Pacifism in an age of terror and torture…

We live in an age of fear.

It often seems that this fear is fostered deliberately, as justification for actions which governments take on our behalf.

The newspapers are full of stories of so-called terrorists tortured by American soldiers, and the alleged complicity of British security forces.

Where are the voices raised by Christians in the US against the barbaric way that prisoners are being treated in the name of the worlds only superpower?

Well- here are some of them- courageous, powerful and moving. This film is not easy to watch- but it seems ever more important…

Bonhoeffer- was he wrong?


Bonhoeffer is one of our Evangelical heroes.

The good German- an extraordinary man in extraordinary times. Whose incisive faith saw through the evil that had overcome his people like a cancer, and allowed him to stand alone- a candle in darkness, a voice in the wilderness.

I sort of knew this. But I have read very little of his writings.

Michaela is persevering with ‘Life together‘ although it is not an easy read- this is partly because of the style.

The surprise to most of us is that Bonhoeffer was executed not for passive peaceful resistance of Hitler’s regime, but rather for plotting with Canaris and von Stauffenberg to overcome Hitler with a Coup- which included the assassination of Hitler- the famous bomb plot.

The great pacifist theologian, who had visited Ghandi in the 1930s in order to understand non-violent resistance had turned to violence and political power games. He became a double agent.

Did the potential ends justify the means? It is scarcely possible to conceive of a regime that is more evil within our modern experience. What else could a good man do, but seek to overcome by any means possible? Christians fighting against Hitler have long seen this as a ‘just war‘. I think I might have agreed with them had I been a child of Bonhoeffers age.

But history has a way of allowing us time to consider, and weigh the weight of the matter- and for us, the Spirit of the thing, the theology of the thing- this becomes important.

Other Christians resisted. I visited a prison in Berlin years ago where dozens of pastors were hanged much earlier in the war than Bonhoeffer for criticising Hitler. Leaders like Karl Barth and Martin Niemoller formed the Confessing church in protest against the Nazi appropriation of the  Church as part of the State machinery.

What did Bonhoeffer acheive with his part in the plot against Hitler? Probably very little. The plot failed, and by that time the war had been raging for years, and millions of Jews, Gypsy’s, homosexuals and ‘Untermensch‘ had already died and been processed through industrial ovens in Eastern Europe. History records the plot as too little, too late.

Would peaceful protests have achieved more? It seems that death would have come to him either way.

Bonhoeffers feelings about his chosen path appear to have been mixed. He had no doubt that what he was doing was a moral choice that he may well need to answer for before God. He refused to allow prayers for him by the Confessing church whilst he was in prison, as he suggested prayer should be for Christians imprisoned as martyrs, not through acts of direct resistance such as his.

So- what choices are we followers of Jesus to make in the face of war and violence and oppression? His words seem clear enough. But his followers have always found the reality more complex. Jesus seemed to be more than willing to mix with Roman Soldiers, and Peter carried a sword at least once in his company.

For me, violence is something to be resisted in itself- particularly when it is perpetrated by one state on another. Particularly when Christians appear to support this violence and claim that God is on their side. The American/British appetite for war post 911 is a case in point. But Bonhoeffer- his times were very different.

Perhaps circumstances will always demand of us- choices. Extreme circumstances demand the more black and white ones. For the rest of us, we have theory, and theology. Bonhoeffer had enough of theology that was not anchored to practical activity in the service of the oppressed.

But I still wonder if he got it wrong…

There are a few films out about his life- usually American. Bonhoeffer seems to be able to be appropriated as a Saint by the conservatives and the liberals. There are a few clips of You Tube if you are interested-

War- those who objected…


One more post about the Great War…

I have often wondered what would have been my fate if I had been born about 60 years earlier. The Sherwood Foresters Regiment, raised around where I grew up, were decimated in several of the huge battles of the First World War- including the Battle of the Somme, where they were almost wiped out.

Eight of these men and boys were court marshaled and executed for cowardice and desertion (check out this record here, which seems even sadder than the names on war memorials that I grew up with.)

What drove men to walk towards destruction? It is a strange testament to the fragility and contradictory nature of humanity that we regard such a thing as noble, admirable whilst still valuing life (at least our own) above all things.

It is interesting to note that even in war-drunk imperial Britain in the middle of the war, there were those who were able to show a different courage, and protest.


This protest, attended by a future Labour Prime Minister, Ramsey MacDonald, caused a near riot.

Then there were the conscientious objectors- according to the National Archive, about 16,000 of them, who refused to fight. Many spent time in prison- particularly the 1500 ‘absolutists’, who refused to participate in any activities that gave any support whatsoever to the war. Prominent in this group were the Quakers, and other Christian groups who saw the taking of human life as wrong (more info here.)

These people were loathed by the society that they were part of. They were branded as cowards and traitors. Could I have been strong enough to stand with them?

Or would I have joined up in 1915 along with my pals, answering Kitchener’s call to arms? And would my name then have been entered on a monument after the pointless slaughters of 1916?

Historical hindsight is a rather indulgent pastime, but I hope I would have been able to protest.

And I hope too that in this new and very different age, I will also be able to find inspiration in the story of 16,000 people, whose names are on no monument. What would they have made of the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq?

These are not simple issues. I am not sure that there is nothing worth fighting for, but I am sure that there is no such thing as a just war…

In the words of Derek Webb, from the song ‘A man like me’ from the Hummingbird album.

I have come to give you life
And to show you how to live it
I have come to make things right
To heal their ears and show you how to forgive them

’cause i would rather die
I would rather die
I would rather die
Than to take your life
’cause how can I kill the ones I’m supposed to love
My enemies are men like me

So I will protest the sword if it’s not wielded well
’cause my enemies are men like me
Peace by way of war
Is like purity by way of fornication
It’s like telling someone murder is wrong
And then showing them by way of execution

Because my enemy is a man like me

The Sentry- Wilfred Owen

Following on from my last post, here’s a bit more of Owen’s poetry.

I have just watched a programme on Channel 4 about the excavation of a dug out near Ypres in Belgium dug in 1917. It has been clogged with the mud and bones of some of the hundreds of thousands who died there for 90 years, but was found in remarkably good order (check out here for more details.)

It made me think of this poem.

Preserved like the shadow of Owen, who died aged 25, fighting a war that he did not believe in.

For people like me, Owen speaks clearly and immediately of things unimaginable to us- but where to him everyday normality.

Our fascination for stories of war is not healthy, or at least I do not think so. For every John Wayne or Bruce Willis, or docudrama about the Third Reich- there should be 100 Wilfred Owen’s.

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Remembrance day and war poetry


Michaela and I have just sat and listened to the Remembrance day ceremony from the Cenotaph in London. This ceremony is held every year, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, to honour first the dead of the ‘great war to end all wars’ (1914-1918) and then the subsequent second world war, along with all the post-empire skirmishes and border confrontations that our soldiers have died in ever since.

We were silent first through the emotional beauty of laments played by brass bands, then for the official minutes silence

I have had a mixed relationship with the ceremony. At worst, it seems to glorify and exalt the business of war. For a while, I refused to wear a red poppy, finding instead the white ones with an overtly pacifist stance to be more appropriate. It seemed to me the only response that followers of Jesus could take.

I spent some time working as a therapist in GP surgeries, and met several ex-soldiers struggling with post traumatic symptoms years after conflicts in Cypress, the Falklands or the wars in the Gulf. I heard their matter-of-fact stories of broken bodies and a culture of brotherhood, booze and easy violence that was both intensely supportive and ultimately destructive to the rest of their lives. I now wear red poppies with respect and humility.

But still, this balance between remembering those who suffered and died, whilst wanting to de-glamourise war and pursue peace- this is a hard thing to find at times.

This was highlighted too by my reaction to the front page of our local paper- the Dunoon Observer. In a creative response to Remembrance day, they printed a famous poem from the Great war on the front page. It is this one;


In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Lt Col John McRae

This poem was written in 1915, after a terrible battle, but still in an early part of the war, when glory still beckoned, at least for some. McRae was a staff officer, and the second verse always seemed to me to fit uneasily alongside the first. Some have called it ‘recruiting office rhetoric’- handing on the torch to others to have revenge…

But I applaud the Observer for printing poetry. I just would have preferred them to print another famous war poem- the one below.

I remember reading the first world war poets at school- Seigfreid Sassoon, and most of all, Wilfred Owen,

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

who was killed by a snipers bullet at just about the very end of the war. It was these men who first showed me that poetry can be something powerful. It can be healing, challenging, therapeutic, revolutionary, beautiful and harrowing- all at the same time.

This poem captures the whole thing of war for me. Here it is (with some notes pinched from here.)


Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares
2 we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest
3 began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped
5 Five-Nines6 that dropped behind.

Gas!7 Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets
8 just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime
9 . . .
Dim, through the misty panes
10 and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering,
11 choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent
14 for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

8 October 1917 – March, 1918

1 DULCE ET DECORUM EST – the first words of a Latin saying (taken from an ode by Horace). The words were widely understood and often quoted at the start of the First World War. They mean “It is sweet and right.” The full saying ends the poem: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori – it is sweet and right to die for your country. In other words, it is a wonderful and great honour to fight and die for your country

2 rockets which were sent up to burn with a brilliant glare to light up men and other targets in the area between the front lines (See illustration, page 118 of Out in the Dark.)

3 a camp away from the front line where exhausted soldiers might rest for a few days, or longer
4 the noise made by the shells rushing through the air
5 outpaced, the soldiers have struggled beyond the reach of these shells which are now falling behind them as they struggle away from the scene of battle

6 Five-Nines – 5.9 calibre explosive shells
7 poison gas. From the symptoms it would appear to be chlorine or phosgene gas. The filling of the lungs with fluid had the same effects as when a person drowned
8 the early name for gas masks
9 a white chalky substance which can burn live tissue
10 the glass in the eyepieces of the gas masks
11 Owen probably meant flickering out like a candle or gurgling like water draining down a gutter, referring to the sounds in the throat of the choking man, or it might be a sound partly like stuttering and partly like gurgling
12 normally the regurgitated grass that cows chew; here a similar looking material was issuing from the soldier’s mouth
13 high zest – idealistic enthusiasm, keenly believing in the rightness of the idea
14 keen
15 see note 1