Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Matthew 5:38-48
Revd Dr Donald MacEwan, 19 February 2017
There are memorials to both World Wars in this Chapel. The First World War Memorial, built under the direction of architect Macgregor Chalmers in 1922, forms the arcading and reredos beneath the windows in the apse of the Chapel, ahead of you. The arcades incorporate the names of students who died during the war, from William Richard Norton Annesley to Charles Whitehead Yule. The text in Latin above the arcades can be translated as “The outstanding students of courage who for their country approached death with honour and longing for their alma mater. 1914-1919.”
The Second World War Memorial is behind the pulpit, and was designed by Reginald Fairlie. Built in 1950, it comprises the window featuring the risen Christ, below which is a stone tabernacle carved by Hew Lorimer, which contains The Roll of Honour, a book with the names of students who died, as the Latin inscription says, too soon, in the war.
These memorials honour those whose lives were ended by these wars, and echo in many ways the war memorials erected all over the country and beyond to servicemen, -women and others who fought and died. Their personal sacrifice is unquestionable. But I’d like to suggest that the presence of war memorials here, in a place of worship of God, is not straightforward. And the tension comes to the surface when we hear the verses from the Sermon on the Mount set for today.
Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, central chapters in the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus reflects on the Law. As a Jew, Jesus was steeped in the Hebrew scriptures, and the Law expressed, indeed constituted there. His audience, his disciples, were just as familiar with Jewish teaching. In these verses, Jesus turns to how the Law approached some basic questions of human relationships – how to manage disagreement, conflict, and power relations. The Law laid down various ways of limiting such power, controlling such relationships, and resolving conflict, ensuring a measure of equality, justice and proportionality. Jesus refers to two fundamental ways of doing this – first, An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, from Exodus 21:24 and elsewhere. And Love your neighbour as yourself, which as we heard earlier, comes from Leviticus 19:18.
These rules promote a form of proportionality in judgment. Punishment must fit the crime, no less, but also no more. There is no room for a vindictive response: this is a fair, if fairly painful, sentencing structure. But love too is also about a proportionate generosity, no less but no more. Goodness must not be less to others than to oneself. And we see this throughout the Leviticus reading, which promotes honesty, respect for property, allowance for disability and equality before the law.
But the apparent simplicity of these rules didn’t stop centuries of debate, and the key question was this, “Who is my neighbour?” In time, this was understood to be my kin, my community, my fellow-Hebrew, my fellow-Jew. Intriguingly, though Jesus says that you have heard it said, hate your enemies, the Old Testament does not contain these words. Perhaps there were teachers around the time of Jesus who said so, but in fact Hebrew tradition could take a very different line. The former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks told a St Andrews audience not that long ago the following passage from Jewish tradition in which the angels are portrayed as wishing to sing a song of triumph at the division of the Red Sea [and the destruction of Pharaoh’s soldiers]. God silences them with the words, ‘My creatures are drowning – and you wish to sing a song?’ Egyptian enemies – also God’s creatures.
Undoubtedly an-eye-for-an-eye and love for neighbour can be workable rules for managing community life, with its personalities, scarcity, jealousies, and propensity for greed, anger and violence. But, as elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers a radical revision of the Law, taking its principles and stretching them, heightening them almost to breaking-point, and arguably beyond breaking-point.
Instead of an-eye-for-an-eye he says, Turn the other cheek, give your cloak, walk a second mile, give to every beggar, lend to every borrower. He says, give yourself, extravagantly, to the other, including the cruel, oppressive other. Break the cycle of retaliation.
Instead of love for neighbour alone, he says love your enemy, pray for your persecutors, move beyond your community, your in-group. Jesus offers a radically different position on our enemies from his inheritance – though to what extent we have truly inherited his radical position is debatable.
For consider the world in which we find ourselves. In our personal lives, we know of friendships, relationships, even families which become riven with anger, bitterness and recrimination. There are committees of student societies which seethe with resentment, as well as flats which pour with condensation – but that’s a different issue. And of course it is not easy, for example, to grow up with parents who have not only fallen out of love, but have really become enemies.
Moreover, our public lives are marked by increasing polarisation, and seeing the other as our enemy. From nationalist and unionist in Scotland, to Brexiteer and pro-European; from a rhetoric in the US of one country first and the building of walls to keep enemies out, to the drip-drip of violent action and violent response in Israel/Palestine; in conflicts and wars from Nigeria to Afghanistan with Aleppo and Mosul simply the two most obvious places of death and destruction over recent months. So many of these events reflect ancient and not so ancient cycles of enmity and retaliation, between Christian and Muslim, Sunni and Shia, Arab and Jew, tribe and tribe.
Last Wednesday I heard a brilliant talk by Sir James MacMillan, a composer whose music our Chapel Choir often sing, in which he saw in the last 200 years in western civilisation an ontology of violence – understanding the basic human reality as being rooted in violence and the attempt, often failing, to control it. It’s hard not to be persuaded of his case.
The question is: given such anger, bitterness and violence, is Jesus too radical? Naively radical? v.39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. Surely the Second World War Memorial commemorates those students who did resist an evildoer, Hitler and the Nazi regime who organised the murder of 6 million Jews and many others. Should the Allies have turned the other cheek then? In a talk on Friday organised by Refugee Action St Andrews I heard Alicia Kearns, who was a civil servant with the Foreign Office overseeing strategic communications about ISIS, argue that had the West begun air strikes in Syria in 2011, 300,000 Syrian lives would have been saved. I have no way of knowing if she is right or wrong, but the root of her argument was that evildoers should be resisted.
By contrast, some who have heard and pondered Jesus’ words and other wisdom have come to a pacifist conviction. Many Quakers take this view. But whether we become Pacifists or not, those who follow Christ cannot simply shrug off his enemy position. For it is fundamental to his community of love, his kingdom of justice, the human relationships which share his peace.
And so we need to try to understand why he tells his disciples to love their enemies. v. 45 suggests the reason – “so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” This is about God. God is indiscriminate. Sun for all. Rain for all. Blessing all equally (though Glasgow gets twice rain of Fife – not all blessings are completely equal). Fundamentally, Jesus says, God is merciful. He does not choose, he does not favour, he does not divide. In that talk to the Catholic Society, James MacMillan contrasted an ontology of violence, which dominates our world, with an ontology of mercy, which says that the basic structure of existence is mercy, is love. He believes in God, merciful God. And his own music attempts to point to that mercy, to channel it, to touch his listeners’ hearts with it.
Last night I watched the film Testament of Youth, based on the memoirs of Vera Brittain, a nurse in France during the First World War. The film shows her tending the wounds of German as well as British soldiers, indeed she is Christ-like towards one soldier who, in his delirium, believes her to be his sweetheart Clara, and asks her forgiveness – which she gives. After the war, her brother dead, her fiancé dead, so many of her generation dead, she says this of the Germans: “Their pain was the same pain, their blood the same blood, our grief is the grief of hundreds of thousands of German women and men… Can I find the courage to accept that there might be another way? perhaps their deaths have meaning only if we stand together now and say, ‘No, no to killing, no to war, no to the endless cycle of revenge.’ I say no more of it, no more.”
And I would say that the Christian life is the attempt – in the midst of communities of conflict from difficult relationships in a flat to the Middle East – to be as like God as we can, to echo God’s blessing, to be as indiscriminate, in other words, to love our neighbour, our enemy, the evildoer.
Is this a counsel of perfection? Of course. Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” But Jesus reveals God’s mercy, his forgiveness, his gracious help. No-one can do this alone; all will fail; but God will forgive, help us up, and we can try, again, to love. And what if our lives do not encounter evil such as in Syria? Then let us listen to the closing words of another speech at the refugee action event, from Sara Mardini, Syrian refugee and volunteer activist. Shake the hand of whoever is next to you. Begin by talking to your neighbour, she said.
Take a moment to do that, please…
The heart of the First World War Memorial are five mosaics by Douglas Strachan. They depict the life of Jesus – his birth, baptism, crucifixion, the empty tomb and his risen presence. At the centre is the crucifixion. Christ lived by his own teaching – he loved his enemies and prayed from the cross for his persecutors. He offered even more than another cheek. And why? Because he believed in God’s mercy for all, and so he gave his life for all. We are right to honour the sacrifice of the students whose names are inscribed here, but we cannot do so without reflecting on God’s gift of his Son, mercy for all.