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2nd Sunday before Advent
Remembrance Sunday

08 November 2022

13 November, Malachi 4.1-2a; Psalm 98; 2 Thessalonians 3.6-13; Luke 21.5-19


TWO of the Remembrance Sunday lections are straightforward. Malachi promises healing after a time of conflict. In Luke, Jesus prophesies war and oppression at the beginning of the end-time. Sitting oddly in between is 2 Thessalonians, which, instead of mentioning special military operations, reads like an endorsement of the so-called “Protestant work ethic”.

I use those inverted commas because that idea is not biblical. It comes from a German sociologist, Max Weber, who linked Protestantism with capitalism, arguing that the latter emerged from a mindset inculcated by the former. If this is right, the New Testament reading could be showing us that capitalism is the root of war and oppression, a breeding ground for inequality and conflict.

Whatever our take on politics and theology, there is no doubt that Paul has shaped his language with precision. The word that he uses for “idleness” is ataktos. In it, you can see the same word-root that has given us “tactics” and “tactical”; and that is unsurprising, because it is a military word, mainly used in Greek to refer to disorderly, unsoldierly, behaviour. Go back to the first word of the reading, and you find that it, too, is military (“command”, NRSV; the New Jerusalem Bible tries to demilitarise the Greek by translating it as “urge”).

Here is a useful reminder that the language of war was not as repellent and morally negative for those first Christians as it has later become for many of us. This example of military language does not work up an elaborate comparison between the life of a Christian and that of a soldier: it is more like another passing resonance — 2 Timothy 4.7 (“I have fought the good fight”) — from a lection of three weeks back. The marvellous elaboration of Ephesians 6.13-17 (“put on the whole armour of God”) is on a different scale.

Decades ago now, I wrote my doctoral thesis on battle narratives in the Roman historians Caesar and Livy. I was interested then, and still am, in how historians compose their accounts to prompt, drag, or inveigle their readers into sharing their own interpretation of an action. When I find military language in the New Testament, I ask myself why it is especially desirable for the writer to use it right there.

Often, the answer is that military language is another aspect of topsy-turvy Christian values. Paul “fights the good fight” right at the moment when he has surrendered without a fight to his soon-to-be executioners. He uses it in Ephesians in a nuanced way; for, having already urged upon them the values of peace (4.1-3), he then has to stir them to a form of warfare. Although it is not physical, it is still dangerous, relentless, and requiring the utmost co-operation and concord for success.

Words are slippery things. It can be risky to take them at face value. One person’s morally neutral description of a colour may be another person’s racist insult. Or a word may change its meaning completely: Latin egregius meant positively outstanding, while English “egregious” means “outrageous”. “Literally” now means “metaphorically” (Oxford English Dictionary 1c).

The Greek historian Thucydides famously anticipated George Orwell by describing how words change their meanings when societies and circumstances come into conflict. In his case, war was the catalyst: “The usual meaning of words was changed to suit; irrational recklessness became loyalty and courage . . . the cause of all this was ravenous hunger for power.”

War opened the door to revolutionary change as Athens went to war with Sparta. Change in society brought change in meaning and in values, as experience shifted people’s perceptions. After decades of relative peace in Europe, there has been a similar shift in 2022 because of the war between Russia and Ukraine. We have become so used to the equation “war + conflict = evil”, that we now need to change our thinking as well as our language: this is not a storybook contest between “goodies” and “baddies”: it is real.

Soldiering can be a noble vocation. That applies both to metaphorical soldiering (like Paul, or Jesus, or us) and to literal soldiering. Ukrainian forces fighting to free their homeland from foreign invasion and tyranny have won our admiration for their courageous sacrifices. Russian conscripts attract our pity. Perhaps it is time to sing “Onward, Christian soldiers” and “Stand up, stand up for Jesus” once more, with gusto and a clear conscience.

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