Being a witness… `Conscientiously objecting`

I wonder if you remember `Ivor the Engine`, `Noggin the Nog` or `Bagpuss…` ? These much loved children`s stories were the creation of Oliver Postgate. He died back in 2008 and I recall something he said on Desert Island Discs. He was talking about what happened to him when he was called up for service in the Second World War.

Apparently, he presented himself as required but went on to tell the Sergeant behind the desk that he was, like his father (in the First World War) a conscientious objector and so he wouldn`t put on the uniform. So, the Sergeant called the Lieutenant. The Lieutenant came along and Postgate explained himself … which point the Lieutenant said “Well, I`m really not sure what to do with you chappies”… At which point the Sergeant jumped in and said, “You have got to lock him up Sir!” The Lieutenant thought for a moment, looked at Postgate and said, “I tell you what old man, we`ll put you in the cell but we won`t close the door… is that alright?” There`s a delightful eccentricity about that… but of course it was a very serious matter.

Over these past few days we have witnessed scenes of great poignancy as we and other nations have been commemorating the Battle of the Somme… The death of those young men in unimaginable numbers really is like a wound on the body of our nation…. Quite rightly, we pause and we remember them.

But it`s more than just remembrance isn`t it? It`s as if we keep coming back to that wound; to those terrible years ……and I`ve come to believe that we do so because there is something unique about the first World War…. Not least because from our point of view I think it signals the point where the Church was found out.

Broadly speaking, until that point we had been acting as Chaplain to the Nation…. So in 1914 it was hardly surprising that clergy lined up to offer a bellicose and simplistic call to arms…..but the magnitude of what happened subsequently revealed something of the parlous state into which we had fallen……. In very general terms, it demonstrated how all we seemed able to do was endorse the assumptions of the ruling class of the day. As the historian Adrian Hastings says, “What the war did was to shatter the Church`s social and political role and to unveil the truth to high and low alike of ecclesiastical near irrelevance”…. My point is that we`ve been living with that legacy ever since. No, to some extent we`ve been in denial about it ever since.

Now one of the things which is often forgotten is the incredible courage of those who refused to fight…. the conscientious objectors; and the tale of their often appalling ill-treatment continues to bring shame on us all. And I draw our attention to them because I can`t help thinking that their witness to a different way …..and their commitment to non-violence gives us an insight at the very least into the way in which the Church could and perhaps should relate to political power…. If we are to be as Jesus says, “IN the world but not OF it” (John 17.16)

Of course there are trends and tensions here which go back centuries but the problem boils down to the word AND. It`s what happens when you use it in a sentence to join the words `Religion` AND `Politics`. You see what we forget is that our faith IS Politics…. It`s about the in-breaking of the reign of God in Jesus Christ and the consequent re-ordering of the world. “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.

It seems to me that over generations we have sought to hasten that process by effectively currying favour with those who hold power… And rather than offer a radical alternative, we`ve copied their structures; we`ve ordered our common life and we make our decisions using the same methods. Rather than challenge some of their assumptions we`ve just accepted them. We`ve often proved ourselves to be both naive and culpable … not least when it comes to matters of war and peace. All the time the price for keeping our place at the top table is accepting this little word AND … which means that we let the professionals get on with running the world ….. and we`re relegated to the somewhat private sphere of what`s referred to as `saving souls`.

And accepting these terms begins to affect the way we read our Bible. So when we look at our Gospel passage this morning I wonder how many of us have been left with a picture of a Jesus who basically leads a group of seventy door-to-door salesmen? I mean, that`s the model that we`re left with isn`t it? That`s the model that makes us wince because it`s a bit like the Jehovah`s Witnesses….

But there`s far more going on than that…… When you look more closely you realise that the message Jesus entrusts his followers with is: “The Kingdom of God has come near”….. Yes, it calls for an individual response but it`s far bigger than `the saving of souls`. Again, it`s about the re-shaping of life in its entirety but a surface reading of this passage and adopting the model that comes with it turns it into an obligation to learn the right things to say…

I this sense, Mission becomes an exercise in persuasion rather than transformation; tacking a bit of religion onto an already pre-determined lifestyle rather than the invitation to enter a different sphere of authority. I am all in favour of what we might call `Missionary Initiatives`, don`t misunderstand me but that door-to-door image with which many of us live … and the high pressure drive to get the numbers up is creating what I would call `Missionary Anxiety`.

Many years ago I was fortunate enough to visit the Colosseum in Rome. This of course was the place where so many of our forebears in faith met their death. Rather than burn incense to the Emperor; rather than accept an authority on earth greater than Christ they were publicly murdered. And in the remains of that stadium there is a simple wooden cross…. A simple wooden cross that brought home to me how captivated I have been … how captivated I think we ALL should be…. by their witness. In other words, they conscientiously objected and witnessed to the in breaking of a different way of being a world.

You see, somebody once said, “To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up ……but in being a living mystery. It means living in such a way that one`s life wouldn`t make sense if God didn`t exist” (Cardinal Suhard) The first Christians, the first witnesses to Christ were quite simply captivated by him. Their message was not a few nice religious principles but what Paul describes in our Epistle this morning as `New Creation`. And they became a body of people who lived together (with all their faults and failings) as if that new world had already begun. Consequently, they didn`t fit in….. They lived surprising lives… In the very best sense they lived eccentric lives……

In contrast, it seems we have been too quick to tone our message down for the sake of an easy life… for the sake of being allowed to continue in this reduced and limited role as Chaplain to the Nation…. Where we turn up every so often to endorse and sprinkle holy dust on western secular values. In short we`ve succeeded, as Alistair Macintyre said, “In giving Atheists less and less in which to disbelieve” …. And if you don`t believe me ask yourself if there is anything we do and say here today that you would be prepared to die for?

That`s a hard one because it`s difficult to put your trust in something you have chosen. But if it`s YOU who have been chosen… if it`s you who have been apprehended and captivated that`s a totally different matter. When that`s the case, inviting others into the way of faith is as natural as breathing…… The challenge we have in our day, I would suggest is to ask what it means to say that the Gospel is true… that God has indeed reconciled the world to himself in Christ…. and begun new creation?

And then to ask what shape our lives would need to take; individually and as a Church ….so as to make that clear to a world that needs to see it? You might begin by asking… as you go about your business …. “Where is the Holy Spirit calling you to eccentricity? or to conscientiously object?” I`m suggesting that the stand which many conscientious objectors took teaches us far more about being `In the world but not of it` than we might realise.

One way into this might not be to think about `pacifism` so much as non-violence. Think for instance of the language we use. Learning to live non-aggressively and in a non-coercive way might be a start. Surrounded as we are by so much violence it might be our most significant witness….I say again….“To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up ……but in being a living mystery. It means living in such a way that one`s life wouldn`t make sense if God didn`t exist”


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