Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: ‘Just War’

Remembrance Sunday
08 November 2020
10.30 Morning Service

Revd Nicholas Mercer

A few years ago I was invited to take part in a Radio 4 programme entitled “A Question of Conscience”

It was recorded in Richmond Castle by a former Army Chaplain called Andrew Martlew

He recalled the story of the Richmond 16 who had been imprisoned in WW1 for refusing to fight

As a result, they were sentenced to death – one of the was his cousin Alfred

Mercifully the Liberal Government intervened and the Richmond 16 were spared

But they had borne very brave witness to their faith being prepared to die for what they believed

But the radio show was not just about pacifism but about the exercise of conscience in conflict more generally

And when it came to my turn to be interviewed, I explained that I was not a pacifist

Instead, I believe in the Just War which allows a Christian to take part in conflict if the cause is just

Although it is difficult to say with absolute certainty, it is likely that the first Christians were pacifists

After all, Christ tells us to love our neighbour (Mk 12: 31) and to turn the other cheek (Mt 5:39)

However, the early Church was presented with a dilemma

When the Roman Empire became Christianised, the Church had to decide what to do when faced with the threat of barbarians seeking to overthrow them

Should they let them overrun the empire or fight?

Bishop Ambrose of Milan (340-397 AD) argued that war would be legitimate “to protect the Empire and Christian Orthodoxy”

St Augustine of Hippo said that war would be permitted as it was for the “state as a whole”

The medieval scholastic Thomas Aquinas later laid down three conditions for war in his “Summa Theologica” 

Namely the need for

Legitimate authority, just cause and right intent

Principles which were to become the foundation stones for the Just War under International Law

From these early principles, the Just War theory was further developed

As well as the conditions for going to war, other issues soon followed

The monk Gratian of Bologna sought protection on the battlefield for “pilgrims, clerics, monks women and unarmed peasants”

The Dominican Friar, Francisco de Vitoria, questioned the legitimacy of the Spanish Conquistadors fighting and seizing land, overseas, in South America

And a chivalric code among Christian knights emerged

There were of course dissenting voices, however the nineteenth century saw the development of legal codes for fighting wars based on these earlier religious principles

The Lieber code of 1863 was drafted for the American Civil War

And Henri Dunant established the International Committee of the Red Cross after the Battle of Solferino 1859

From the Natural Law of Thomas Aquinas, the Geneva Conventions were born 

Conventions which now form the bedrock of International Humanitarian Law today alongside the Charter of the United Nations and other legal instruments

It is against this background that we come to remember all those who fought in the wars we remember today

I suspect, like many others, the last century can be narrated through the lives of our own families – and mine is no different

My Grandfather fought in the First World War

Sent as a young 2nd Lieutenant to a Yorkshire Infantry Regiment to fight on the Western Front after the Germans violated the Treaty of London 1839 guaranteeing Belgium neutrality

Similarly in 1939, one of my Great Uncles from Leeds took part in the D Day landings to restore International Law and order in Nazi occupied Europe

As many of you know, I was Rector of the Falklands and was daily reminded of the conflict in 1982

Argentina violated the Charter of the United Nations and was, quite rightly, forcibly ejected

The cause was Just – just as the medieval scholastics had laid down in the 13th Century

This was in stark contrast to my own military career when I was deployed to Iraq in 2003

I was among a group of Staff Officers who spent the eve of battle trying to reconcile how we should conduct ourselves whilst taking part in an illegal war

A war later described by the Archbishop of Canterbury as “a tragic mess which failed to conform to the principles of just war theory”

It never felt right and that unease remains

And so to today:

Remembrance Sunday is when we remember our brave men and women who have taken part in Wars since 1914

Those who have shown great acts of heroism, laying down their lives and some suffering the most appalling injuries

Injuries that do not go away at the end of conflict

They last a lifetime and it is absolutely right and proper that we should remember and support them for the rest of their days

We salute the courage of our servicemen and women and all those who have sacrificed their lives for their country today

But it is easy to overlook another part of Remembrance Sunday

Because, not only did brave men and women sacrifice everything for their country, they did so to restore International Law and Order

Without the violation of International Law these conflicts, in the main, would not have taken place

It is alarming therefore that Remembrance Sunday, this year, stands against a backdrop where the violation of International Law is once again on the agenda

Not by some rogue State overseas but by our own Government

Whether deliberate or through inadvertence or indifference, the undermining of the UN and Geneva Conventions being worn as some sort of badge of honour 

When a Field Marshal describes primary legislation as the “de facto decriminalisation of torture” something has gone very seriously wrong

As the Archbishops and Bishops have rightly pointed out “if laws can [now] be ‘legally’ broken, on what foundations does our democracy stand?”

So as we stand and remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice on Remembrance Sunday

Perhaps it would be worth remembering, at the same time, what they made their sacrifice for?

Before we treat the law with contempt, we need to the humility to recognise that many of the people we remember today gave their lives for it

Just as the Richmond 16 were prepared to stand up for their faith

We too need to stand up for International Law on the Battlefield, which emanates from our Christian heritage, and is the mark of all decent and civilised nations