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The Christ Of No Man’s Land

Isaiah 2:2-4

I was planning on preaching another sermon to you today, but the events of this past week which have intruded upon our lives, intruded upon my plans as well. Therefore, I laid aside that other sermon—perhaps I shall come back to it next week—but today I want us to hear a word from the Lord on the subject of war.

There are those, I suppose, who might argue that I have no right to address such a subject, for after all, I have never been to war. I don’t know what it is like to live in a night which has a thousand eyes. I have never heard the hideous scream of falling bombs or targeted missiles. I have not been asked to sacrifice my arm or my leg or my sanity or my life in war. I don’t know what it is to kill another human being. In fact, I question whether I could ever kill another human being, regardless of the circumstances. So perhaps I have no right to speak about war. However, I do have the right—no, the obligation—to speak about the Christ who transcends our human wars.

In the little town of Neuve Chapelle in France, there stands an ancient shrine built to the honor of the Crucified Christ. During the First World War, the battle lines were drawn in such a way that the shrine was left in the midst of “no man’s land”, that strip of land between the opposing fronts. It belonged to neither side. The battle raged around that shrine. When at long last the fighting stopped, the people discovered that much of the shrine had been destroyed. However, the figure of Christ on the cross was still there. The Christ was mutilated. Shell splinters and bullets had torn gaping holes in the figure’s head and face. The right leg of the figure was gone completely; the left was blown off at the knee. But still Christ remained. Think of it. That figure of the crucified Christ had stood in the midst of “no man’s land” for the greater part of the war, and yet all of the exploding shells and searing bullets had not destroyed it. The shrine at Neuve Chapelle stands to this day as a vivid reminder that even the horrors of war cannot destroy the Christ. And it is within that picture that I wish to frame my remarks today.

First, let me wrestle with our Christian response to war.

There are those who suggest that the Christian response ought to be pacifism. But pacifism as a moral philosophy is irresponsible and self-centered. John Donne’s dictum, “no man is an island,” underscores that irresponsibility. No one can ever choose to be separated from the conflict in the world. Take the case of Switzerland. Switzerland remained neutral throughout World War II. Yet only recently have the Swiss people begun to see how, in order to preserve their public neutrality, their leaders had to lend clandestine support to Hitler’s atrocities. Furthermore, had Naziism triumphed in Europe, Switzerland would have been crushed beneath Hitler’s boot. So Switzerland owes its freedom today to the fact that others were willing to die to protect it. People, no matter how noble their intent, cannot separate themselves from war, its effects and its results. I would go on to say that pacifism cannot be supported by Scripture. In the Old Testament, taking up arms in defense of one’s country was a Divinely encouraged obligation of citizenship. And let’s have no doubt, please, that Jesus was not a pacifist. He said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Jesus knew when He said that that the only way you can lay down your life for your friends is in your friends’ defense or in their place—and both of these are the death that comes in war. Jesus abhorred violence, to be sure, and yet in a moment of profound violence, He took a whip and drove the moneychangers out of the Temple. He sought peace, and He made peace, and He lived for peace, but He was not a pacifist. I have heard some people suggest that Jesus’ admonition “to turn the other cheek” is evidence of His pacifism. To make such a statement reveals an ignorance of Scripture. That passage in the Bible clearly refers to being struck on the right cheek. Now in order to be struck on the right cheek, you must (unless you are confronting that rare left-handed person) be struck with the back of the other person’s hand. In Jesus’ day, that was an act of insult, not an act of attack. So Jesus was simply saying that insults and slander ought to be ignored. His statement cannot be enlarged to include the subject of war. Therefore, on the basis of our supreme authority, the Bible, pacifism is not a response the Christian can make.

Then there are those who try to make war into something noble and holy. There are those who claim that war is a crusade you enter in obedience to God and you declare that you are going to kill and to maim in God’s holy name. My friends, that is blasphemy. No war is holy. No war is decent. No war is good. War is contrary to the very principles of love upon which God founded His universe. War is evil. There have been those, and there are now those, who enter into the evil of war in order to defend human beings against some even more monstrous evil. And we honor them, yes, but let us never, ever honor war. We dare not ever call it holy. That is an affront to God. So that is not a response a Christian can make.

But there is a third response. The Christian can declare with Augustine that war, under certain circumstances, can be just. The Christian can declare that war is a hideously evil thing, and therefore it can be entered only when there is no other alternative. The Christian can face up to the fact that there are times in life when war may be the least evil course open to us. You see, we are living in a world which is twisted and stained and perverted by human sinfulness. Because that is true, sometimes war is the only way to control the evil in the world. Vermont Royster rightly points out that non-violence works to bring peace and justice only when there is a conscience in those to whom these peaceful voices are addressed. So many times, in recent days, I have heard those critical of our military efforts against Iraq hearkened back to the examples of Gandhi and Martin Luther King and declare that non-violence is the way to bring about change. But the fact is that non-violence brings change only under certain circumstances. Gandhi succeeded in bringing freedom to India because he knew that the British conscience and British decency and British regard for human life would never permit them to brutally end his non-violent rebellion. By the same token, Martin Luther King’s non-violent civil rights campaign succeeded because our American reverence for freedom, justice, and human life runs so deep that the nation as a whole could never countenance violence against her own people, and the nation categorically rejected those individuals who did try to stop the campaign with violence. But there are other settings in the world where evil is pervasive and where there is no voice of conscience and no regard for human life. In such situations, war may be the only way to control such evil in the world.

Just such a situation exists in Iraq today. This Middle Eastern madman with his insatiable lust for power, his dreadfully silenced conscience, and his demonic disdain for human life cannot and must not be tolerated in the family of humankind. In this case, no appeals to conscience are fruitful because the voice of conscience has been stifled under unrelenting evil. I would never ask that all of you agree with the decision to employ military force against Iraq, but please don’t insult my intelligence and demean the sacrifice of our young men and women in the Armed Forces by declaring that this war is for the purpose of securing cheap oil. To make such an inane claim reveals a staggering ignorance. If you don’t do anything more than read the 75-page report of Amnesty International on the atrocities the Iraqi leader and his soldiers have wrought upon their own people and upon their Arab sisters and brothers, then at least do that, and we can talk more wisely about the reasons for this war. Some have said that we should have waited longer before going to war. Perhaps. But the fact is that every day, the Iraqis were engaged in maiming and killing human beings in the lands under their control. It is easy for us who are not directly involved to plead for more time for the sanctions to work. However, my guess is that those on the receiving end of such horrors could mount a persuasive argument against waiting any longer. I hate war—and I hate this war—but sometimes there is just no other way to deal with that kind of evil in the world.

Here then, I believe, is the Christian response to war. We go to war only when we have to, only when there is nothing else we can do. And when we go, we cry out to God in repentance that sometimes all we can do to control the evil in our world is to engage in war. When we go, we go with the prayer of the poet on our lips: “O Lord, we trust that somehow good will be the final goal of ill.” So is it right to go to war? No, it is not right. But sometimes in this sin-sick world, the Christian has no other choice. And it is then that God in Jesus Christ embraces us with His forgiving love.

But now let me affirm our Christian hope for peace.

The most stubborn obstacle to a better and peaceful world is not the outright enemies of God, but the mass of people who do not care one way or another. Look at our own land. Here are young men and women witnessing the disruption of all their plans, sacrificing home and job and family, and going off to the deserts of Arabia to hazard their lives for freedom and justice. Yet, in the presence of this heroic spectacle, how disquieting it is to see men and women whose major endeavor seems to be to gain what advantage they can for themselves out of a nation’s agony. These morally indifferent people around us do not care whether justice and righteousness win or lose, whether the Church of Jesus Christ lives or dies, or whether the temporary horrors of war will lead to lasting peace. It has been well said that “Life is one long conflict between the motives of Jesus and the forces that nailed Him to the cross.” And we are all taking sides.
As for me, and my house, I choose the Christ. That man on the cross is worth living for—aye, He is even worth dying for. For when all the achievements and glories of humankind have crumbled into the dust, His cross will still stand “towering o’er the wrecks of time.” The greatest miracle of that cross is that out of torture and bloodshed and death, it tells us of a God who “so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

Recently a man came in to see me. He was on the verge of desperation. His spirit was broken. He was almost paralyzed by despair. There wasn’t a thing I could say to him to encourage him, but that he would reply: “There is no use. I’m through. I’m beaten and I know it. Death is the only way out.” There was nothing I could do for him, nothing—until I began to tell him about the cross and about One who loved him enough to die for him. When I finished the story, I saw hope light up his face with a glory greater than that of an ocean sunrise.

Of course, Jesus Christ is no longer hanging on the cross. He is no longer victim. Now He is victor. He is the crucified but risen Lord. He knows how hard the battles of life are, and He knows how often we have been defeated. But His strong hand keeps us steady. He is at work in our lives and in our world to bring the peace which only He can give. That means that no matter how tough life may be for us, at any given point along the way, we cannot quit. And it means that no matter how threatening and frightening the events of our world may be, we cannot give up.

You see, I believe in the Prince of Peace. I believe that hatred and fear and cruelty and falsehood will never win. I believe that there will come a time when nations shall “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks and nation shall not lift up sword against nation and neither shall they learn war anymore.” I believe that day will come because I believe it is the will of God confirmed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Ogden Nash is noted more for his whimsical poetry than his theological depth. But tucked away amidst his humorous verse, there is a striking little poem contrasting long ago events in the Middle East with the unholy horrors of modern war. Listen:

Gentlemen of the High Command
Who crucify the slums,
There was an earlier Golgotha
The third day comes.

Hear that, you tyrants of the world who seek to enslave and destroy: the third day comes! Hear that, you soldiers at the front willing to lay down your lives for freedom’s sake: the third day comes! Hear that, you who have loved ones on distant shores and in harm’s way: the third day comes! Hear that, you who faint beneath the crushing load of this world’s pain and peril: the third day comes! Jesus Christ is alive! And He will win.

So…

In the little town of Neuve Chapelle in France, there is a shrine built to honor the Crucified Christ! When war came, the battles lines were drawn so that shrine was left in “no man’s land.” The war raged for years, then at last the fighting stopped. The figure of the Christ was mutilated, but not destroyed. “The Christ of No Man’s Land” is still there—a reminder that Jesus Christ still stands. And in a world at war, that is all I need to know…

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