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The Christ Of No-Man’s Land

May 30, 2004 | Providence Presbyterian Church | Romans 13:1-7

I was planning on preaching another sermon to you today, but with what is transpiring in our world this Memorial Day weekend, I have made the decision to lay aside that other sermon, and today, from this pulpit, I wish to address 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’ve never heard the hideous scream of falling bombs or targeted missiles. I have not been called upon 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. So perhaps, I have no right to speak about war. However, under my call to be a minister of the gospel, I do have the obligation to bring the truth of the scriptures and the light of Christian belief to bear upon such a subject. I do have 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 and 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 and the left was blown off at the knee. But still, Christ remained. Think of it. The 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.

I want to begin by acknowledging that there are misguided souls in this world 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 maim in God’s holy name. Of course, echoing in our minds and hearts these days are the shrieking demands from Islamic extremists in our world to engage in Jihad, “holy war,” against the infidels, primarily in the West. However, before we too quickly condemn that call to “holy war,” we must confess that in our own Christian tradition back in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Christians picked up the sword and went off to kill in the name of Jesus Christ, labeling the ensuing slaughter a “holy war.” Thankfully, in all of the years since, Christians for the most part have acknowledged that sin and abhorred that strategy. So let me say it as plainly as I can to call war “holy” is blasphemy. I don’t care whether you are a Christian or a Muslim, no war is holy. No war is decent. No war is good. War is evil. There have been those, and there are those now, who enter into the evil of war in order to defend humanity against some even more monstrous evil, and we honor them especially during this Memorial Day weekend. We honor them, yes by all means, but let us never, ever honor war. We dare not call it “holy.” That is an affront to God. Let me say this very clearly. Those who call for “holy war” are speaking outside the will of God, and those who engage in what they call “holy war” will have to face the unrelenting wrath and judgment of God. We dare not honor war by labeling it “holy.”

However, I must go on to acknowledge that a Christian can declare, with great Christian thinkers and leaders like Augustine, Ambrose, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin, that war under certain circumstances can be just. Sometimes, when diabolical evil is running rampant in the world, war becomes the last resort in controlling that evil. That kind of thinking echoes the great Apostle Paul writing in Romans 13, where Paul says that God has established the governmental authorities for the purpose of maintaining goodness, righteousness, and peace. In addition, Paul says that it is the God given task of those authorities “to bear the sword” when necessary in order to stop and control evil and wrongdoing. Paul understands what I understand, namely that we are living in a world which is so twisted, stained, and perverted by human sinfulness that sometimes war is the only way to control that evil in the world.

Now, I know, that there are those who would argue that the best way to bring peace and justice is through non-violence. I would agree up to a point. You see, non-violence works only when there is a conscience in those to whom these peaceful voices are addressed. A number of times in recent days I have heard those critical of our military efforts hearken back to Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. as proof that non-violence is the way to bring change. However, that line of reasoning is faulty in one respect. Non-violence brings change only under certain circumstances. Gandhi, for example, succeeded in bringing freedom to India because he knew that the British conscience, decency, and regard for human life would never permit the British people to brutally end his non-violent rebellion. He knew they could do it, but he also knew they wouldn’t do it. By the same token, Dr. King’s non-violent civil rights campaign succeeded because our American reverence for freedom, justice, and human life runs so deep in our national soul that we as a nation could never countenance violence against our own people. Dr. King knew that our nation would categorically reject any individual who tried to stop his campaign with violence. So mark this down: non-violence works only when there is a clear voice of conscience sounding in the hearts and minds of those on the other side. But when there is no voice of conscience, when evil is so pervasive, when there is no regard for human life, as we are seeing so clearly today in those who are waging a war of terror against freedom-loving people in this world—in situations like that, war becomes the last resort, the only way to control such evil.

I guess that’s why I am so troubled by what I see happening in our own nation today. Here are young men and women witnessing the disruption of all their plans, sacrificing home, job, and family, and going half way around the world to hazard their lives for freedom and justice. Yet in the presence of this heroic spectacle how disquieting it is to see people whose major endeavor seems to be to gain whatever advantage, political or otherwise, 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 or whether the temporary horrors of war will lead to a lasting peace. 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 or by attempting to use this war to change political administrations. The terrorists today with their insatiable lust for power, their dreadfully silenced consciences, their demonic distain for human life, their brainwashed networks of henchmen and allies cannot and must not be tolerated in the human family. War against them and all like them has been declared, and it is a just war because there is just no other way to deal with that kind of evil in the world. 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.

Let me then speak to you out of both my heart and my faith. We go to war only because we have to and only because there is nothing else we can do. As we go, we cry out to God in pain that sometimes all we can do to control the evil in the world is to engage in war. As 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.” You see I believe that hatred, cruelty, fear, and falsehood can never win. I believe that there will come a time, as Isaiah puts it, when nations “shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation nor will they train for war anymore.” I believe that day will come because 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 writings, there is a striking little poem contrasting the events in the Middle East 2,000 years ago with the unholy horrors of modem war. Listen:

“Gentlemen of the High Command
who crucify the slums,
there was an earlier Golgotha
the third day comes.”

Hear that, you tyrants and terrorists of this world who seek to enslave and destroy: the third day comes. Hear that, you soldiers in a just war willing to lay down your lives for freedom’s sake: the third day comes. Hear that, all you with loved ones on distant shores and in harm’s way: the third day comes. Hear that, all who are weighed down beneath this world’s crushing load of pain and peril: the third day comes. Jesus Christ is alive and Jesus Christ 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 battle lines were drawn so that the shrine was left in no-man’s land. The war raged for years, and 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 gripped by war and fear, that is all I need to know.

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