a public lecture in Durham Cathedral, 7.30 pm, 9 November 2006
by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright
We live at a remarkable moment in western history and culture. The old certainties and stabilities have been swept away; questions we thought we’d avoided have come back to haunt us. The extraordinary events of this week – the condemnation of Saddam Hussein, and the massive swing in the American elections against the policies that have driven the so-called ‘war on terror’ for the last five years – have added more twists to the tale, making us ask not just ‘where is God?’, but ‘where are we?’ How can we understand our strange, exciting and worrying times? And how might we think wisely about where, if anywhere, a being called ‘God’ might fit into the picture? That is the urgent set of questions I invite you to consider with me this evening.
Like all complex questions, the best way to begin is to break things down into their component parts. In the first section of the lecture I shall set out the elements of the puzzle and try to explain how a little of how they interact with one another. Then in the second section I shall ask what we might mean by the word ‘God’ itself, and explore the options within the Christian tradition for understanding God’s presence and action within the world. Then, thirdly, I shall put the two together and search, not so much for an explanation of what is happening, but for an agenda for moving forward in faith and action within the world. Some of you here tonight may find yourselves, before very long, in positions where you can actually change things. It’s important at a time like this to take nothing for granted, to think things through again from first principles, and to determine to act with wisdom and courage.
1. The Present Dilemmas
The cry ‘where is God?’ echoed through the last century, from the trenches of the first world war to the carpet bombing of the second, through the Gulag and Auschwitz, through the killing fields of Cambodia and Rwanda and in a million smaller disasters which show, if any demonstration were needed, that the much-vaunted European Enlightenment of two centuries ago is still a long way from producing liberty, equality and fraternity. Now, with our present century only a few years old, we’ve already amassed a similar tally, with a similar question. Where was God on September 11th 2001? (I note, by the way, that today is, in our terms, 9/11; absit omen.) Where was God in Beslan (the question which John Humphries claims has made it impossible for him to believe in God)? Where was God in Lebanon a few months ago, and where is God today in the Gaza strip? Where is God in this week’s elections in America, let alone on death row in Baghdad?
We face these questions at the same time as we have faced, in recent weeks, an unprecedented series of religious issues in our national life. Should Muslim women wear the full hijab, or should they conform to western dress styles? Should Christians, or anybody else, wear crosses in public? Should there be such things as ‘faith schools’, and if so how should they be regulated? If someone had speculated, ten let alone twenty years ago, that these things would be among the main headline-grabbers in 2006, we would have laughed; but suddenly all this is back on the public agenda with a bang. It is as though the secularists of the 60s and 70s, having imagined that religion was in its death throes and that by the end of the century it would have disappeared altogether, are dismayed and angry that this hasn’t happened, and are gathering their energies for a new battle against the very idea of religion, against the very rumour of God. How else can you explain the enormous popularity of the new book by Richard Dawkins, who I last met, ironically enough, on this very spot when he was getting an honorary degree eighteen months ago? How else can you explain the sneering and sniping at the Archbishop of Canterbury when he returned from China a couple of weeks ago and pointed out that, whereas China is now looking for meaning and spiritual values after two generations of enforced secularisation, we in Western Europe seem bent on replacing our rich cultural and religious heritage with a new, flat-earth secularism?
I was talking yesterday to a leading journalist who suggested one particular analysis of this phenomenon. He reckoned that many now fear that multiculturalism has gone too far, and that it may lead to social and cultural chaos. But because you’re not supposed to say this, they are lashing out instead at ‘religion’, as though it were the real culprit. People have of course done that on and off for some time, since a good many of the world’s trouble spots have an inalienable religious dimension, whether it’s Northern Ireland or the Balkans, Darfur or the North West Frontier, not to mention the Middle East. This argument now regularly goes round in circles, since some of last century’s greatest atrocities, notably the Gulag and the Holocaust, stood in the ignoble tradition of the French Revolution itself, killing for reasons of militant atheism. In other words, yes, religions can become dangerous ideologies; but so can irreligions. Our politicians and media have resolutely refused to acknowledge that there is a religious dimension to all human life, let alone that it’s possible to study how this works, to distinguish healthy religion from harmful religion, and to work for a creative synthesis of faith and public life. There is a world of difference between an open and generous secular world where people of every point of view are free to find fresh ways of living and working together, and a secularist world which does its best to banish the rumour of God from the public square altogether. This is a lesson, incidentally, that any university worth the name has to learn again and again. We’ve got to address this in our wider public life; the more practice you get in this microcosm the better.
Anyway, all of these remarkable and in some ways unprecedented questions set a context which makes it simultaneously more urgent and more difficult to unravel the various threads which go to make up the problem of God and the War on Terror. Let me now try to lay out some of these threads and suggest how they are getting tangled up, before moving to some positive proposals in the second and third parts of this lecture. There are dozens of strands to this; I here briefly highlight only five.
(i) To begin with, there is the problem of understanding where we are in the western world and culture as a whole. The convenient broad-brush labels of ‘modernity’ and ‘postmodernity’, which refer more to two different moods and controlling narratives than two chronologically dateable periods of cultural history, point towards one kind of mapping exercise in politics as well as culture. The self-perception of the western world two hundred years ago was that we were the enlightened ones; our science, technology, philosophy and democracy had moved us to a point where we had not just the possibility but the obligation to spread our freedom, justice and peace as far as our imperial ambitions could take us, extracting of course the usual financial price, backed up with the usual military force. As a Roman historian, I have a sense of déjà vû at this point: this is precisely how the Romans argued as they spread their empire from Britain to the Black Sea and beyond. All empires claim that they possess justice, freedom and peace and that they have a duty to share these things with everybody else. And part of our current problem is that though the postmodern turn in philosophy and culture has sneered at this great imperial dream, it hasn’t been able to shake it. Indeed, empires characteristically use the weapons of deconstruction to ward off challenges, as Downing Street allowed documents to be massaged and spun this way and that in its efforts to persuade us that the war on terror, and the war on Iraq, were morally justified. Thus both with modernity and with postmodernity we have lost our moral bearings in our dealings with the world, and it’s not surprising that we find ourselves flailing around and unsure why things are still going wrong, let alone what to do about them. In particular, current terrorism is a deeply postmodern phenomenon, but we’re using the thoroughly modernist weapons of normal military might to counter it. No wonder we’re not getting very far.
Furthermore, as I argued in the first chapter of Evil and the Justice of God, the leaders of the western world have adopted an incredibly naive and shallow analysis of the problem of evil itself. They act as if they’d assumed that the world’s problems were basically solved, that all we needed was a bit more free trade and parliamentary-style democracy, and then any remaining pockets of evil would wither away. So the reaction to 9/11 was astonishingly immature: ‘Goodness, there seems to be some serious evil out there after all! What on earth shall we do? I know – let’s go and drop some bombs on it, that’ll sort it out!’ Well, the American people have finally said, this very week, what lots of us were saying back in 2002: that was not and is not the way to deal with things. Evil is more radical and powerful than that; and, what’s more, the line between good and evil doesn’t lie between ‘us’ and ‘them’, but runs as a jagged line through each human being and each human society. We – and I include the churches on both sides of the Atlantic – have often colluded with a spurious and inadequate analysis of what’s wrong in the world and what can be done about it. That’s the first strand in our problem.
(ii) The second strand is closely related. In our idolization of modern secular democracy we have imagined that, provided our leaders attain power by a popular vote, that’s all that matters, and that the only possible critique is to vote them out again next time round. The early Christians, and their Jewish contemporaries, weren’t particularly concerned with how people in power came to be in power; they were extremely concerned with speaking the truth to power, with calling the principalities and powers to account and reminding them that they hold power as a trust from the God who made the world and before whom they must stand to explain themselves. It is heavily ironic that, in the week which has seen a tyrant with rivers of blood on his hands condemned for the abuse of power, we have also seen the architects of a bloody, ill-thought-out and reckless war rebuked at the polls – but with the result that one of them has decided merely to return from lucrative government to lucrative business.
But the urgent political question we face has to do with global structures of governance and policing. The United Nations is a creaky organisation, partly because some worry about its becoming strong enough to hold them, too, to account. Yet the war on terror, and Iraq, has demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that America and Britain simply do not and cannot constitute a credible global police force. Why, for a start, aren’t we tackling North Korea, or Zimbabwe, as well? As long as we can be portrayed as the ‘Christian’ west attacking the ‘Muslim’ Middle East, everything we do is bound to be counter-productive. Not to realise this – and the architects of the present War on Terror have studiously ignored it – is culpable self-willed ignorance. This second strand, then, is a confusion about what healthy democracy itself might look like.
(iii) Third, there is the rise of contemporary Islam. Islam has been an enormous force for civilization in the world – including the preservation of some of the world’s greatest philosophical and cultural texts. We shouldn’t forget that for many centuries in many countries Muslims have lived alongside Jews and Christians in peace, social harmony, and mutual respect and even affection. The great majority of Muslims in this country today want that and believe that their religion commits them to it. Sadly, a minority around the world, for more complex reasons than most western commentators allow, has reacted furiously to events in the Middle East, as much to the alliance of the Saudi rulers with America as to the situation in Israel and Palestine. As the terrorist activities of a very small number have grown in importance, the western powers have played into their hands by reacting, as I’ve said, in immature and counter-productive ways. Every bomb dropped has proved to be another Al-Qaeda recruiting agent, just as several of us were saying four years ago. And the efforts of many to build bridges between communities, and to rediscover what it is that mainstream Muslims believe and why, has been far too little and far too late. One of the comi-tragic sights of the last few years has been politicians jetting around the world reading the Koran to try to find out what was going on. And to react, as the BNP has now done, by declaring Islam to be a wicked and violent religion, of course simply makes matters worse. This is not to say, of course, that Islam and Christianity are basically the same. They are not. But to sketch out or even highlight those differences is not to say that we must come to blows. Rather, it is to say that we must find ways to live together in the same communities despite those differences.
(iv) Fourth, there is the problem of violence itself, and of war itself. Western culture has oscillated between the high moral tone of pacifism and the self-righteous anger which decides that these enemies are so wicked that they must be bombed. We sometimes appeal to the old ‘just war’ theory, but usually to support decisions reached on other grounds, often nakedly pragmatic. I don’t hear, in our public discourse, much evidence that our leaders have reflected at any depth on whether, and if so when, some force is necessary, and how that force should be organised, applied and regulated. Until that kind of discussion at least begins, all questions of war, let alone a war against terror, merely bounce to and fro around the hollow space where there should be a reasoning public mind and where, instead, we have the stale alternatives of political correctness and political expediency.
As a subset of this fourth problem, I draw attention to the fact that the very notion of a ‘war on terror’ strikes a false note. It wasn’t, of course, invented by Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld; Bill Clinton and other earlier presidents used similar language, and the western powers have engaged in military action against terrorists and those who harbour them long before September 11. But the oddity of the notion itself, and the illogicality of actions which were bound to encourage terrorism rather than quieten it down, should tell us we’re in a moral mess. Rather than think things out properly, we have relied on the same methods as we used in the nineteenth century: if in doubt, send in the gunboats and teach Johnny Foreigner a lesson he won’t forget. The only way to fight terror is by working for mutual understanding and respect – winning hearts and minds, often said but not often done. Throwing stones at a wasp’s nest because one wasp has come out and stung you is not the best way of addressing, let alone solving, the problem.
In particular, alas, many in the West still suppose implicitly that violence can be redemptive. The ‘Superman’ myth, or the ‘Captain America’ complex, has been shown to underlie the implicit narratives, of generation after generation of American leaders, generating the belief that the hero must use redemptive violence to restore the town, the country, the world to its proper state. Unless we address this, peace will remain a romantic dream while the world – the world in which you will bring up your families – becomes increasingly dangerous.
(v) The fifth and most important problem, which points on to the second part of this lecture, is that we have all forgotten how to talk about God in public. Over the last two centuries it has been regarded increasingly as a category mistake. God and public life have been kept separate, both by devout Christians who supposed that mixing faith and politics would corrupt faith, and by devout secularists who supposed that mixing them would corrupt politics. You can’t keep this dualism up for long, especially in times of crisis; but, unless you think it through, the two will rush back together in unhealthy combinations. During the Cold War, many Americans believed that God had raised up their country to be a bastion against atheistic communism. Behind today’s ‘war on terror’ is the lineal descendant of that warped and dangerous idea, with Islam taking the place of communism – an idea embraced all the more eagerly because some Islamic nations just happen to possess oil. This in turn has given extra impetus to the belief, powerful in America for other reasons, that the present State of Israel is the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, so that Israel must be supported right or wrong, a doctrine as dangerous in terms of politics as it is unwarranted in terms of biblical exegesis.
It is ironic that, in this country, those who have brought God back into politics have tended to be on the left of the spectrum, while those who’ve done it in America have tended to be in the new Christian right. In this country, grumpy letters telling clergy not to meddle in politics come from retired colonels in Tunbridge Wells; in America, from semi-Marxist anti-globalization protesters. All too often we simply see a Christian overlay on top of social, cultural and political agendas generated from elsewhere. It’s not easy to avoid this trap entirely, but we are all called to try.
So where is God in the middle of all this? Opinion on that question has been divided between two viewpoints, more or less equally misguided.
On the one hand, some have insisted that God has little or nothing to do with politics, since God is much more interested in saving souls for a disembodied eternity than with political problems on this earth. People often remind me that Jesus said his kingdom was ‘not of this world’. Actually, though, what Jesus said was that his kingdom was not from this world; the kingship Jesus brings does not originate with the world the way it presently is, but is certainly intended by God for this world – otherwise why do we pray, in the Lord’s Prayer, that God’s kingdom will come on earth as in heaven? The type of conservative Christianity represented by this viewpoint has, in my view and in Paul’s words, a zeal for God which is not according to knowledge, being ignorant of God’s justice and seeking merely to establish its own (Romans 10.3). In this view, God and the world are to be held at arm’s length, and true Christianity consists in escaping from this world into a personal and private spirituality for now and an otherworldly salvation in the future.
On the other hand, many go to war, including the present ‘war on terror’, insisting that God is on their side. This is said less frequently in America than it was two or three years ago, and it hasn’t of course been said by our leaders here; but it has been a common strand in many wars and many places. Against this we cite another well-known biblical text, that human wrath does not bring about God’s justice.
Where then is God in our world, in our wars, in our weeping? I turn with some trepidation to the second part of this lecture, trying to sketch at least the beginnings of an answer.
2. Speaking of God, Speaking of the World
The question, How to speak of God in the same breath as the War on Terror, is of course a subset of the question, How to speak of God at all, and, more particularly, How to speak of God in relation to the world as a whole.
Many otherwise intelligent and well-read people in our culture assume that there are only two possible answers (other than atheism, which denies that there is a question to be addressed, agnosticism, which denies that we can say anything much about it, and pantheism, in which God and the world are more or less the same thing). Most people in our culture still assume that the word ‘God’ is more or less univocal, referring to a being located at some distance from our space-time universe, and that the options are either that this God keeps his distance and doesn’t ‘intervene’ within the world or that this God does sometimes reach in to the world from the outside and do things which can be called ‘intervention’.
Many Christians believe themselves committed to the second view, because otherwise it looks as though they’ve got an absent God, and because they wouldn’t be able to explain things like the Resurrection – not to mention their strong sense that God has ‘intervened’ in their own lives, with rescue, healing, transformation, and challenge. But many people today, including many Christians, are deeply uncomfortable with this model of ‘intervention’. If God ‘intervenes’ to cure someone’s cancer, or to raise Jesus from the dead, why didn’t he ‘intervene’ to stop the Holocaust, or the road accident?
This puzzle of how to speak about God’s relation to the world, and these regular alternative answers – either God never intervenes in the world, looking on impotently while we make a mess of things, or he sometimes does, in which case we want to know why he doesn’t do it more often – plays out in the debate about God and the War on Terror. Either God is keeping his distance, and attempts to invoke him either on the side of Islamist terror or American counter-terror are simply a category mistake. Or God does sometimes intervene, and the question is then more complicated: is he on one side rather than the other? Is he with the terrorists, or with the victims of terror? Is he with the aggressors, or the thousands of innocent victims of western aggression? Or should he be ‘intervening’ in some other way, to rebuke both sides and stop the madness, and if so how?
At its best, the Christian tradition has rejected this either/or model and has proposed something significantly different. From the very beginning Christians have said that while we don’t know all that much about God in Godself, we discover who God is and what he is up to in the world as we look at Jesus of Nazareth. Of course, that can seem to compound the problem, because if you put Jesus into the falsely polarized either/or I just spoke of you will end up saying either that Jesus was just a good man, or that he was a kind of invader from outside. But the early Christian writings suggest a different approach. They insisted that Jesus was just as much fully a human being as he was fully divine. Everything about him, his words, his deeds, his self-awareness so far as we can probe it historically, indicates that he saw himself not as an isolated individual out of the blue, but as the one who completed and fulfilled a long and winding story, of how the creator God had decided to heal his wounded creation, to rescue his rebel subjects, not by simply acting upon it and them from the outside, nor by hoping the world would sort itself out without his help, but by acting from within the world to put the world to rights at the last. The story of Israel, set out graphically and often tragically in the Old Testament, presents itself as this kind of story, and, pondering it, we begin to see why.
If it is true that there is a good God who was responsible for making the world in the first place, it would be a denial of his own character if, in order to rescue the world from its threatened lapse into chaos, he acted upon it in such a way as to deny the goodness, the order and the structure, of the world itself. Rather, relying on one of the good features of the original creation itself, the fact that human beings were made in God’s own image, called to reflect him within the world, God called a family of human beings through whom, even though they themselves were part of the problem, he would eventually act in such a way as to restore and heal his world. It was this family, the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, whose story Jesus of Nazareth believed himself to be bringing to completion.
At the same time, Jesus seems to have believed, and his earliest followers explored this enthusiastically, that precisely because the story of Israel, and its coming to its God-ordained climax, was the divinely intended way of putting the world to rights, this plan turned out to be a plan, so to speak, designed for God’s own use – as though a composer were to write a violin concerto knowing that he and he alone would be able to play the solo part, and that it would exactly express his own deepest musical wisdom. It is this double sense, of Jesus as the climax of the story of Israel and therefore also as the climax of the story of God, that goes to the heart of what Jesus himself believed and what his first followers struggled to put into words. This is how we can say, without lapsing into the language either of intervention-from-outside or or non-intervention-from-outside, that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine.
But Jesus didn’t come as it were merely to display what God looked like in human form. He came with a job to do, to complete the work to which Israel was called. This work, from the call of Abraham onwards, was to put the human race to rights, and so to put the whole creation to rights. As St Paul put it: God was in the Messiah, reconciling the world to himself. As the gospel writers tell the story, this task was to be accomplished, not simply by revealing to the world who God really was, still less by offering an example of how human beings really ought to live. It was to be accomplished by Jesus bringing about, within this present world, the sovereign, healing rule of the creator God. Jesus was addressing the question, ‘What might it look like if God was running this show?’ And answering, ‘This is what it looks like: just watch.’ And then, ‘just listen’. In what he did, and in the stories he told to explain what he was doing, Jesus was announcing and inaugurating what he and his contemporaries referred to as ‘the kingdom of God’, the long-awaited hope that the creator God would run the whole show, on earth as in heaven.
But the problem was, and still is, that other people were and still are running the show. Other kingdoms, other power structures, have usurped the rule of the world’s wise creator, and the forces of evil they have unleashed are exceedingly powerful and destructive. Jesus’ task of inaugurating God’s kingdom therefore necessarily led him to meet those other forces in direct combat, to draw upon himself their full, dark fury so as to exhaust their power and make a way through to launch the creator’s project of new creation despite them. That is one clue at least to the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion, though that event, planting the sign of God’s kingdom in the middle of space, time and matter, remains inexhaustible. But let’s be clear. As the gospels tell the story, Jesus’ death was the culmination of several different strands: a political process, a religious clash, a spiritual war, all rushing together into one terrible day, one terrible death. And in the light of that, according to Jesus himself and his first followers, everything in the world looks different, is different, must be approached differently. With Jesus’ death, the power structures of the world were called to account; with his resurrection, a new life, a new power, was unleashed upon the world. And the question is, how ought this to work out? What should we be doing as a result?
But I hope you can see how the presence of Jesus in the middle of the question of God and the world gives that question a quite different shape. It isn’t a question of either God keeping his distance from the world from which he’s absent or deciding from time to time to ‘intervene’ from outside. It is, rather, a matter of God being both utterly outside and beyond the world and personally present and active within it. And that activity isn’t a matter of Jesus as it were striding around doing impossible things to prove how divine he was. Rather, Jesus’ powerful actions are all about the breaking in of new creation into the world of the old – a new creation in which the creator’s original intention is fulfilled, through signs which point forward to the day when God will eventually make all things new, put all things to rights, and wipe away all tears from all eyes. Put the fact of Jesus into the middle of your picture of God and the world and ask the key questions, the hard questions, afresh in that light.
As you do that, you will discover one thing in particular. The God who comes to the middle of world history in Jesus does not come to wave a magic wand and automatically cure everything in sight. The God who comes to the middle of history comes to take its pain and shame, its guilt and rebellion, on to himself, to bear the weight of the world’s evil so that the world may be healed. This is not an incidental detail in the picture; it is what gives significance and shape to the whole. It means that whenever we ask the question of where God is in the world – whether in the world in general, or in the Tsunami or the Holocaust or the War on Terror, we should look first for God where the night is darkest and the pain is worst, not in the blaze of glory and the blast of trumpets but in the cry of the baby and the scream of the tortured. And that will colour our reflections from this point on.
But before we can turn to the third and final section of this lecture, let me reflect on the earliest Christian sense of vocation. Jesus’ first followers believed that they were called to put into effect what he had achieved in principle; that, if you like, they were to go out and act the play he had written, to sing the song he had composed. He had achieved the victory of the creator God over the forces that were destroying and distorting creation; he had launched God’s project of new creation. Now they had to go into a world still dominated by the anti-creation powers, and in the power of Jesus’ Spirit to make new creation happen. All Christian thinking about God and the world, therefore, must include not only Jesus himself, bearing the world’s pain and launching the world’s renewal, but also the promise of God’s Spirit, active in the world both through Jesus’ followers and out beyond them. The God-and-world question, in other words, needs to be rephrased in terms of the Trinity; and indeed to realise this is to realise that the Trinity, so far from being a dry and dusty dogma that nobody understands, is at the heart of the fresh understanding of God and the world we so badly need today.
With all this in mind, then, I turn back to the question of God and the War on Terror. What happens when we rethink the question in the light of a trinitarian understanding of God and the world?
3. God, the Powers, and the War
To begin with, let me map out as simply as possible what Christianity and indeed Judaism has regularly (not always, but usually) thought and taught about political power. There are four moves to be made, in this rough sketch of a Christian political theology.
First, the creator God wants the world to be ordered, not chaotic. And the order in question is to be a human order: that is to say, God intends that there should be structures of government. God does not want anarchy. Just as God intends the world of plants and crops to work under human management, so God intends that human societies should be wisely ordered under human stewardship. This pattern, of delegated authority if you like, corresponds to the pattern of God’s action in and through Jesus Christ. That is what Paul says in Colossians 1. The alternative, that you either have anarchy or theocracy, has given us our present fixation on what we think of as left-wing and right-wing political leanings; if we could only understand how these have grown up within that false theological antithesis I spoke of earlier, we might be able ourselves to grow up beyond the sterile to-and-fro our our present western political life. But that’s another story.
But, second, if God intends that there should be power structures, that humans should find ways of running their world and bringing it to wise order, this call to power translates all too easily, within a world in rebellion, into a temptation to the abuse of power. As soon as you make someone a steward of creation (a member of parliament, a monarch, a town councillor, or even a bishop!), you challenge them to navigate past the temptation to use that power for their own advantage, to become, in other words, part of the problem to which they are supposed to be part of the solution. God wants his rebel world to be ordered, to be under authorities and governments, because otherwise the bullies and the arrogant will always prey on the weak and the helpless; but all authorities and governments face the temptation to become bullies and arrogant themselves. The New Testament writers, like other Jews at the time, saw this writ large in the Roman empire of their day. Those with eyes to see can see it writ if anything even larger in other subsequent empires, right down to our own day.
Third, therefore, it is part of the inalienable task of God’s people, of those who worship the creator God, whom we see in Jesus and know through the Spirit, to speak the truth to power: to remind governments, local councillors, authorities in every sphere, including church leaders, of their calling to selfless stewardship, and to point out fearlessly where this trust is being abused in whatever way. Once more, God is not nearly so interested in how rulers get to be rulers as he is in how they behave as rulers, and in the vital task of reminding them of their proper vocation and of calling them to account.
But, fourthly and in particular, it is the task of the followers of Jesus to remind those called to authority, in whatever sphere, that the God who made the world intends to put the world to rights at last, and to call the authorities to acts of justice and mercy which will anticipate, in the present time, God’s final setting of all things to rights, God’s wiping away of every tear from every eye. This calling – which many authorities and rulers dimly recognise, though many alas glimpse it and turn away to more seductive options – is, whether the authorities recognise it or not, the call to live under the lordship of the Jesus Christ, who in his death and resurrection claims that sovereignty over them: the call to implement the victory he won over evil, over hatred, over violence and death itself, and thereby toanticipate in the present time, always partially and fitfully but none the less truly, the eventual victory of God’s loving, restorative justice. The doing of justice and mercy in the present time by those called to power locally, nationally and globally is thus to be seen within the framework of the historical victory of Jesus in his death and resurrection and of the future, coming, final victory of God over all evil, all violence, all arrogant abuse of power. And where the world’s rulers and authorities genuinely strive for that end – to implement the victory of Jesus, to ancitipate the final victory of God – the Christian church declares, as the ancient Jews did with the pagan king Cyrus, that God’s spirit is at work whether the authorities know it or not.
We have thus arrived at a preliminary answer to the question, Where is God in the power politics of the world? God is present, calling rulers and authorities to account, and acting through them to anticipate the day when his justice and mercy will be seen in all the earth, when the earth shall be filled with his glory as the waters cover the sea. Within this framework, what can we say, what should we say, about God and the War on Terror?
I hope you can see this at least clearly: that it isn’t a case of saying either that God is absent, at best looking on from a great distance, or that God is present, simply fighting on one side or the other. If we are to think Christianly – and I recognise that for many of you here tonight that may be an open question, but you should at least see how a Christian might be supposed to think – then we must think according to the pattern of Jesus Christ. And that means that the first place we should look for God in the War on Terror would be in the smouldering ruins of the Twin Towers, in the tears of the widows and children on that terrible day five years ago, and then in the ruins of Baghdad and Basra, the shattered homes and lives of the tens of thousands who have through no fault of their own been in the wrong place at the wrong time as the angry superpower, like a rogue elephant teased by a little dog, has gone on the rampage stamping on everything that moves in the hope of killing the dog by killing everything within reach. The presence of God within the world at a time of war must be calibrated according to what Paul says in Romans 8, that the Spirit groans within God’s people as they groan with the pain of the world. The cross of Jesus Christ is the sign and the assurance that the God who made the world still loves the world and, in that love, groans and grieves:
and when human hearts are breaking
under sorrow’s iron rod,
then they find that self-same aching
deep within the heart of God.
But, though that is the first word in answer to tonight’s question, it is not the last. If my analysis is anything like correct, we should also see God in the calling to account of those who abuse power, in the reminding of the rulers and authorities that they have a task of justice and mercy, anticipating God’s eventual rule and implementing the achievement of Jesus. To that extent, the calling to account that has taken place in America this week, blunt instrument though such elections are, must be reckoned somewhere in the scale. Likewise, the establishment of some kind at least of authority in Baghdad is better than chaos, even though I firmly believe that the death penalty is always a partial denial at least of God’s restorative justice. And insofar as the last five years have constituted a wake-up call to sleepy western Christians to think urgently about issues of global justice and governance, we can see God, I believe, in that new stirring, warning us that we have a task and that we haven’t been doing it too well.
But, in particular, we must face the deeply ambiguous question of the present power and position of America. I have said it before and will say it again: I am not anti-American when I criticise some policies of some American leaders, any more than I am anti-British when I criticise some of the policies of my own elected leaders. To suggest otherwise is simply a cheap way of avoiding the real questions; and when I said similar things to this in America a couple of weeks ago I found a great many Americans eager to agree. I believe that the creator God allows human societies to rise and fall, human empires to grow and wane, and that, though of course things are massively more complicated than this, we could see in the rise of America as the current sole superpower some great possibilities for bringing justice and mercy, genuine freedom and prosperity, to the whole world. Empires always carry that possibility. But, alas, empires always also, for the same reason, face the temptation to use their power for their own prestige and wealth, and it doesn’t take a Ph D in macroeconomics or political theory to see that this has been massively the case in the rise of the present global empire – an empire in which, of course, we share to quite an extent. The challenge now, and one of the central answers to ‘where is God in the War on Terror’, is this: to provide a critique of American empire without implying that the world should collapse into anarchy, and a fresh sense of direction for that empire without colluding with the massive abuses of power which the American people themselves have this week discerned, named and shamed. This leads me to propose two tasks, which are not surprising but which remain urgent: tasks to which, if we give ourselves to them, will in themselves be the best possible answer to the question, Where is God in the War on Terror?
First, we must work from every angle either to enable the United Nations and the International Courts of Justice to function as they should, or to replace them with something else that can do the same job better. The only way we could have done something wise in Iraq would have been for a force, with the energy of the whole international community behind it, composed equally of Norwegians and Nigerians, of Australians and Pakistanis, of Chileans and Japanese and, yes, British and Americans. To continue to resist the making real of such an internationally credible police force, as many on the right in America have done, is more and more obviously a way of saying that now that we’re in power we will use that power utterly for our own advantage, and rule out the possibility that anyone might call us in turn to account. Of course, when China or India becomes the next superpower, we can expect the present superpower to go running for help to any international court that might then exist. But the point is this: it is time to make the transition globally that we in this country made in the 1830s when we moved from local militias to a credible national police force. Of course with any such move there are all the same dangers of the abuse of power. But we already have abuse of power; it is part of the task of the church, in calling present abuse to account, to work for a better structure which could actually deal, with visible credibility, with all kinds of problems around the world. I wish I thought that such a refreshed United Nations was likely to emerge soon. But we must work and pray for something like this to happen. In such work, and in such prayer, God is present to call both the War on Terror, and the Terror itself, to account.
But, second, there is a task which involves us all, at every level. Terrorism arises principally and obviously because individuals and groups sense themselves to be alienated from ordinary process, unable by any imaginable means to effect changes for which they long, locally or globally. The roots of present terrorist movements have been much studied, and they are more complex than politicians and the media often imply. But the way to make sure that the causes of terror are diminished and if possible eliminated altogether is not – of course it is not! – to drop bombs on potential terrorists until they get the point. That is to fight one kind of terror with another, which of course not only keeps terror in circulation but tends to stir up more. The way to eliminate the causes of terror is to seize every opportunity to work together, to talk together, to discover what makes people tick within worldviews quite unlike our own, and in short – as has been said within Iraq, but without much visible effect – to win hearts and minds not necessarily to a Christian worldview, certainly not to a modern secular western worldview, but to a shared worldview of common humanity, incoporating what the great majority of human beings want, genuine justice and genuine peace. Part of the task of the church in this generation is, I believe, to encourage all those who are working in this way, and to remind our politicians and our media that this is the direction we all ought to be travelling.
Where then is God in the War on Terror? Grieving and groaning within the pain and horror of his battered but still beautiful world. Stirring in the hearts of human beings the desire for a more credible structure of global justice and mercy. Burning into the imagination of human beings a hope that peace and reconciliation might eventually win out over suspicion and hatred, that the world may be put to rights and that we may anticipate that in the present time. My friends, we in our generation – and especially those of you in your teens and twenties – face a new world, full of possibilities for great good and great ill. I have argued this evening that the Christian gospel, revealing the mysterious God we discover in Jesus and the Spirit, offers a robust and rigorous framework for discerning where God is at work in the midst of the dangers and opportunities that confront us. All of us in our different callings are summoned to this task; some of you, perhaps, to make it your life’s work. Jesus is Lord. The Spirit is powerful. God is doing a new thing. Let’s get out there and join in.