A New World is Possible - Paul Oestreicher
Canon Paul Oestricher was the keynote speaker at the Opening Plenary of the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation held in Kingston, Jamaica on 18 May 2011. We reprint this memorable address in two part. In the first part, Canon Paul asks for a radical move away from just war theory, to stand for the unique ethical contribution of Jesus: ‘love your enemies’, by paralleling William Wilberforce’s campaign to abolish slavery.
Wherever you come from, whatever your church tradition, you may be Orthodox or Catholic, Protestant or Charismatic, Evangelical or Liberal, Conservative or Radical, all of us have come here because we wish to be friends of Jesus, rabbi, prophet and more than a prophet. To each one of us he says: You are my friends, if you do what I command you ... This I command you, to love one another as I have loved you. Is anyone, anywhere, excluded from that love? Here is the answer that Jesus gave to his friends: It is said ‘you shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy’; but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
That is how the Man in whom we see the face of God spoke, lived and died. As his enemies were killing him, he prayed for them to be forgiven. Jesus was not only speaking to each of us individually, he was addressing the people of God as a holy community. The prophets of Israel spoke to their nation. Often the nation did not want to hear.
Gathered together in Kingston from all corners of the earth, Jesus speaks to us now, to us, a small cross section of his sanctified people. Do we want to hear him? Our record suggests that we do not. Most of our theologians, pastors and assemblies, Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant, have bowed down ever since the time of the Emperor Constantine in the third century, bowed down deeply to empire and nation, rather than to the single new humanity into which we are born. We have made a pact with Caesar, with power, the very pact that the early Christians called idolatry. Because the newly converted ruler declared it to be our duty, we have squared it with our conscience to kill the Emperor’s enemies, and to do this with Jesus on our lips.
Under the sign of the Cross Christian nations have conquered and massacred the children of Islam. In 1914, my German father went to war with the words God with Us engraved on his belt buckle. The British soldiers whom he was trained to kill, had no doubt that the same God was on their side. When in 1945, a bomber set out, loaded with the world’s first nuclear weapon, a single weapon which was about to kill one hundred thousand women and children and men in the city of Hiroshima, the aircraft’s crew were sent on their way with Christian prayers. The war memorials in the cathedrals and cities of Christendom attest to the fact that we, like our brothers and sisters in Islam, regard those who have died in battle for the nation as having secured their place in heaven, and that now includes those in the coffins arriving from Afghanistan and draped in the ‘sacred’ Stars and Stripes.
Unless we change, unless the Church moves to the margins and becomes the alternative society that unconditionally says no to war, no to the collective murder that every embattled nation or tribe, every warring alliance, every violent liberation movement, every fundamentalist cause, and now the War on Terror declares to be just, until we throw this justification of war, this ‘just war’ theology into the dustbin of history, unless we do that, we will have thrown away the one unique ethical contribution that the teaching of Jesus could make both to the survival of humanity and to the triumph of compassion.
I commend to you Karen Armstrong’s highly significant Charter of Compassion. The Hindu prophet Mahatma Gandhi thought that Christianity would be a good idea - if only Christians practised it. If we were to show compassion for those whom we have good reason to fear, the new world that Jesus called the Kingdom would have come a little closer. That is within our power. Albert Schweitzer in his philosophy of civilisation simply called it: reverence for life.
This Convocation will not yet be the Universal Christian Peace Council of which Dietrich Bonhoeffer dreamed, long before Hitler’s obedient servants hanged him. But we could help to pave the way to such a Council, a Council speaking with the authority of the whole Church, if, here and now in Kingston, we were ready to say: it is impossible both to love our enemies and to kill them, it is impossible both to reverence life and to be in league with the military-industrial complex, the killing-machine that rapaciously consumes levels of wealth that are beyond our mathematical imagination.
War and the arms trade that feeds it cannot make life for the people on our small planet more just or more secure. It is not simply that crimes are committed by all sides in every war. War itself is the crime. Its preparation alone, globally consumes more than a hundred times the resources that could provide clean water to every child on this planet. Even before the latest perversions of science and technology are put to their lethal use, thousands of children die unnecessarily for lack of clean water.
Jesus was not an idealistic dreamer. He was and remains the ultimate realist. The survival of our planet demands nothing less than the abolition of war. Albert Einstein, the great physicist and humanist, already knew that early in the last century. He repeated it often with a clarity and credibility that few Christian pacifists have matched.
The abolition of war is possible. It is as possible as was the abolition of slavery, the slavery that still haunts the history of this nation of Jamaica. Wilberforce and his evangelical friends who campaigned to end it, were thought to be unrealistic dreamers. Slavery surely was part of our DNA, necessary to every society’s economic survival. The churches were up to their necks in maintaining slavery, the bishops of the Church of England unanimously upheld it. In the same way, many Christians are wedded to a society that cannot let go of the cult of the good soldier or even the holy warrior. Wilberforce and his determined friends triumphed against all odds. Slavery was made illegal. Its defenders withered away. That needs to become the fate of war. If the churches of the world fail to embark on such a campaign, we will have nothing of unique significance to say on the subject of world peace.
What are our chances of winning this battle? Some will say: slavery, exploitation, and trafficking in human beings still goes on. Yes, but it is universally acknowledged as both morally wrong, and illegal. Passing legislation to abolish war will not immediately eliminate armed violence. What it will do is to make absolutely clear that to resolve conflicts by military means is illegal, with its perpetrators brought before an International Court of Justice.
Will we then remain in bondage to the principalities and powers, or will we wrestle with them and thereby enter into the glorious liberty of the children of God?
This struggle, if we embrace it, will be at least as tough as that of Wilberforce. Devotion to and respect for every nation’s military tradition is as undiminished in church as in state. The Roman dictum: si vis pacem, para bellum, if you want peace, prepare for war, holds sway. It is a powerful lie. Yet those who believe it are neither stupid nor evil. History, however, shows that if we prepare for war, war is eventually what we get. Jesus put it quite simply: Those who live by the sword, will die by the sword.
Unless we learn to resolve our conflicts – and conflicts there will always be – unless we learn to resolve them without militarised violence, our children’s children may no longer have a future. Love of those who threaten us, care for the welfare of those whom we fear, is not only a sign of spiritual maturity, but also of wordly wisdom. It is enlightened self- interest. Military strategists glimpsed that when, in the Cold War they spoke of common security. If my potential enemy has no reason to fear me, I am safer too.
So, it is time for the still small voices of the historic peace churches, hitherto respected but ignored, to be taken seriously. That is the main reason why, as an Anglican priest, I have also chosen to be a Quaker, a member of the Religious Society of Friends. Quaker history, often a story of suffering, witnesses to the biblical insight that love casts out fear.