to interpret the Scriptures and thus the right way to be a Christian.

Though we sin continually, God loves us endlessly.

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- Julian of Norwich, the late 14th century mystic, always reminded people of the extent of God’s love. “Though we sin continuously, he loves us endlessly.” She knew what she was talking about, for the life of anyone in medieval Norwich at the time can only be described as grim. I was thinking about this amidst all the talk of taking up arms against Syria and the likely repercussions of any such action even to the extent of another world war. What could that possibly achieve? What kind of world would any of us then bequeath to our children? Even if we manage to negotiate a peaceful solution to this crisis, what form, what shape will it have?

When we forgive people either for crimes against the person; for serious infringements between states; or simply when the acrimony of divorce has taken its terrible toll on families and friends; it is always with provisos. Someone, or some country, is not fundamentally to be trusted; the hurt inflicted upon people remains; as we see from long enduring child abuse cases and where behavioural patterns long established seem to eat into the very soul, tarnishing our subsequent actions and relationships. It is extremely difficult to forgive, to turn ones back on the past and to strike out afresh. But that is not how God behaves.

The story of Israel, as recorded in the Book of Exodus, (Ex 32: 7-11.13-14), is the exasperating tale of the nation’s continual apostacy and the writers understanding of God’s magnanimity, his repeated and full forgiveness of Israel, time after time, sin after sin. Throughout their long and terrible history of failure, deceit and wickedness they remain his chosen, his beloved and God carries on his relationship with them quite regardless of their deserving or response.

St Paul’s experience of God’s love is similar. Paul (1 Timothy 12-17), knows his past self as a blasphemer, one who did all he could to injure and discredit the faith. He saw himself as the greatest of all sinners because he deliberately and actively sought out and destroyed Christian believers. What he subsequently experienced at conversion, was not God’s wrath or punishment, but rather his inexhaustible patience, both towards his own sins and those of others. When God forgives, contrary to our half-hearted efforts, he does so completely; the slate is wiped clean and we begin again, newborn, cleansed, with no dodgy past hovering over us to blight our futures.

Our gospel gives us some insights into what the love and forgiveness of God is like. (Luke 15:1-32). It begins with two tales of rejoicing. The first is over the shepherds recovery of a strayed lamb, not one might think a very significant event, for we are told of the 99 remaining sheep he had in his flock, and might well assume this was just inevitable, ‘natural wastage’. Those of you familiar with the stupidity of fell sheep and their capacity for self-destruction would probably just shrug your shoulders! Not so for the shepherd, who leaves the rest, presumably with other shepherds and dogs, and goes off on an extensive search for the stray and brings it back rejoicing, in fact, calling friends and neighbours to join his rejoicing and, far from whipping or dragging the sheep, bears it on his shoulders. He bears its weight and cares for it.

Our second parable relates to a woman with 10 drachma who, losing one, searches her house high and low until she recovers it. Now as it is evident that this woman was by no means well off, the money probably amounted to her entire savings and was therefore precious to her and accounts for the extent of her search and her joyful celebration, again with friends and family on finding her lost coin.

Both parables are then designed to evoke loss and gain for poor and ordinary people, for whom their loss would have been a serious affair. The keynote is the rejoicing at the recovery of lost items, which is wholehearted and fulsome. It’s the same with Jesus’ tale of the Prodigal Son, which more appropriately should be called the Loving Father. We discover that this father, abused and denigrated by his younger son, who treats him as one dead before his time and demands his share of the inheritance and behaves with a total lack of the filial respect which was de rigueur in ancient society, is in fact the one who had been on the look-out for the returnee all along. Far from punishing the renegade, and he could even have killed him, he treats him with immense love and respect, as if his return was the long awaited and best thing in the world. He brushes aside all the son’s apologies and treats him like royalty. Similarly, when the elder of the sons quite reasonably complains about his father’s treatment of his brother and compares it with his own unfair treatment by their father, he is given the most gentle of reprimands. After all, fathers in ancient society ruled the roost and could determine the treatment of different people at whim. Just as in the case of the younger son, it is the father who takes all the initiative, he goes in search of the angry elder brother and seeks to reconcile him to the situation, explaining the enormity of the meaning of the return of the younger man. One, who was ‘dead’, has returned to ‘life’. We cannot hope to replicate such forgiveness or such resurrection moments in our dealings with others, but the message of divine love is there; the true standard has been set and the knowledge we have of the God who loves us endlessly remains as a beacon in all our relationships, whether personal, national or international. We, godlike, are called to be blind to past defects and to see people only as God sees us, with the infinite hope and potential that we have in his eyes.

 

 

HOMILY : 4th Ordinary Sunday 2010

I always get furious when people say that they are not religious because religion causes wars. Greed causes wars, desire for power, exploitation of the desperate, fanaticism – these are the things that cause wars – NOT religion!  Yes, religion has sometimes been used by evil people to justify war, but not really in modern times. No, more recently war has been more often caused by atheistic ideologies like Nazism, Communism or Capitalism, or even more often, simply by the fear and hatred of what is different.

This is what upsets the people of Nazareth about Jesus in our Gospel today (Luke 4;21-30). He’s the local boy come home, and at first “he won approval of all, and they were astonished at the gracious words that came from his lips.” But then he reminds them of something that they don’t want to hear. They think God is a cosy God, their own special God – just for them, and certainly not for foreigners. So when he talks about God healing foreigners, they are so angry they try to kill him!

He has challenged one of the greatest causes of war, fear of the foreigner.

Christianity follows the teaching of the great Jewish prophets who proclaim that the one invisible and all powerful God of the Jews, is actually the God of all peoples. We heard Jeremiah in our 1st reading (Jer 1:4-5.17-9) being appointed by God “as prophet of the nations.”, and we know that Jesus died for all men and women, not just for Jews, and certainly not just for us Christians. Now this doesn’t mean that we won’t find ourselves at times in conflict with other groups of people, just as Jesus finds himself in conflict with the people of Nazareth, but conflict for Christians should rarely, if ever, mean violence or war.

Indeed, it is precisely because we know that our God is a God for all peoples that the Church teaches that all people of goodwill, whatever their beliefs or lack of them, are not far from God, and may, through God’s mercy, find themselves eventually accepted into his presence after death.

As our Catechism says : “The Catholic Church recognizes in other religions that search, among shadows and images, for the God who is unknown yet near since he gives life and breath and all things and wants all men to be saved. Thus, the Church considers all goodness and truth found in these religions as “a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life.”

This doesn’t mean that we think all beliefs are the same, for we believe that in Jesus the fullness of God is revealed. But just because some people do not know Jesus in the way we do, does not mean that God does not love them, or worse wants them punished or destroyed. No, our God is a God who teaches that the greatest virtue, is not faith or hope, but love, which, as we heard in our very well-know 2nd Reading (1 Cor 13) “is always patient and kind… does not take offence… is always ready to excuse, to trust, to hope..”

I was reading a very interesting article by an atheist last week, the novelist Howard Jacobson. He argues that the most dangerous thing for the world is not belief or the lack of it, but the view that some people hold that they are right and so everyone else must be wrong. It was interesting in that he used this to criticise what he calls “the new aggressive form of atheism”. He goes on to say that “you don’t need God’s encouragement to be a fanatic” as they “learn their lessons from the godless ideologies of the likes of Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot, not the Bible.” What kills, he says “is the determination to make a single simplistic view of the world prevail.”  Well! I never thought I would quote an atheist in my Homily with such enthusiasm!

Sadly, some of our history as a Church has been to condemn others, for which we must always be sorry. But that was a world of the past where everyone thought like that. Gradually, the full teaching of Jesus, and of Paul following him, has prevailed in the Church -“to love as Christ loved”. Paul taught us in our reading last week how amazing and wonderful our faith is, how many wonderful things God can do in us. But this week he says that if we have all that – “faith in all its fullness.. to move mountains, but without love”  then we are “nothing at all!”

Love is a hard road, of course. It is so easy to slip into prejudice and the suspicion of other people, just like the people of Nazareth had done, despite the teaching of their prophets. We come here to Mass to offer ourselves in love to the God of love that we may find a way always to follow that road of love, however hard it may be.