‘Peace isn’t simple’ – Church of Ireland marks WW1 centenary by discussing ethics of war
Despite inclement November weather, a large audience came together in the atmospheric setting of Christ Church Cathedral Dublin’s Music Room last Wednesday (19th November) to hear thoughtprovoking presentations from two world-renowned speakers on the subject of war in history, particularly relating to Britain and Ireland during the First World War. ‘The Ethics of War’ event was organised by the Church of Ireland’s Historical Centenaries Working Group as a distinctive Church contribution to the commemoration of the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War.
Prof. Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Christ Church, Oxford, and author of In Defence of War (published last year), argued as an ethicist in favour of just war reasoning and made the case for the 1914-18 War as a just war.
Advent and the four last things
The arrival of Advent, when the Church reflects on the first coming of Christ to be the Saviour of the world and on his Second Coming to be our judge, thus brings together two somewhat contrasting themes: salvation and judgement. The Saviour is also the Judge and the judgement leads to the other contrasting concepts, heaven and hell. So the ‘Four Last Things’ are the traditional Advent themes – death, judgement, heaven and hell. There are contrasts here, surely, but for those of faith there is also a scenario that is not only sacred and mysterious but also more real than can be imagined.
Anthony Thistelton, Emeritus Professor of Christian Theology at Nottingham University, has drawn attention to the fact that when we consider the subject of death, we do so seeing it only from one side: “We must remind ourselves again that those who mourn see only the preresurrection, this-worldly, side of death. From the perspective of faith, one believes that death has a postresurrection side also. After we experience the great cosmic events of the resurrection of the dead and the Coming of Christ, we shall see death retrospectively, in the light of the resurrection.” (The Last Things – A new approach, SPCK, 2012, p.9) Looking at death retrospectively is, indeed, beyond us now but that is how we will look at it in the fullness of the great, eternal and divine light.
We should not give up on the themes of the Four Last Things because we may find them bewildering. Rather, especially during Advent, we are called to give thought to these deeper things. If death, which we see before us, bewilders, how much more must the concept of divine judgement do so also.
It is the Christian faith that Christ will come to judge every person; however, that judgement will be the most fair, the most merciful judgement that is possible, because Christ knows us even better than we know ourselves. Moreover, he himself is also the Saviour whose own death was the perfect, atoning sacrifice and in that sacrifice we may place our trust with confidence.
Divine judgement exists not despite God being love, but precisely because of his love and utter righteousness. In that presence, we cannot but be judged and, despite our justification, we cannot but know that we are judged.
Heaven and hell are topics that again demand deeper thought. Heaven is the ‘higher place’ and hell the ‘lower place’. Height and depth are concepts that not only speak of the dimensions we experience day by day but also have a moral sense. Higher thoughts are better thoughts and lower thoughts are less worthy ones.
There is such a thing as being close to God and there is such a thing as being at a distance from God. For all of us, the place where we want to be above all else is with God, and to be far from him is therefore the place where we least wish to be.
Death, judgement, heaven and hell: these are sombre themes as the Christmas lights are switched on all around us. Yet, without being killjoys at this time of year, they are themes that we will profitably take time to consider in penitence and faith.
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