Earlier this year, Shirley and I went to see the film ‘The Railway Man’. The harrowing tale of a British Army officer who is tortured and tormented as a Prisoner of War at a Japanese labour camp during the Second World War. Eric Lomax’s life remains tormented as a result of what he had experienced and witnessed until decades later, he discovers that the Japanese interpreter he holds responsible for much of his treatment is still alive and sets out to confront him and his own past. It is a very disturbing true story that reminds us of the evil that is war and the tragic, damaging consequences for all those who are caught up in conflict and violence.
Cinemas in North Northumberland and the Scottish Borders were filled to capacity not only because Eric Lomax was a Berwick-Upon-Tweed man, or that much of the film was shot on location in the area, but because many people from this area fought or were Prisoners of War in Japan during World War II. I was speaking to someone in my home village who was telling me that some men from Wooler had arrived by boat onto a Japanese island, armed and ready to fight, totally unaware that the British had surrendered and immediately were taken into Prisoner of War camps, several of whom never returned and others, like the vast majority who experienced such horrors, were never able to tell of their hellish experiences and have remained, like Eric Lomax, damaged, many beyond psychological repair. Perhaps the most haunting scenes in the film were those of the waterboarding torture scenes in which water is poured by hosepipe into the mouth and nose, causing the individual to experience the sensation of drowning. It damages the lungs and brain with oxygen deprivation and produces lasting psychological damage and in many cases death. Barbaric treatment, cruelty on an horrific scale that one would hope had vanquished at the end of the war. Sadly, not so for such practices are used today by so called civilized, enlightened nations. Unequivocal video evidence and reliable testimonies have indicted American forces using such methods of torture in Iraq and, unpalatable though it is, British armed forces are not immune to such charges and inquests and military tribunals will bring shame upon the British Army when further revelations and truths are revealed.
I believe that war is alien to the purposes of God. It was never in God’s plan. It is a consequence of sin, rebellion against God and his ways. Acts of violence be they physical, mental, psychological, emotional or even spiritual are wrong in the sight of God and so damaging to humanity and the world in which we live. Jesus, Saviour of the world is the Prince of Peace. In his Sermon on the Mount, that foundational, revolutionary manifesto for living, Jesus speaks about the meek inheriting the earth… that the merciful are blessed as are the peacemakers. It becomes increasingly more an imperative for me to see that being a follower of Christ means being a peacemaker and reconciler. Conflict and violence, hatred and warfare either in the heart, home, community, nation or world bears all the characteristics of what Jesus came to confront and combat, “the Prince of this world, Satan, darkness and evil”. The good news of the kingdom is liberation from such evils as torture, violence and war.
With a General Election due next year, politicians have begun the process of electioneering. No doubt the election will be based upon economics. Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign used the phrase, “it’s the economy, stupid”, which was used to great effect in defeating George Bush Senior during a time of economic recession. What will sadly not figure greatly in any political debate is that of who will promote peace, work for justice in the world, act mercifully toward others and initiate programmes that resolve conflict and violence at local, national and international levels.
Once a supporter of Tony Blair, I could have wept seeing him sitting as an honoured guest at the funeral of the former Israeli President Ariel Sharon. He was there as the former UK Prime Minister and Middle East Envoy. How ironic that somebody who undoubtedly was used in bringing about the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland in 1998, is now the subject of calls for him and George W. Bush to be sent to the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague.
With the present crisis in Ukraine and calls for action to be taken against President Putin, I fear that all moral legitimacy has been removed from the UN after Britain and the US went into Iraq. What right have we to condemn Putin, (whose policies I abhor) when we invaded a foreign country on very dubious grounds and trumped up and unsubstantiated allegations? We have lost the moral high ground.
News headlines carry reports of British soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan but rarely report the fact that over 1 million people, the vast majority, innocent men, women and children who have died since we invaded those countries, far more than ever suffered under the hands of Saddam Hussein. Billions of pounds have been spent on armaments in such wars, the consequences of which, I would contend, have made the world a considerably less stable place and the Middle East remains a cauldron of simmering conflicts and violence that holds the potential trigger for a nuclear war.
We have modelled a way of warfare where what is perceived to be wrong is met with military might but such thinking is medieval, mistaken and a million miles removed from the ways of God.
When Tony Blair became Prime Minister in 1997, one of his catchphrases was “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. Good phrase, good policy. Shame he didn’t embrace similar thinking when it came to foreign policy, “tough on terrorism, tough on the causes of terrorism”, instead of spending billions of pounds on armament and breeding conflict and hostility and inciting religious hatred and violence, we might have best spent time and money on tackling issues of poverty, injustice, reconciliation and peace.
The idea that you can just go in and kill the baddies or as America sought to do in Afghanistan, carpet bomb the land, is not only futile but arguably perpetuates further violence. What the world needs is a revolution that breeds non-violence, cultivates peace and reconciliation. A world where billions are spent on peacekeeping issues, together with feeding the poor, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, welcoming the stranger, living justly, expressing compassion, in other words bringing the kingdom of God to bear, here on earth as it is in heaven.
Last year we were involved as a Community in a Peace and Reconciliation pilgrimage as part of the Battle of Flodden 500 Commemoration. This year is the Commemoration of another gruesome battle that scarred the two nations, Scotland and England and I hope that again we might be involved in some way of advocating peace and reconciliation.
Of equal significance this year is the 100 years commemoration of the First World War. Thank God that the Prime Minister and one of the Secretaries for State have heeded the correction by members within their own party and are no longer using the occasion to celebrate but to commemorate. There is nothing to celebrate about war. True, there are stories of sacrifice and heroism that can be heralded as virtuous, but war itself should never be celebrated.
Last week I listened to a fascinating interview on the radio with a paraplegic, a soldier who had lost both legs and an arm, the casualty of a land mine in Afghanistan. He was critical of the heralding of those who’ve gone on to great sporting achievement at things like the Paralympics. Not wanting in anyway to denigrate their achievements, he reminded us in his interview that the vast majority of war victims are not success stories. They not only carry physical disability for the rest of their lives and all that that entails across every spectrum of life but they are psychologically scarred to the end of their days. Most battle with depression, the suicide rate amongst war victims is incredibly high and whilst many will stand proudly at war memorials on Remembrance Sundays, there are others whose lives are ruined by what they’ve seen or been involved with.
I feel an unease about any championing of the Help the Heroes cause. I long for the day when we might stop recruiting people to kill. We even use the term military personnel, people in the services, somehow to deflect from what we train these people to do. Yes, it will be argued, in order to defend, but we train people to kill with conventional armaments or nuclear and chemical weapons.
I guess I naively long for the day when we might be celebrating heroes of peace and reconciliation. Where are the likes of Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Nelson Mandela, Mikhail Gorbachev, An San Suu Kyi, Mahatma Gandhi today? Of course, non violence and peacemaking is no easy task. Jesus, the great hero of peace and reconciliation ended up being tortured and killed but through his act of non violence, through his redeeming love, forgiving grace and ever-lasting mercy, has brought the prospect of salvation to the world.
Surely as disciples of Christ, as a Christian Community committed to a way of life of Availability and Vulnerability we are called to be peacemakers, agents of reconciliation, bearers of a different way of living, of reconciling conflict, of celebrating diversity and living at peace with our neighbour, our fellow citizens of the world.