Reclaiming the Gospel of Peace • Oklahoma City
Good morning to you all. It’s a real privilege to be here. I am slightly at a loss of words to describe my gratitude and the sense of privilege that I have at being allowed to address you this morning. After all, as you may tell from my accent, and from the Presiding Bishop’s introduction, I am not entirely American, and many of the issues that are being handled in this conference relate to the United States, and especially issues around gun crime and gun laws.
The selection of Oklahoma City for the conference was inspired. Not only because of the exceptional qualities of its Bishop, the Bishop of Oklahoma, and his experience, which we heard most movingly last night; but we all have in our minds the sadness and horror that was felt both in the shooting in a post office in 1986 and the attack on the Alfred P. Murrah building in 1995 in which 168 people were killed and many more injured. And as I come to speak to you this morning, I have the kind of sense that I had in the days when I was a parish priest when one was always conscious that to be invited into someone else’s home to talk about things of great importance to them was a privilege and responsibility of an exceptional sort. To be invited to speak to you gives me the same sense of needing to tread gently, with love and deep respect for you and for the thoughtfulness of the churches across this wonderful country.
I would especially like to thank the Presiding Bishop and the Bishop of Oklahoma for their welcome and their permission to minister in any way in their patch.
One brief moment on gun laws and the Second Amendment, and this is one area I want to be clear there are no subliminal messages. In England it is almost impossible to own a firearm and if you’re a farmer or somebody who lives out in the country you can get a shotgun permit. … But certainly owning a revolver or sem-automatic weapon or automatic weapon is unheard of is unheard of. My daughter was a police officer for three years, in a difficult part of London, and during those three years, like all her colleagues, she never once carried a firearm. And that is normal in the police in England. We have firearms officers, but there are very few of them.
So when I’m talking about this I’m not going to get into the business of firearms. We have a totally different culture in the UK which springs out of our history and our heritage. We don’t have the Second Amendment. It would be extremely discourteous for me to start telling you what I thought the right thing was. In England, that’s our position, so you need to understand that any lack of understanding I have of you comes because it’s just a totally different approach.
But whether we’re talking about the United States or elsewhere, we’re talking about a world in which the impact of violence is now felt more and more widely by civilian populations and the old understanding that in war and civil war you try not to harm civilians has gone by the board. We lost that in the Second World War, if we hadn’t lost it in the First. And we also live in a world where in many parts of the world people express themselves, when they run out of other ways to express themselves, with extreme violence.
The catastrophe at Sandy Hook which was mentioned yesterday by Eugene moved not just the United States but the entire world. We were transfixed with horror. And I think this conference has the sense of birthing about it that is significant, of an impulse of the Spirit of God. And that is one reason why I feel so privileged to be with you.
As Christians we remain committed to concepts of peace and non-violence wherever possible, and whatever our attitude to firearms. But amongst the churches the definition of “wherever possible we don’t use violence” varies very extensively, from total pacifism among certain groups, particularly certain groups of Anabaptists such as the Mennonites, through to a commitment to an Augustinian or Thomist approach to just war. Whatever view we take, I am assuming that no one here feels that early resort to violence is a good thing. The resort to violence is always the denial of the possibility of redemption. And since in our hearts we believe in redemption as Christians, an early resort to violence denies the very heart of our faith.
There are exceptions. One of the managers of the big soccer teams in Liverpool, where I used to live and work, Bill Shankly, was famous for saying: “I always teach my lads to get their retaliation in first.” But that is fine on the soccer pitch; it doesn’t really work elsewhere. And if we’re going to say that early resort to violence is wrong, we always end up with someone saying to us: “But what would you do if…?” In other words in what way can the Church across the world stand for nonviolence and challenge the resort to violence which seems to be the nature of disputes in everything from neighbourhoods to countries. And the Church has typically — and I’m talking about the Church in its broadest sense — tended to wring its hands and to say that the world is a bad place, and then we either stand aside and refuse to participate in structures of violence, or if we do get involved we seek to do so in a way that recognises the badness of the world and deals with it accordingly. In other words we tend either to take a pietistic approach and pretend it’s not there, or we take a compromising approach and get drawn into the very structures that we condemn.
I want to propose a slightly different approach, grounded both in experience and theology, of the prophetic response to violence which accepts the world as it is and seeks to bring redemption and salvation.
Let me begin with a story. On November 14th, 1940, the German Air Force bombed Coventry, a city then of around 200,000 people in the very middle of England. For historic reasons Coventry and the towns around it had always been part of what we might call the industrial complex in the UK. Significant numbers of factories making new engines, tanks and other munitions were based in and around the city. At its heart was the 13th century cathedral of St. Michael which in the 700 years in which it had stood had been at various times a parish church and was then a well-known and very beautiful cathedral. The older parts of Coventry were generally medieval and it was an exceptionally beautiful city.
The bombing lasted eight hours, and together with subsequent raids in 1941 led to the damage or destruction of approaching 80 per cent of the houses in the city. Towns and churches around were also hit very heavily. And we need to remember that this was the period from mid-1940 to mid-1941 from the British withdrawal at Dunkirk, until the entry of the Soviet Union or at the very end of 1941 later the United States, and with Europe hostile or unfriendly neutral from North Cape at the top of Norway to the southern tip of Spain, and this was the lowest and darkest point of the war. And on this occasion not only the city but the cathedral was heavily hit. It burned to the ground.
The following morning, the Provost, Richard Howard, in the ruins picked up a piece of burnt wood and wrote behind the High Altar the words “Father forgive.” Someone said to him: “You mean Father forgive them?” to which he replied, in the words of Romans 3:23: “No, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Violence is not something that is only the sin of the other.
On 25th December 1940, Christmas Day, the worst Christmas of the war, Dick Howard was invited to preach the sermon at the main Christmas Day service on the BBC. He did so, and in it he called for post-war reconciliation. It was not a popular call. I met people in Coventry when I was there from 2002 to 2007 who still remember that moment with bitterness and would never again step into the cathedral. The ruins were fresh when he spoke at Christmastime, the bodies scarcely buried in mass graves, the sense of shock of the effect of mass-bombing on a city was still new, although tragically that effect was to wear off over the next five years.
In 1945 soon after the end of the war Howard sent a group of people from Coventry to [Kiel] in Germany; and subsequently his successor Bill Williams made contact with Dresden … and the link between Coventry and Dresden is today as strong as it was then. When the Frauenkirche, the great church of Dresden, was rebuilt after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the top part was a cross from Coventry.
In 1940, those crosses began to be gathered up from the medieval nails that had fallen from the burning beams. They were made into crosses, of different size depending on the nails. In the years following the war Dick Howard and then Bill Williams set up what were called Communities of the Cross of Nails (CCN) of which there are now nearly 200 across the world including nearly 20 in the United States. These communities, based around home groups of one kind or another, were committed to peace and reconciliation and to working out what that meant both in their local community and internationally. It was a major step towards post-war reconciliation, recognized by the German Government, by the President of Germany a few years ago; and it means as a former Bishop of Coventry once said to me: “in England I am an unknown provincial bishop, but in Germany I am more important than the Archbishop of Canterbury.” That was of course some years ago [laughter]. He was of course right, but there are many people more important than the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The German CCN remains vigorous and growing, tackling many different aspects of reconciliation in all its different forms. The CCN globally is found in such places as Burundi, in Rwanda, in the Middle East and in the Far East. Most of these are Christian, founded on Christ, although there are some centres of reconciliation which have as their focus a statue of reconciliation by Josefina de Vasconcellos in place of a cross, for example at Hiroshima.
And I have told this story at some length because I had the privilege of heading up the CCN work when I was a canon at Coventry Cathedral between 2002 and 2007, and to this day my pectoral cross is one of those original crosses of nails. It is profoundly precious to me as a symbol of the prophetic challenge of the Church to reclaim the gospel of peace in the face of the unspeakable violence of war. In that case the war was global, the violence was legal. How much more can we and should we do today!
Violence in war is something I have spent much of the past ten years confronting. During my time at Coventry full-time and professionally, and since part-time but still developing in understanding of the processes of conflict, from complete ignorance to significant ignorance — and I can tell you that is a progress — I have been involved in mediation and reconciliation work now for over a decade. During that time I have stood by mass graves, most recently in January in the South Sudan with Caroline, where the bodies of murdered and raped clergy and lay leaders from the Cathedral at Bor lay at the feet of Caroline and myself. I have left countries hurriedly when someone saw violence as the best way of dealing with the threat of reconciliation, a deep threat to those who train in the machinery of death; and I have variously rejoiced and most often despaired at the vast number of failures and the very occasional success in challenging cultures of violence.
But certain things are absolutely clear for a church that wishes to challenge violence, to reclaim the gospel of peace. They are as true for individuals as societies or churches, as true in war as in neighbourhoods or in families.
First, we have to have a worked through and thoughtful theological anthropology, an understanding of the nature of the human being, if we are to challenge violence effectively.
I recently saw the film Noah, which was interesting and thought-provoking. I am not a film critic so I am neither recommending it nor criticising it, so don’t go and see it and then write to me saying you didn’t like it. There was the added fun that Russell Crowe came to Lambeth Palace a couple of days later.
The film actually has some very powerful themes, which you will coincidentally find in the Bible as well [laughter], but one of them, central to them, is the wickedness of humanity, which is so clearly set out in the narrative in Genesis and is brought out with great power in the film. Humanity is presented as so bad as to be beyond redemption with the exception of Noah and his family. The story ends, of course, with a statement that never again will that decision by God to end humanity be made.
Both of these comments are profoundly theological. They say something about the nature of God and a great deal about the nature of human beings. They recognise that without the intervention of God, human beings are lost. Christianity is not pessimistic, but it is very real about the proclivity of human beings to extreme violence, and the better we get at violence the more we use it. That is one of the most horrifying lessons of the 20th century.
In the 19th century the American Civil War was up to that point the bloodiest in terms of proportions of troops killed and wounded that had been seen in history. The unspeakable casualties of that terrible period, and the profound impact of that war on the USA in the decades and even century and a half that followed, was not because Americans are more violent than anyone else, it is that at the time their industry was more capable than anyone else of producing the means to express the same violence as everyone else was seeking to express in war. They produced better means of killing.
A very few years before the Civil War, the battles of Magenta and Solferino in the Austro-French war around the wars of Italian unification also set such an appalling example of casualties, principally from the development of rapid firing weapons, that it triggered the formation of the Red Cross. The better we are technically, the better we are at killing. Violence is intrinsic to being human, and I have to say in particular to being human and male, or human and powerful, over against minorities of all kinds.
Moreover it is addictive, violence is addictive, and we become hardened to it. In the 17th century during the Fronde, the religious wars in France between 1648 and 1653, a contemporary writer, a senior officer, said that in the first of the three Fronde they had fought like humans, in the second like animals and in the third like demons. To take another example, the bombing of Coventry in 1940 was seen to be an atrocity, but the British bombed Dresden in 1945 without hesitation. Only later, years after the war, were questions asked. I remember only a few years ago, and it will happen next year when I go back, being shown the square in Dresden where the bodies had been piled and where the fire was so great that they spontaneously combusted. War and violence brutalise people. The more often a person is involved in violence, the less atrocious the violence becomes.
The damage violence does to the soul grows deeper and deeper. I remember a meeting last year with my colleague and friend David Porter where we were meeting with some people on opposite sides of a very difficult conflict; and the opening question from David was: “What is this doing to your soul?” It wasn’t the question they were expecting; they thought it would be something about practical solutions. What is it doing to your soul? Violence shatters, corrupts, corrodes the soul. And Violence is profoundly corrosive of all other human restraint. If you are accustomed to killing, then other atrocities such as torture, rape and deliberate mutilation of civilians or prisoners become more tolerable. In particular, as we know, sexual violence accompanies physical violence in almost every conflict on earth and always has done. But today it is used more and more widely as a weapon of war.
The recognition of this bias, of this tendency to sin, seen from the story of Cain and Abel with such vivid reality, is essential if we are going to be churches that challenge violence. You cannot challenge something in which you do not entirely believe, and you cannot treat a disease that you have not properly diagnosed, especially if it is in ourselves. If we recognise that tendencies to violence and the use of more and more violence are part of human life and human nature in its unredeemed state — in this at least Hobbes was right when he talked of the state of civilization being that the life of man is “nasty, brutish, short” — if we believe human nature in its unredeemed state is violent, then the treatment is going to be different to that which we would prescribe if we believe that violence is merely an aberrant tendency in a small minority, or if we believe as good Marxists that it is the means by which a class elite occupy the vast mass of those they rule in order to distract them from inequities and injustices in society. The former leads to repentance, when we see it as our disease; the latter, when it is an aberrant tendency, leads to blame. And that will make no progress.
Secondly, if that is the case, it alters our understanding of the intervention of God in human affairs. It shapes our theology, and theology shapes our mission. The story of Noah speaks of a God who destroys utterly apart from those who have heard His call. God judges but he also saves. In the account of Sodom and Gomorrah, the presence of a few good people may save a greater community. Abraham says to God: “Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”
And in John 3:16, we see the same recognition of human evil (the verse has a presupposition of a universal need for salvation because something has gone universally wrong), but that need is met by God so loving the world that God gives Jesus, the Son of God, so that all who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. This new ark created by Jesus Christ is picked up in I Peter 3 and in Christian iconography as a symbol of the Church, and is a basic understanding of ecclesiology. We are the ark.
So we have a humanity which is committed to doing wrong, and a God who is committed to acting in response to wrongdoing, but following the promise in Genesis, acts through the giving of God’s own self to make an opportunity for rescue. And the outcome of this understanding, of both human nature and the action of God, is one of extreme demand for Christians.
Reconciliation and an end to violence, or the transformation of violent conflict into non-violent conflict (I will come back to that in a moment) is something that can only be achieved by sacrifice and by a prophetic stand. There are no shortcuts and no cheap options, which is why this conference is so important. There are no shortcuts and there are no cheap options. We are talking at this point about change in the heart of the human being, and neither technology nor law will alter that.
I spoke a moment ago about reconciliation as the transformation of violent into non-violent conflict. I take it for granted that diversity, and thus competition, are a natural part of creation. This is in one part natural theology and in another it draws on the recognition found in scripture from the story of Lot and Abraham to the letters to the Church in Corinth. The work of the Spirit of God in reconciliation is to enable a heart of love to overcome the potential hardness of confrontation, and through generosity, for conflict to be met by grace and gratuity. This means that the zero-sum game of equivalence and exchange, to which Paul Ricoeur refers, becomes transformed through the action of God in to a world of abundance and grace. Diversity then becomes additional not competitive. If I give you something in forgiveness, we both become richer, rather than me poorer and you richer.
Sam Wells, a good friend, Rector of St. Martins in the Field, and formerly the Dean of Duke University Chapel, in a beautiful lecture at Coventry on reconciliation at the end of February 2013, said this: “Reconciliation isn’t about replacing conflict with peace. It’s about the transfiguration of conflict into glory.” It’s about the transfiguration of conflict into glory. Does that not make your heart rise? Does that not sound like what we want in society and in our world?”
To speak of a reconciled world is to speak of one in which there is peace (shalom) with God and thus with each other, not unanimity of view. Not a centralised saying “we’re all going to do the same thing.” Not some kind of Big Brother-esque world. Within the Church reconciliation enables diversity to result in the flowering of talent and gifting, of a collegial leadership and of the capacity to face every problem with the multiplicity of graciously given talent that lies within the church.
But reconciliation with God is achieved through the cross, not through conferences and meetings and declarations. The Christian disciple is to take up their cross, and for many even today this is no mere metaphor. Bearing the cross means public ownership of Christ, public association and love with and for all those others who own Christ as Saviour, and public commitment to follow Christ wherever we are taken. There are no choices in a world of bearing one’s cross but the choices of sacrifice and the joy that comes in foot-washing, and in yet more cross-bearing.
As well as the language of conflict reconciled, the New Testament uses the language of slavery set free. Redemption, the buying and manumission of the slave, requires risk with those who are being freed, sacrifice of resource by those freeing and suffering to find such a resource. In the Church the suffering may be that of not getting our own way, not having our own will, losing power. That’s a tough call in a 1,400-year-old church. We get quite used to the sense of having our own way.
In the world, Christian suffering for redemption will come as a result of other people misunderstanding what we do. Let us have no illusions: real reconciliation is never popular. One of the key reasons for that is our liking for the position of having someone to hate. We like our opposition; it’s jolly difficult when you haven’t got an enemy. There’s a wonderful story by Saki, an English writer killed in battle. He writes one short story of great amusement and insight about a weekend house party where the host invariably invites one person who everyone else will hate because it will make sure the party goes with a swing.
We like having those whom we hate, we like the comforts of defining and distinguishing “us” from “them” in order to bolster our own position. Miroslav Volf, one of my favourite theologians, speaks of Christ as having died for the victim and the perpetrator. It is the last bit that something deep within us rejects. Siding with victims is fine, it’s heroic, you get good marks, the press say you’re a nice person. But reconcilers must get alongside the perpetrators. The gospel of peace is reclaimed by loving those who love violence and hatred.
It is not popular to speak of forgiveness during a war as one city lies burning, like Dick Howard. But the deep tragedy of World War II, and of the cumulative ten years of war between the United Kingdom and Germany in the first half of the last century, in which those two countries alone killed several million of each other’s citizens, that tragedy began to be redeemed on the day that Dick Howard wrote ‘Father forgive’ on the ruined wall of Coventry Cathedral. We prefer to win wars, we prefer to win wars against violence, and to defeat our dehumanised enemy than to find the reconciliation that is the true victory of the gospel of peace.
So in conclusion, what does a church committed to reclaiming the gospel of peace look like? What does it look lie in the USA where there are people who are faithful Christians on all sides of the debate about guns? What does it mean to be a faithful Christian? What it does not mean is to shout louder from your corner in the conviction that you are right and everyone else is stupid.
Rather, a church committed to the reclaiming of the gospel of peace looks like those who join their enemies on their knees. We celebrate the fact that as the Anglican Communion functioning as a community of peace across the world, as it does in so many places so wonderfully with such sacrifices, that it manages disagreement well in many places, that it maintains unity across diametrically opposed views on a matter — that that Anglican Communion to which we belong could be the greatest gift to counter violence of all descriptions in our world. That is the goal and the hope of reclaiming the gospel of peace, that we are those who enable that transfiguration into glory in the grace of God.
Practically, a church that reclaims the gospel of peace is a church that is present with those who are poorest and suffer most, and gives them priority, whether close to home or far away. Being with the poor and suffering changes us. If you want to see this set out in book of great beauty and very demanding discussion, have a look at We see this set out in a book of great beauty have a look at Sam Wells and Marcia Owen, Living Without Enemies (IVP 2011).
Being with the poor and suffering changes us. Being with them changes us. Not doing things for them, doing things to them, working for them — that may matter — but being with them changes us.
We find it easier as individuals, especially those in the relatively prosperous and secure global north, to work for people, and occasionally work with people. We bring answers, we solve problems. Once we move beyond the individual to the institutional level the language of outcomes dominates, and the drive for results prevails. But Jesus came to spend much of His life being with us, and only a little working for us. To be with is to take up the cross and walk with the poor, and prefer their cry to that of the powerful.
In the South Sudan and DRC a few weeks ago Caroline and I found ourselves faced with the immense suffering of the poorest people in the world. In one of the IDP camps, surrounded by death and dying, where every hope seemed vain, the Bishop said: “Say something to encourage them.” I blurted out: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever” and found I had accidentally — and I stress accidentally — said the right thing, while actually mentally searching for the right solution. Being with them, and all of us with Christ, was what we all needed most at that moment.
On Sunday I was with Cardinal Nicholls, the leader of the Catholic Church in the UK, in a home for asylum seekers. And in May I will have the privilege of being with a church school as it launches the C of E’s national policy against homophobic bullying in our schools.
On each of those days I know I will be tempted to ask myself what I have done, and I know that that is the wrong question. I need to answer the question: “with whom have I been, and with whom has the church been?” Of course action and programmes are essential, utterly essential, but reclaiming the gospel of peace means being with others who are poor as I am poor and the church is poor and together being on the ground where the gospel of peace is reclaimed.
The gospel is good news for the poor. Far from those places of which I have spoken, here in the USA you look at questions of gun law and violence. Perhaps part of the answer is not only advocacy, and that must happen, but being on knees together with the poorest and the most vulnerable in your local communities, of being with them so that they are also with the church when it is with the powerful, because we have that great privilege. Already this is happening all over the USA with TEC, with the Episcopal Church. May God bless that being with, as well as all the working for.
So we seek a church that bears the cross, that is so caught up in Jesus Christ and its relationship with Jesus Christ that it is drawn inexorably in partnership with the poor and pilgrimage alongside them, sharing the surprises and risks of the journey under the leadership of Jesus Christ. We seek a church seeking the will of God who calls and in every action and way a church that demonstrates by its unity and love the reality that so of its unity “that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17: 21).
We do not see such churches today on a global scale, although they may be found in many places at a local level. To turn this into a national in such a great and huge nation as this, let alone a global phenomenon, is humanly impossible. We find it easier to be caught up in our own disputes and our own rights.
But as we approach Easter, it is in accompanying Jesus on the long walk through Holy Week to the cross that we will find ourselves bound together afresh and love released. The love will be such that we cannot imagine unless we turn to Christ in repentance, seeking to be those who challenge and overcome the violence that He Himself bore for us on the cross. It will be a love that comes to reclaim in ourselves and in our communities the gospel of peace.