Event Name Sermon given at Matins on the Sunday next before Lent 2017
Start Date 26th Feb 2017 10:00am

The Reverend David Stanton, Canon in Residence
This is my final sermon in a series on recently released films. Last Sunday I spoke about the film ‘Anthropoid’, involving the attempted assassination of the ‘Butcher of Prague’, SS - Obergruppenf├╝hrer Reinhard Heydrich. This opened up interesting questions around the core principles of just war theory.

This morning I shall be talking about another war film entitled ‘Hacksaw Ridge’, a film about an army medic and Seventh-day Adventist, called Desmond Doss, who battled in Okinawa, during one of the bloodiest battles of WWII, to save the lives of 75 men without firing or carrying a gun.

He was the only American soldier during that war to fight on the front lines without a weapon; as he believed that while this war was justified, killing was fundamentally wrong. As an army medic, working under severe enemy fire, he single-handedly evacuated many wounded men from behind enemy lines.

Doss was the first conscientious objector to ever be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour, and was subsequently described by his fellow soldiers as a light shining deep within the darkness and depravity of war.

There there a certain resonance here with words from our morning’s New Testament reading: ‘Let light shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’. (2 Cor. 4.6).

Andrew Garfield’s performance as Desmond Doss, is rather similar to the one he played in Scorsese’s recent film ‘Silence’, but it’s this film, not the other one, that earned him a nomination.

In words reminiscent of the ubiquitous football manager or commentator, this is a film of two halves! The first is quiet and sentimental, focusing upon Doss’ fervent religious background. The second is savage and super-violent with bullets, grenades and flamethrowers, all shown in their gruesome, inhuman detail.

This raises a particular question: Can a film’s point about non-violence, sacrifice, and love be made effectively by confronting the audience so bluntly and unapologetically with the gory horror of violence?

As you may well expect, this film is also filled with strong Christian themes, and Doss is portrayed as a man who stands firmly for his beliefs and convictions. Although the Gospel message doesn’t always shine through clearly, Doss is portrayed as a man who is not ashamed of his faith and as someone who always looks towards God for guidance and direction.

As Director, Mel Gibson gives us a rounded portrayal of a God-fearing man living out his faith, and its interesting to see that this film clearly shares the understanding of faith as a journey. He makes the connection between both conflict and faith and how some are mocked, ridiculed, and even feel abandoned because of their faith.

Yet beneath all this stands the firm belief that, in the midst of conflict, our faithfulness to God is reflected in God’s faithfulness to us. This is a story about many different conflicts: duty to God versus duty to country; individual freedom versus communal responsibility; healing versus killing; love versus hate.

The film also grapples with internal war, as Doss wrestles with maintaining his faith  against extraordinary pressures to compromise. But the dominant and key theme to the film is that of Christian pacifism, and over the years, many have fervently defended it.

It’s helpful to recall that firstly in the Gospels Jesus called his followers to a way of life where violence and division are overcome by sacrificial love. And secondly he taught us not to return evil for evil, but good for evil; how we must not hate those who wrong us, but must love our enemies and give freely to those who hate us.

These themes in Jesus’ ministry were deeply rooted in the Hebrew prophetic tradition, and through his sacrificial death, this became a continuation and a fulfilment of that same tradition. Indeed, we should all, without exception, follow his example and teachings: loving all people and searching for healing and reconciliation.

And yet today, many argue that because the world is not perfect, war is not always wrong. Because the world is still very much divided by war and conflict, all Christians have a duty and responsibility to examine their position related to the use of deadly force.

Just over three years ago Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford, published an important book ‘In Defence of War.’ It includes both a painstaking analysis of the 2003 Iraq invasion, and a moral analysis of Britain's involvement in the First World War.

He makes the point that peace is rarely simple, and describes how peace for some can leave others at peace to perpetrate mass atrocity. Indeed what was peace for the West in 1994 was certainly not peace for the Tutsis of Rwanda.

His fundamental argument is a defence of war for the sake of justice in international relations. In other words, not just a cheap jab at pacifists, saying ‘you have your right to peace only at the expense of others’ violence’.

Referring to St Paul, he points out that God has ordained the governing authorities to wield the sword against those who do evil. This, of course, stands in sharp contrast to the pacifist belief that God is non-violent and would not approve of violence.

Indeed he goes further in pointing out that firstly the ‘peaceable kingdom’ promoted by pacifists is actually dependent upon the God-ordained sword-wielding authorities, and secondly sword-wielding authorities are necessary for promoting good over evil.

In short, what God has ordained together, pacifists seek to put asunder. Whether you agree with this or not, I’m sure this film ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ will challenge your assumptions. We remember that while Desmond Doss could himself justify war, he always believed that killing was fundamentally wrong.

In an age when warfare is undergoing radical changes and when threats to peace continue to overwhelm so many people and nations in our increasingly turbulent world, questions around war remain fundamentally related to our faith.

With Lent just around the corner, we’re reminded once again that our urgent task is always to survey the Cross as the supreme symbol of sacrifice, that absorbs the violence or 'sin' of the world.

This is as T. S. Eliot wrote in ‘Little Gidding’ all about the rose of love 'in-folded into the crowned knot of fire.' It is indeed the mystery of God, 'that moves the sun and other stars.'

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