We all want to change the world

Revd Dr Donald MacEwan, University Chaplain

12 November 2017

Readings: Isaiah 25:6-9; Matthew 5:38-48

In 1852, Karl Marx wrote:

Hegel says somewhere that all great events and personalities in world history reappear in one fashion or another.  He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.

This year, 2017, could be seen as a year of reflecting on world history in the light of these remarks.

We’ve recalled the Lutheran Reformation 500 years ago in 1517.  This profound change in Western Christianity and society was arguably about how the individual finds peace with God, but it brought forth conflict, sometimes a fatal conflict, not least in St Andrews where Patrick Hamilton was among four people martyred for their Protestant beliefs.

400 years ago, 1618 saw the outbreak of the Thirty Years War, initially a war between Protestant and Catholic States in central Europe, which led to the deaths of millions.

100 years ago, in 1917, the First World War continued on its deadly way.  In the Battle of Passchendaele, in Belgium, between July and November 1917, it is estimated that about half a million people died, roughly the same numbers on both sides.

And this year, in 2017, wars have continued in Iraq and Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere; and the world has witnessed nuclear brinkmanship on the Korean peninsula, devastating violence in Myanmar, terrorist attacks in Britain and elsewhere, and tension in Catalunya.

Every one of these conflicts and wars involved individual men, women and children, although it is easy to forget their personal stories.  Today we remember and honour those individuals who served, sacrificed and died in war, in particular those who gave their lives in the First World War and subsequent wars and conflicts which the United Kingdom has fought.  This Chapel gives ample evidence of the effects of war on individual people.  The war memorial behind the communion table lists the 130 St Andrews students who died in the First World War, of some 972 students who served in total.  The average life of a junior officer at the front was six weeks.  Our Library has letters from some of these students including James Mackay, serving with the British Expeditionary Force in France, who sent letters from the front to the University Principal, Professor Irvine, until Mackay’s family sent the Principal a telegram informing him of Mackay’s death in action.

In a short while the whole congregation is invited to join others at the town-wide Act of Remembrance.  Carved into St Andrews’ War Memorial are these words:

To the glory of God and the honoured memory of the men of St Andrews who with courage and faith at their county’s call laid down their lives that we who remain might live in freedom and peace. 

Erected in 1922, it was only 17 years later that students and others in St Andrews were again plunged into world war, since when British forces have served and died across the world, notably Korea, Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Does history need to repeat itself?  Some have said – No!  We can escape from these cycles of history, change the structures of power, take power from the elites and give it to the people – by revolution!

And indeed, this year is the centenary of the October Revolution in Russia, which ushered in the Soviet Union, and communist power across much of Europe, Asia and beyond.  Revolutionary movements begin with such high hopes – for freedom, justice, emancipation of women, for prosperity and peace.  And yet how quickly these hopes are dashed as new dictatorships emerge, satirised from George Orwell’s Animal Farm, to Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin, which I saw this week at the cinema, a queasy mix of slapstick and righteous anger.  Revolution, it seems, turns to the same old power struggles, marked by cruelty, fear and disdain for the individuals whom the Revolution exalts in its rhetoric. As the philosopher Hannah Arendt noted, The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative on the day after the revolution.

50 years after Lenin took power in Russia, another Lennon, a songwriter from Liverpool, reflected on these things.  Vietnam was raging, and people kept asking for a Beatles song on the subject.  Lennon’s sardonic response was Revolution:

You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world…

But when you talk about destruction
Don’t you know that you can count me out

The question then that these anniversaries give rise to is this: If history seems to be on endless repeat, and revolution has turned out to be profoundly conservative, what hope is there in our remembrance today?  We all want to change the world – but are we doomed to nothing more effective than irony, than satire?

I hope not.  For me, and for many people, there are resources from faith.  At the time of Jesus, 2000 years or so ago, many wanted revolution in Israel.  Zealots hoped that Jesus might be a leader, liberating Jews from Roman oppression.  They knew prophecies, such as we heard in Isaiah 25, promising that God would destroy the shroud of death, tears of grief, the disgrace of defeat.  They were waiting for salvation, and they hoped that Jesus was the Messiah who would bring this salvation – and overthrow Rome.

But while Jesus was the Messiah, was anointed by God, it was a different kind of overthrowing that came with him, a revolution but not with the sword.  Jesus did not replace power with power, as in from the Czar to the General Secretary of the Communist Party.  Jesus replaced enemy with neighbour, foreigner with friend, other with us.  He let us see as God sees.  He let us love as God loves.  He did it himself, offering healing to the Syro-Phoenician woman’s daughter, the Roman centurion’s servant, the Samaritan woman at the well.  And he made it explicit in words from today’s reading:

You have heard that it was 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.

What happened to this kind of revolutionary?  He was feared, arrested, tried, scourged, crucified and killed.  Not that others would be incited to rise up and overthrow the rulers with clubs and swords.  But that God would raise him from the dead, that we could be reconciled with God, finding peace with him, and inspired to make peace with others, that we who remain might live in freedom and peace.

Of course wars have been fought, and fought cruelly, by so-called Christian armies, from the Crusades to more recent times.  And so some may say that faith is part of the problem rather than the solution.  But Jesus’ words, actions, life and death point a different way.  As Benjamin Franklin, a founding father of the USA and awarded an honorary degree by the University in 1759, said: He who shall introduce into public affairs the principles of primitive Christianity will change the face of the world.

And so I do not believe we are condemned to nothing more than irony.  It is not naive to want to change the world.  It is right in honouring and remembering those who have died to wish Never again.  We remember the fallen today because we want a different world without new names carved into new memorials, where students write to the Principal with news from the trenches of education, of business, of public service – rather than from the theatre of war.  And I believe we have a way before us to change the world.  By loving our enemy; by seeing such others as God may see them; by praying for them as we may pray for ourselves; in naming the foreigner as our friend.

You may be thinking – this is all very worthy, but surely it’s irrelevant to diplomacy, to international relations, to the research and teaching in our own School of IR.  But why should it be?  Isn’t our basic approach to our fellow human beings always at the heart of our politics?

You and I may not be here in 2117.  But if the century between now and then is to see the change we want, enemies must become friends.  Is there any other kind of revolution which will really change the world?