FOOTBALL NOT WAR
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
I am not sure whether any of you watched the final match of the Football World Cup between Germany and Argentina on Sunday night, but I was one of the billion people across the globe who did. Having spent the previous day and night travelling home from Jersey and London, I could gladly have joined Isobel and gone to bed; but there was no way I was going to miss this grand football fest finale. And it was only close to our midnight, that Germany scored the goal that made them world champions. The Argentineans were devastated and in tears; the Germans delirious with delight. But when all is said and done, football was the winner, uniting millions of people around the world even though divided into opposing nations. I thought about that while I watched the game because in other places, at that very moment in time, notably but not only in Gaza, Syria and Iraq, another game was being played. A much older game in which nations and groups sacrifice their sons and daughters to the god of war who is never satisfied and always demands more.
But even as I thought of this contrast between football and war, another image appeared on the TV screen. High above the city and its magnificent stadium stood the enormous floodlit statue of Christ the Redeemer, only now with the golden sun hovering behind Christ's head like a halo as it sank into the western horizon. It was a glorious sight. The TV commentator was so overwhelmed that he declared only the most insensitive of people would not be deeply moved by what they saw. For a brief moment in time a billion people were dramatically reminded of the outstretched arms of the God we know in Jesus seeking to embrace and reconcile a world that is too often at war.
In a report on the Football World Cup in the UK Independent newspaper the comment was made that while winning at football is not the most important thing in the world, it is the most important of the less important things! Yes, indeed, there are more important things than winning the world cup, but it is surely much better for nations to fight it out on the sports-field -- even if some get hurt -- than doing so on the battle-field. The fact that Argentineans and Germans could embrace each other after the game suggests that sport, despite the ugly side to much of it, is a far better religion than war, and yet it is war that too often gains the upper hand in the name of God and under the guise of religion. Football might lead to punch ups on and off the field; but war is murder sanctioned by governments, ideologies and religions.
A hundred years ago this week the so-called Christian nations of the West began what became the bloody four years of the First World War. Germany took to the field to do battle with England, France and their allies, all claiming that God was on their side. and most of their respective churches and theologians justified them doing so. The war, they declared, was just, it was God's will they even said. I was reminded of this last week when visiting the parish church of St. Brelade in Jersey and seeing the memorials to the many young men of that small Island who had died on the battle-field, both then and a few decades later in the Second World War. Their sacrifice is rightly honoured, but was it really the will of God that their young lives were wasted, and in such a way?
No one better expressed the horror of the First World War and its meaningless suffering than the English poet Wilfred Owen, himself a soldier who died during the last week of the war. He ended his most famous war poem, Dulce et Decorum est, in which he described the terrible conditions in the trenches and the slaughter of men before his eyes, with these words:
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 for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori. (It is sweet and right to die for your country.)
Owen is absolutely right. War is based on lies. And the worst lie of all is the claim that it is the will of God! We rightly remember and honour those who die in the course of duty and acknowledge their deeds of courage, bravery and self-sacrifice. But war itself is anything but glorious; war destroys everything in its path. That is its game plan. War is the very opposite of the God revealed in Jesus whose outstretched arms seek to embrace the nations in peace.
Of course,cynics say that wars are inevitable, and they seem to have history on their side. War seems programmed into our fallen human nature. It is also true that God is often depicted as a God of war in the Old Testament. There are two reasons for this. The first is that nations not least Israel use the name of God to justify their acts of aggression and conquest and this is written into the biblical text. The second is, as the prophets remind us, that we live in a moral universe and God is a God of justice. So if nations and peoples oppress others, they act contrary to God's will and therefore are liable to suffer the consequences, punished, as it were, by God. But that does not justify war in the name of God. War is the result of the lust for land and power, it is the consequence of greed and the abuse of resources. We may have to resist tyrants, but only in the pursuit of justice and peace, and therefore in ways that end the cycle of violence not perpetuate it.
Yet the makers of peace, the real children of God as Jesus calls them, not just those who like all of us love peace, but those whose lives are dedicated to peace making, always have an uphill battle and sometimes are crucified for their efforts. That is why, despite its faults and failings, we should always give thanks and pray for the efforts of the United Nations to make peace, and for all those who serve in peace making operations at considerable risk. Likewise we give thanks and pray for all those diplomats who give so much energy, time and effort to finding solutions in war ravaged place despite the ugly truth is that their governments spend trillions of dollars more on weapons and the waging of war than they do on peace- making and training people to make peace. And we need to pray, too, that the church remembers its calling to be a community of justice, reconciliation and peace-making. For the will of God is peace not war, redemption not damnation. This is the good news of Christ the redeemer with outstretched arms encouraging and blessing all those who are peacemakers, even footballers, for they are children of God.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 17 July 2014