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Home Who's who Bishops The Right Reverend Nicholas Holtam. Sermons, articles, and speeches Reflections on a Just War, Armistice Day 2014

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Reflections on a Just War, Armistice Day 2014

by glynch — last modified 12 Nov, 2014 06:10 PM

These are notes for Reflections on a Just War which the Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam led in Salisbury Cathedral on 11 November 2014.


Last weekend Mikhail Gorbachev alerted us to what he sees as the dangers of our returning to a new Cold War.

In September Pope Francis said that the number of conflicts being waged around the globe effectively amount to “a piecemeal Third World War”.

According to the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research, last year there were some 400 conflicts worldwide, 20 of them wars. The United Nations has reported that the number of people who have been forced to flee their homes by conflict and crisis has risen to over 50 million for the first time since WWII. Half of those forced to flee are children.

Our Diocesan partnership with the Episcopal Church in the Sudan and South Sudan gives us particular insight to this. Tens of thousands of people were killed in the conflict that flared up in parts of South Sudan last December and there are c. 1.4 million displaced people and the United Nations estimate 4 million are at risk of severe hunger.

The last century was in some ways defined by the First World War. It ended with the very considerable hope of the fall of the Berlin wall, the end of Apartheid and some very significant movements that suggested new patterns of global relationships, such as Make Poverty History and Drop the Debt.

This 21st century is being defined by the terrorism of 9/11 2001 and the responses to it. This includes the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as what has happened across the Middle East and now particularly in Syria and Iraq with ISIS.

Issues of war and peace press upon us. So I want to use this Armistice Day to reflect on them in our cathedral with any who want to do so.

Christian Attitudes to War

There are three Christian attitudes to war: Pacifism, the Just War and the Crusade or Holy War. [1]

Each of these attitudes has a significant range of meanings. I am going to spend most this evening on the Just War but I can’t do so without making the connections with the varieties of Christian Pacifism.

In the last 25 years or so there has been a shocking resurgence of Crusader thinking. For Christians, the Crusader mentality assumes a view of truth that we are right and ‘they’ are wrong and that the world will be a better place only when ‘they’ realise this. It does not take account of the abuse of power or of the God-given diversity of the world in which we have so much to learn from one another.


The common core of pacifism can be described as, “a principled rejection of the violence of war”.[2]

Apart from “vocational pacifism” of people in particular jobs, before the Christian era there is no known instance of conscientious objection to participation in war and no recorded advocacy of such objection. Pacifism is therefore a very particular contribution of Christianity.[3]

The teaching of Jesus is of non-violence. Examples include –

  • The strengthening of the OT command ‘Thou shalt not kill’ in Mt 5.21ff: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment
  • The teaching of non-resistance in the Sermon on the Mount, Mt 5.38-48 – turn the other cheek, give your cloak as well as your coat, walk the extra mile.
  • The refusal of Jesus to advance his ideas by political or coercive means – the temptations, his refusal to be made a king by the Galileans after the feeding of the 5,000, John 6.15.
  • The contrast Jesus makes between the rulers of the Gentiles who lord it over them to the life of service to which his disciples are called, eg foot washing in John 13.

This call to non-violence is not the same as a call to avoid military service, and the images of military service in the Gospels suggest there was not thought to be an inherent conflict between being a soldier and Christianity. The first Gentile to be baptised was a Roman Centurion (Cornelius in Acts 10) and there is nothing in the story to say he resigned his orders.

Nevertheless the evidence is that, in the Early Church, Christians understood Jesus’ teaching as outlawing their participation in war. There were objections to the shedding of blood, but mostly their objections to soldiering were very different to the sorts of arguments used by pacifists today. They wanted to be aloof from the affairs of the world. They stressed separation from the world in a bid to avoid evil. Their main fear was of idolatry.

Christians are known to have been soldiers from the late Second Century. Eusebius tells of there being Christian soldiers in the Thundering Legion.[4] In the most peaceful periods of the Empire soldiers were probably like policemen and the shedding of blood was rare.

By the end of the Third Century there were Christians in positions of considerable power and “the rulers of all churches were honoured by all procurators and governors.”[5] Nevertheless the Diocletian persecution at the start of the Fourth Century included purging the army of all Christians. Historians suggest there can’t have been many, and there must have been a consensus that they weren’t any good at fighting.[6]

Constantine’s adoption of Christianity in 312 had enormous symbolic importance.  The test was no longer how Christianity could maintain its rigorous moral demand and distinctiveness apart from the world, but how it could remain true to the gospel of Jesus in the world. Before 312 non-violence was a mark of the Christian life. After 312 there is growing evidence to show how war can be fought by Christians.

Some retreated into utopian sects, or to monasteries, but most welcomed the opportunity to extend Christian influence into the political realm.

Just War Tradition

Ambrose of Milan (339-97) and Augustine of Hippo (354-430) made use of the just war tradition, which has its roots in the Classical world and to a limited extent in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Just war theories accept the inevitability and occasional necessity of war but their purpose is not to justify war, but to limit it and ensure the conduct of war is just.

The Just War tradition requires that war should be called by a proper authority, for a just cause and as a last resort. War should be proportionate, fought by just means in which non-combatants are protected, and the war should be winnable.

Restraint must be shown after victory.   

This has become the basis of international law and of military conduct.

Christian Pacifism and the Just War Tradition

For most of Christian history there has been, at best, a tension between the Pacifist and Just War traditions. For much of the time they have been seen as different and contradictory approaches to war. In the Twentieth Century there has been a considerable convergence of the two traditions.

In the First World War, pacifists were regarded with a good deal of disdain by the general population. This was slightly less strong in the Second World War. From Vatican II onwards, there is a re-awakening of the emphasis in RC and other teaching documents of the honourable tradition of Christian pacifism. Similarly, from the latter part of the last century to the present day, there has been an increasing tendency for the British military to understand their role as one of peace-keeping.

By the 1980s it was striking that those objecting to the use of nuclear weapons on just war criteria came to similar conclusions to pacifists. Nuclear weapons are always disproportionate and their effect is indiscriminate. They fail to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants, and so on. There was a growing concern about the cost of armaments, even if not used; as the idea that a nuclear war might be winnable gained currency, it became destabilising. The Church of England’s report, The Church and the Bomb (1982), dealt with matters of fact and arguments of judgment very much in the just war tradition. Its practical conclusions were similar to those of Christian pacifists.

Shortly after, in 1995 I found myself the Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields.

St Martin (316-397, i.e. after the conversion of Constantine) had been a Roman soldier in the earl-to-mid Fourth Century. He was baptised towards the end of his service as at a time when his duties were probably limited to those of caring for the sick and wounded. As a Christian he became first a solitary, but one who attracted others; then Bishop of Tours from 372-397. He is the first to become a saint for the way he lived, a Confessor, rather than for the way he died, a martyr. He is the patron saint of soldiers and pacifists.

St Martin-in-the-Fields is similarly paradoxical. Named after one of the patron saints of France it is the principal historic building in the Square created to commemorate the greatest British Naval victory over the French. It is the parish church of the Admiralty and the Ministry of Defence and it is associated with the founding of the Peace Pledge Union in the 1930s, the main Pacifist organisation in Britain.

11th November, Armistice Day, is St Martin’s Day. There is a significant opportunity of working within both traditions recognising that the primary Christian vocation is to love God and love our neighbour as ourselves in the manner of Jesus Christ.

Contemporary Reflections on War and Peace

The application of both the just war and pacifist traditions calls for a high level of rationality, and corporate and personal discipline, in the handling of conflicts, when feelings are likely to be running high.

There have always been difficulties in applying the principles of the just war tradition. Nevertheless, I want to suggest that the both traditions continue to serve us well though there are significant difficulties with the application of each.

By what authority?

The global nature of conflict is such that it is no longer as simple as one state declaring war on another. Think back to the eve of the Falklands War, and the eve of the second Iraq War: the arguments were about whether there was sufficient agreement about the decision to go to war having legitimate authority. In the case of Iraq there are still circles in which this is still hotly debated.

A relatively simple case in which to apply the Just War tradition might be what happened in Gaza this summer. In some ways it is as clear as it gets. What took place was both indiscriminate and out of all proportion to any good that might come from the conflict. About 2,150 Gazans were killed (including 513 children).  c. 11,000 were wounded. It is estimated that 520,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip (approximately 30% of its population) were displaced, of whom 485,000 needed emergency food assistance and 273,000 were taking shelter in 90 UN-run schools. 17,200 Gazan homes were totally destroyed or severely damaged, and 37,650 homes suffered damage but were still inhabitable.

For Israel, 66 Israeli soldiers, 5 Israeli civilians (including one child) were killed and 469 soldiers and 261 civilians were injured. In Israel, an estimated 5,000 to 8,000 citizens temporarily fled their homes due to the threat of rocket and mortar attacks.

Israel would say the threat of violence being organised from Gaza meant it was better they were acted hard and fast. They say they also live with the constant threat that the Arab world will combine and drive them into the sea is so great that they must take such terrible action against Gaza to protect themselves. The nature of warfare has changed and the armed Palestinian supporters of Hamas lodged themselves with civilians as part of their strategy to make it more difficult for Israel to come after them and get them. 

Asymmetric conflict

If we do not feel very sympathetic to Israel, we might wonder about the difficulties of applying the just war tradition to cases of terrorism in which people have deliberately stepped beyond the legal framework of conducting war and handling conflict according to the rules. You don’t need to have known many people who have been killed by terrorism to find it difficult to hold on to even a notional relationship with the terrorists. When people put themselves beyond the pale it is easy to demonise them but even when we disagree profoundly we still have to listen carefully to what difficult and dangerous people are saying.

In these very different world views, who is to decide and what are the consequences? It has to be the UN or international law courts but both look constrained. Consequently, countries continue to exercise power in their own interests. The US continues to fund Israel and Arab states have agreed financial support for the re-building of Gaza.

The insurgent does not play by the Geneva conventions or fight by the conventional rules the rules of war. He wishes to wear his opponent down by continually attacking the weak points of the stronger enemy. For democracies, where life is precious, war weariness can lead to the withdrawal of the stronger army. The cost of counter-insurgency can also be a factor. The Soviet Union was never defeated by the Taliban. They just became not worth the effort. Where asymmetric conflicts have been won by the stronger side it is not through terror but usually the peace by development and making life better for the people. 

Military Intervention

The Rwandan genocide of nearly one million in 1994 and the genocide at Srebrenica of 8,000 Bosniaks, Muslim men and boys, in 1995 were turning points. It is not right to intervene in the sovereign territory of another state but nor is it right to do nothing in the face of such atrocities. In the Just War tradition, as a last resort it would be right to intervene to prevent slaughter on such a scale.

It is extremely difficult to develop general principles for this. Most think the British military involvement in Kosovo and Sierre Leone was a success, prevented deaths and established a peaceable order that allowed good to prosper. What about Libya and how do things stand in Libya now?  Why Libya and not Zimbabwe at the height of Mugabe’s terror?

By what authority would we intervene in the sovereign territory of another state and what would it be for such engagements to be successful?

Other difficulties


We rely on good intelligence and on that basis went to war in Iraq in 2003 despite considerable opposition in this country. We were told that intelligence showed they had weapons of mass destruction that were a real and credible threat.  That was wrong and the war in Iraq remained deeply divisive.  That is one of the reasons there is such strong public support for the troops who have carried the cost of this, particularly through injury and shattered lives.

There are inevitable difficulties with secrecy in an open democracy. The impact of the ‘dodgy dossier' on Iraq, recently described as “the worst intelligence failure of modern times”, is that it creates a lack of trust. How are these forces held to account and what happens when we lose trust in them and their decisions.

There is an argument that the gathering of intelligence from terrorists helps prevent terror and justifies torture but the end does not justify the means. In the end, torture causes more terrorism by recruiting more terrorists who will die rather than be captured.

The threat of terrorism means this also impacts domestically. We need the highest possible standards. The impact of misbehaviour, such as recent revelations that police officers formed relationships with women in the groups they had infiltrated, has a significant impact on our trust of those in authority, including the military. That is why the values and standards of the British military are of such importance: courage, discipline, loyalty, integrity, respect for others and selfless commitment. 

The Arms Trade

Global military expenditure declined through the late 80s until the end of the century but since 1998 it has risen sharply to $1.7 trillion. This ought to concern us more than it does.

The US remains by far the biggest military spender, with a defence budget of $711bn last year. Britain is the 4th largest in spending $62.7bn.

We need to engage in a radical shift of emphasis to peace-building and arms reduction.

What should we do about ISIS?

The Archbishop of Canterbury has articulated a clear argument for supporting the limited bombardment of ISIS, in a decision that received remarkable support in Parliament.  He was deeply aware of the dangers of blind and pointless conflicts

“Strategy must be global. The emergence of ISIS has been a wake-up call. The attacks on religious and ethnic minorities, Christian and others, have been getting rapidly more severe. In many cases where there are such attacks, they come from extremist groups whom courageous Muslim leaders have rejected while often being overwhelmed and unable to hold the line…

“The justification for our use of military force rests principally in the extreme humanitarian need of the local communities. It was striking, during a meeting in early September at Lambeth Palace, to hear an Oriental Christian Orthodox leader refer with admiration to the safe havens for the Kurds of 1991, set up by John Major. The aim of our violence must be to prevent the alteration of facts on the ground, and to establish safe space…

“No one should imagine the solution is obvious. Used only in the Levant and despite the involvement of five Islamic countries in the current US-led coalition, military force is inevitably seen as yet more “crusader” violence and increases support for what it seeks to subvert. 

“Within Christian teaching there is a strong and brave tradition of absolute pacifism. Yet there are calls from Christian leaders in the Middle East for armed help. They seek temporary support while their own governments get their act together. They do not want the Middle East emptied of its Christian populations, essential to its culture, critical in many areas of life and there since before the time of St Paul….”[7]

 Within a framework drawing on both the Just War and Pacifist traditions, the Archbishop created an argument in support of the limited bombing of ISIS. In doing so he identified three additional criteria which international lawyers have begun to develop in the Twenty First Century.

“A war must be legal in terms of the United Nations charter, its goal must be to preserve the framework of values set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it must be of limited duration. All experience of war demonstrates that the longer it lasts the more violent and savage it becomes.”[8] 

The Archbishop created a thoughtful argument with a great deal of care. I also admire the way in which a political will was created internationally and within this country.  I can’t myself support our involvement in the bombing of ISIS. I have listened to some of the military express scepticism about whether the bombing can achieve the political objectives and keep people safe without any intervention of ‘boots on the ground’. Such constrained use of force is unlikely to meet the political objectives, but the constraint is for good reason because any use of military force in the region will continue to bang the recruiting drum for Islamic fundamentalism. You can see the impact of this in London at the moment with the increased security because of the threat of terrorism. The bombing if ISIS is bound to continue that anger fuelled by what the Archbishop said as, “yet more ‘crusader’ violence”. We must find another narrative.

The Archbishop’s conclusion to his article about ‘What should we do about ISIS?’ moves to what is demanding common ground.

“It may be that we cannot avoid some use of force, but that must be done in the context of a greater and more selfless ideal that renews the vision that rebuilt our own continent after the long wars that began in 1914. This struggle is for the heart and the spirit, not only for our security and undisturbed wealth. It is a winnable struggle, but the victory requires us to reshape our values, as much as to overcome those of ISIS. If we respond as we should, if we take this challenge as we should, then the future is a hopeful one for us, and for those areas currently so terribly afflicted.”[9]

What are we to do to ‘re-shape our values’?

Here are a few ideas of what we can do.


Today is Armistice Day and we are in the season of Remembrance. We continue to commemorate the dead of the 1 and 2 WW’s and those who have died in conflict since, “Lest we forget” the horror and cost of war. Remembering the dead from our own communities opens our sensibilities to the horrors of war. We forget that something similar happened to the country in the First World War as people moved from thinking ‘it would be over by Christmas’ to realising the slaughter of our youth on an unprecedented scale: 880, 246, as the poppies at the Tower depict. In the Diocese of Salisbury, there was only one Thankful Village: Langton Herring in Dorset was alone in having all her sons return alive.

This Remembrance always provokes a proper discussion about whether and how to include those who died on the other side - for example, the 1.8 million Germans of the First World War.

So emotionally charged is the matter of remembrance that the Government set up a Committee, which included the Dean of Salisbury, to create the framework for the commemorations of the centenary of the First World War.

It was much more difficult in the immediate aftermath of that War. On Armistice Day in November 1925, a fancy dress ball was planned to take place in the Albert Hall as a tribute to the Great Deliverance of the First World War. A few weeks before, in October, Dick Sheppard, the Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, wrote to The Times declaring this, “not so much irreligious as indecent”. He received strong support. Nevertheless, the dining tables and chairs were actually being laid out before he succeeded in having the ball cancelled and a Service of Remembrance substituted. The King, Queen and Prime Minister accepted invitations to attend. Sheppard promised that the same amount of money or more would go to the charity which would have benefited from the ball. He printed the service sheets and led the congregation of 4,000 in a service that became the basis of the annual Service of Remembrance. Dick later wrote on the cover of his service sheet, “Of course Pacifism must be written into this”. 

When Edith Cavell’s statue was erected in St Martin’s Place, it took Sheppard four years to have added Edith Cavell’s own words, “Patriotism is not enough” which she, of course, continued, “I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone” in keeping with our Lord’s command to love our enemy.

The importance of Remembrance for us is “Lest we forget” the cost of war and the value of each individual. It also provokes our commitment to live peaceably which is so much more than the absence of war. 

Peace making

“Blessed are the peace makers”, said Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. It is the Christian vocation to make peace. There is no peace without justice and Christians will want to work for this in every conceivable way. I think this is what the Archbishop meant in challenging us to “re-shape our values”. To do this practically, for example, Christians will want our politicians to hold to the commitment of 0.7% of GDP on Development.

Quite a lot of military activity is understood nowadays as ‘peace-keeping’, creating a peaceful order through the absence of conflict. In this it is possible for God’s deeper peace to grow and people thrive. God’s peace is that sort of fulfilment which is life in all its fullness. There are images in Scripture of people being healed and living peacefully with one another and all creation, of the lion dwelling with the lamb in Isaiah, and all nations. It is an altogether richer concept which includes making peace with our neighbour, and the neighbour is without limit.


In the Second World War some Christians in this country, such as Bishop George Bell, took enormous trouble to keep in touch with the German Church. Contemporary examples of people doing likewise in this country include the travel writer William Dalrymple who makes the point that there have been times with a different and more positive narrative between Jews, Christians and Muslims than we have at present.[10] Neil MacGregor and the British Museum have engaged in some astonishing cultural diplomacy as for example when the British Museum lent the Cyrus Cylinder to Tehran for an exhibition which attracted 2 million visitors, or the Museum’s own exhibition on the Haj.

Canon Andrew White, the Vicar of Baghdad, has done a courageous job supporting Christians in Iraq by his presence.

In some ways this has been added to the Just War theory as Jus in Pace. We allowed a government to arise in Iraq after Saddam which, though it was elected by the Shia majority allowed no say of the substantial Sunni minority in Iraq’s affairs. This led to many Sunni tribal leaders giving support to ISIS, not because they were religious extremists but because they had been emasculated by the Baghdad government. The government in Baghdad has changed but how does it build trust?

When Jesus taught us to love our neighbour as ourselves, he defined neighbour without limit. We must love even our enemies. If the pressures of our world are to reduce our horizons and turn in, we need to keep the big picture in such a way as to find what it is to be people who are confident to be English, British, European and global citizens.

Spirituality and Prayer

Last week the Jesuit Fr Gerry W Hughes died in Bournemouth. He was one of the great spiritual guides of our generation. His best known book ‘God of Surprises’ sold over 250,000 copies. In his last book, he said:

“We are in a severe crisis today, not just of the church, but of the whole human race. We have seen wonderful technical development, but we have become unhinged. We have lost the link between the words we use and what we actually do. It’s a most vicious illness: it faces us with annihilation.”[11]

You can see this in the way we have fought for freedom and the rule of law and been unable to deal with terrorism by the values we espouse. Guantanamo Bay still holds 148 detainees. They may be difficult, but they have not been dealt with justly.

This is a very significant challenge in a cathedral where next June we will be marking the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta about which His Honour Judge Keith Cutler says, “The important thrust of Magna Carta is to establish that we are all subject to law, that justice must be accessible to all and that all are entitled to a fair trial.”[12]

Spirituality is what helps us towards that integration of self in which who we are and what we do are one. It is an individual and a corporate matter.

Jesus taught us to pray for what we want presumably so that what we want increasingly becomes what God wants for us. Prayer and action go together in seeking God’s peaceable kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

This is an imaginative and creative exercise intended to help us become more like Christ, or perhaps more aware of our need of Christ. Prayer is not to defend us as people who are self-righteous but to open us as people who know their need of God. That becomes the basis for re-making our relationships with God and one another.

In Conclusion

Some Pacifist and Just War traditions are in effect quite close to each other at the moment. This is because the threshold of war is, and ought to be, high because the consequences are so great.

The application of the Just War tradition is complex and a matter of careful judgement. Actually it has never been simple. It contains great wisdom that will help us act more justly in our present difficult circumstances. 

The Just War tradition is a way of keeping us to our core values so that what we seek to protect does not get obliterated in the pressure and anxiety of conflict.

Above all what we ought to be seeking in our world is a just peace. My practical examples were to do with the arms trade, expenditure on which has growing since the late 1990s, and development funding which will come under increased political pressure in a time of prolonged austerity. We must make international friendships, resist turning inwards and remain global and outward looking. The deep issue is of values and spirituality, what the Archbishop calls “a re-shaping of our own values”. That is a very significant challenge to ourselves.

[1] Roland                 The teaching of non-resistance inthe Sermon on the Mount, Mt 5.38-48Bainton, Christian Attitudes to war and Peace, Hodder and Stoughton, 1961.

[2] Jenny Teichman, Pacifism and the Just War, Oxford: Blackwell, 1986, p. 62

[3] Ibid., p.10

[4] Eusebius,  Ecclesiastical History v.4.3-5.7

[5] George W  Forrell, History of Christian Ethics, vol 1 From the New Testament to Augustine, Minneapolis: Augsburg,  1979, p.94

[6] John Ferguson, op. cit., p.63

[7] Justin Welby, “What should we do about ISIS?”, Prospect Magazine, 15th October 2014

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10]  William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain: A journey inthe shadow of Byzantium, Harper, 1995.

[11]  Gerard W Hughes, Cry of Wonder, London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2014.

[12] Keith Cutler in Sarah Rickett, Magna Carta: Charter of Liberties – an educational resource for 11-14 year olds, Salisbury Cathedral, 2012.

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