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Interview: Nick Megoran, lecturer and author on political geography

23 November 2018

‘War may seem inevitable if one has no hope in the risen Christ, but I’m full of hope’

I teach political geography to Newcastle University undergraduates. That’s the study of how we draw all those apparently neat lines on the map to divide the world up between ourselves. It also looks at what happens when those divisions turn violent — and how we can go about reversing that.

As I read scripture, we choose war and violence, although scripture asks us to love; and, when Christ returns, we will live in peace. Violence is sin — it exerts great power to distort us personally and politically, to devastating effect. But that also means that violence isn’t part of our original created state, and it will disappear from history when Christ returns. In the mean time, we can live hopefully and prophetically. We change the world as we do that.

In academia, there’s a great emphasis on positionality, now, largely because of the positive influence of feminism.   I tell my students, “Everyone who lectures you will come with some position, whether Marxist, positivist, or feminist, and so on. Reflect critically on what they say. I follow Jesus, believe that God made the world, and that we are stewards of it. What do you think? What’s the meaning of life? What’s your work in the world?” I get good feedback from my students and colleagues who peer-observe the lectures. Authenticity appeals to people

I first heard of Central Asia — the countries between Russia and Afghanistan, and China and the Caspian Sea, including China’s far-western Xinjiang province, commonly nicknamed “the Stans” — as a child, and have spent years there, on and off, since 1995. Apart from friends, amazing mountains, and ancient cities, I love the intellectual openness that comes from the meeting of Soviet and Muslim and sedentary and nomadic civilisations. Their hospitality stands out. We can learn a lot from Central Asians about welcoming strangers.

I learned Kyrghyz and Uzbek living in families and student dormitories. The Church in Uzbekistan is largely underground. In Kyrgyzstan, there’s more freedom of conscience, and churches are allowed to operate. There’s an established Russian Orthodox Church, Catholic churches, and, since the 1980s, long-standing Baptist churches from the German diaspora who were moved there in the Soviet period; and non-denominational free churches planted by Russians and Westerners.

I’ve written books and articles on Central Asian borders and geopolitics, and on the Church. I’ve written about a group of Christians who walked the crusade route to Jerusalem and met the Head Rabbi and Chief Mufti in July 1999, to give messages of apology. It was a very unusual way for Christians to engage in international politics: walking, being vulnerable, seeking reconciliation, and making apology.

Our Lord’s command to be peacemakers is made concrete by the Church: a transnational body of people uniting former enemies. Unfortunately, too often it’s captured by nationalist passions, and ends up simply “sprinkling holy water on battleships”, as Martin Luther King said. My recent book Warlike Christians is about those competing positions and how to move from the second to the first.

The Church, by its essence, is transnational.
Pentecost! And Acts is the big drama of admitting Gentiles into the Church against resistance. There’s the wonderful moment of Peter defiling himself by going to Cornelius — the occupying enemy — uniting the Jews and Romans who are heading inexorably to war.

Churches who set themselves up as global structures are all too often seduced by the temptations of power and nationalism and just war. That’s when the Church loses its saltiness. The Church is authentic when it’s a transnational body — which doesn’t mean that it’s a global organisation, but that its vision and primary sense of identification is with believers across national and social divides. A global organisational structure won’t guarantee that individual congregations are immune to the lure of nationalism.

Nationalists see territory as almost sacred. Thousands died in Indian-Pakistani warring over the Siachen Glacier, though it’s probably among the least valuable pieces of real estate on the planet, high in the Himalayas.

Monocausal wars are very rare. The Crusades are seen as an example of religious war, but, as one Crusader said, “We came to fight for God and the king and also to get rich.” The religious ideology of Islamic terrorism is also tied to ethnicity and land.

The ultimate cause of war is sin — the sin of Cain — dissatisfaction, envy, and anger; and the inability to deal with these feelings in grown-up and political ways. There was terrific violence between Uzbek minorities and Kyrgyz people in Kyrgyzstan in 2010, but not so much where local leaders talked sensibly and calmed the passions of young men. Violence is always a choice.

As a five-year-old on a bus travelling out to Epping Forest, I had an overwhelming realisation that I wasn’t the centre of the world. At seven, I learnt that the real centre was my loving companion and heavenly father. In my twenties, I connected him to the mind whose purposes fill time and eternity. In my thirties, I grasped how he was the saviour of a broken world who makes wars to cease. I can’t wait to see what he’ll show me in my forties, fifties, sixties, and beyond.

War was allowed by Mosaic law to protect the holiness of God’s people while still a territorial entity. Its conduct — relying on God’s miraculous intervention rather than weaponry or alliances — was intended to bring about faith. With the coming of Christ and of Pentecost, its role was fulfilled, and it went the way of animal sacrifices and prohibitions on eating prawns. Sending armies out in faith with no weapons or tactics isn’t a pattern for war today.

The Second World War paradigm — that wars can be just because we were right to fight Hitler — has become a lodestone to think about other wars. But, even then, we should realise that the Second World War was in part the culmination of 19th-century imperial competition — not about good versus evil. Our most important ally was the Soviet Union, though it had killed millions of its own citizens in the preceding years. The alliance was made to protect the British Empire, not humanity. Churches in Germany largely supported Hitler, believing that they were protecting Christianity from Stalinism, after seeing propaganda about the persecution of Christians in Russia. If the Church had been a transnational peacemaker, the Second World War couldn’t have happened.

Pacifism isn’t a useful word. It was an early-20th-century doctrine of human perfectibility through leagues and talks — a very naïve view of human nature. I think that Christians should love their enemies and preach the gospel; and, of course, I believe that it’s impossible for a Christian to be a soldier. In the Early Church, you couldn’t be baptised if you were a soldier (or an astrologer, idol-maker, or prostitute), because it was felt to be incompatible with discipleship. It’s a pity for the world that we abandoned that to gain a seat at the table.

As a child, we had a magic wash-basket that cleaned and ironed clothes by itself; so my childhood was golden and carefree — apart from school. Unfortunately, as an adult, I’ve not been able to procure the same technology, but we still manage to have fun, and we generally have lots of music and laughter in the house.

I love playing badminton, being with family and friends, having people round for meals, studying the scriptures, playing computer games and reading books with my kids, music, and walking the dog. On holiday, I love dragging family and friends to join me nosing around border regions, unrecognised states, and disputed territories.

My favourite sound is a hand moving through a box of Lego bricks.

Injustice, violence, and being unable to find my keys in the morning make me angry.

Joy comes in that blinding, astounding, irradiating presence of God, when I might be teaching, cooking, writing, being with friends and family, watching a Red Admiral, playing sport, or walking down a street.

The bravest thing I’ve ever done? It’s a dead heat between giving a presentation on a sensitive political issue to the stony-faced Kyrgyz KGB, or appearing on Songs of Praise.

I’m an amateur lepidopterist, and I’d like to write a book about butterflies in demilitarised zones. These border places are often so heavily militarised that few people go there, and they become havens for wildlife.

I like jelly babies — Bassetts sold them as Peace Babies in 1918 to mark the end of the First World War.

War may seem inevitable if one has no hope in the risen Christ, but I’m full of hope. Any work for peace — by a Nobel laureate, or in everyday acts such as teaching students, or trying to sort out tensions with other people — is worth it.

I pray that each day I may enrich the lives of people I encounter, rather than detract from them.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with Søren Kierkegaard. I’d love the novelty of seeing the insightful philosopher whom I admire eating, looking for a mislaid handkerchief, and the like. And I’d like to worship God with him.

Dr Nick Megoran was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Warlike Christians in an Age of Violence is published by Wipf &Stock at £29.

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