Home » Sermons » New Testament » Matthew » Of War and Peace


Of War and Peace


Matthew 5:9       Jeremiah 6:14         Romans 12:18        Hebrews 12:14

I: — I have seen the veterans weep as young people belittled, even despised, their service and sacrifice. I have seen veterans rage as people too young to have faced war taunted them with “war-monger,” “killer.” I understand why the veterans weep and rage. I remember what they have told me.

I sat with one such veteran the night his fifteen-year old son was decapitated in an automobile accident. The man was shaking uncontrollably, dry-mouthed, beside himself. “I haven’t felt like this since D-Day,” he told me. What does this tell us about D-Day? Anyone whose fifteen-year old son is killed is scarred for life. Plainly anyone who survived D-Day is scarred for life.

I have long known a clergyman who served on a warship in the Royal Navy throughout World War II. To this day he sits up in bed from time-to-time, terrified, screaming, “My life-jacket; I can’t find my life-jacket.” His wife awakens him and makes him a cup of tea. Together they sit and sip and wait for the sun to rise.

The man is shell-shocked. He’s also irked. He’s irked because when he returned to England after the war his former chums, all of whom had been conscientious objectors, told him he was a cold-blooded killer. They told him this from the pinnacle of their business careers. Since many young men were in the forces during the war, those who weren’t rose extraordinarily quickly in the business world. My friend’s business career, of course, had been stalled for six years. He told his chums that had Britain been invaded (certainly this was Hitler’s intention) they would have had no business career at all – or much of anything else. But they only scoffed at him.

At the conclusion of World War II there were hundreds of airmen who had been burnt horribly. For the most part they had been Spitfire pilots. The Spitfire aircraft, so crucial in the Battle of Britain, had its fuel tank behind the flier. The fuel line ran through the cockpit to the engine in front of the flier. When the aircraft was hit and caught fire, in three seconds the heat in the cockpit was so intense that the flesh melted off the flier’s face. Those men would never have their faces restored. What sacrifice would these men continue to make for the rest of their lives? After all, how many women are going to marry a face they can’t kiss?

Those who scorn the service and sacrifice of veterans even defame them, forget one thing. They forget that they have the freedom to publicize their opinion only because those they are defaming paid the dearest price to guarantee them that freedom.


II: — Don’t think I’m glorifying war. I’m not. I repudiate utterly the outlook of General George Patton who said, “War is humankind’s noblest endeavour. Our humanness is never so rich, our character never so pure, as when we are waging war.” General Sherman, a Union officer in the American Civil War, was far closer to the truth when he announced, “War is hell.”

The greatest military leader in scripture is Joshua. He won many battles. Yet the bible never boasts of them. Why not? Because Israelite conviction shuns war. The Hebrew prophets refuse to sanctify war. Hebrew poets refuse to romanticize war. In his farewell address to his people, Joshua , Israel ’s greatest soldier makes no mention of his military triumphs. Why not? Because the people don’t want to hear of them; because he doesn’t want to be remembered for them; because Israel ’s Messiah is Messiah in truth only if he brings with him peace wherein swords are beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks, peace wherein war isn’t learned any more.

Whenever war is mentioned someone speaks of Gandhi. Gandhi was committed to non-violent resistance.   Let’s be sure to understand something crucial about Gandhi’s movement and method. A leader can rouse the world as Gandhi did only in a setting that upholds natural justice and the right of assembly. Without the right of assembly Gandhi and his followers wouldn’t have lasted a day. Who guaranteed him the right of assembly? Who protected him against mob violence while he orchestrated protests day after day? The British Army did. Gandhi survived day after day as he continued to recommend non-violence just because he was protected by soldiers who weren’t committed to non-violence. Gandhi knew that if he were mistreated he could rely on British justice to help him. In the USA the same was true of Martin Luther King jr.: he could advocate non-violence as a means of social protest just because the Unites States government guaranteed him (by means of heavily armed personnel) the right of assembly and access to the courts.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived under a different regime: no natural justice, no guaranteed right of assembly, no protection against molestation. Bonhoeffer, initially impressed by Gandhi’s example, soon saw that Gandhi-type non-violence would do nothing to stem the rising tide of death in Germany and elsewhere. Bonhoeffer was convinced that the fastest way to end the slaughter of combatants and civilians was to assassinate Hitler. He joined a plot (unsuccessful) to do just that. He knew that in some situations the choice isn’t between taking life and not taking it; in some situations the only choice is between taking much life and taking little. This is a terrible choice. It so happens that life often traffics in terrible choices.

George Orwell, then, may have been right. Orwell said, “War has never been right; war has never been sane; but sometimes war has been necessary.”


II: — At the same time Orwell never lived in the nuclear era. What could be said of yesteryear’s conventional warfare can never be said of nuclear warfare. When Orwell said “War has sometimes been necessary” he meant that war has sometimes been the lesser of two evils, sometimes the only way to safeguard the victimized neighbour.

Nuclear war is different. Nuclear war can never be the lesser of two evils. We must understand that it’s impossible to win a nuclear war; it’s impossible to limit or contain nuclear war. It’s impossible for nuclear war to protect the neighbour in any way. And, we should note, it’s impossible to defend against nuclear war. Richard Nixon admitted this thirty years ago. Nixon admitted that while there might be a slight defence against the piloted bomber, there is no defence against the intercontinental missile and none against the submarine-launched missile.

Neither can we protect ourselves against nuclear radiation, fallout. Fifty years ago a small nuclear warhead was detonated on an uninhabited island in the Pacific. One hundred miles away from the point of the explosion another island was saturated with eight times the lethal dose of radiation.

A twenty-megaton warhead isn’t large by today’s standards. Nevertheless, a twenty-megaton explosion in Toronto in one second would raise the surface temperature of the city to four times the heat at the centre of the sun: 150 million degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature people don’t burn; they don’t even boil; they are vaporized, without so much as ashes left over. Anyone in Toronto who survived the blast would suffocate as the ensuing firestorm sucked all the oxygen out of the air. Those outside the city would die slowly of radiation.

Why do I speak of nuclear warfare at all? Hasn’t the USSR crumbled? Let’s not be naïve: the countries of the former USSR are staggering economically. If their economic malaise worsens they could re-communize themselves tomorrow. In this case the arms race would heat up instantly. What’s more, many smaller nations now have nuclear arsenals. Who knows when these smaller nations are going to inflict nuclear war on each other? Once it began, where would it end?


IV: — The truth is, with present-day conventional weapons nations can wreak the kind of havoc they could only wreak with nuclear weapons thirty years ago. In other words, conventional weapons today have the killing capacity of last generation’s nuclear weapons. Conclusion: armies that don’t have nuclear weapons can kill as effectively as armies that have. Then who needs nuclear weapons? Since nuclear weapons aren’t needed, some nations will be tempted to wage conventional warfare with its new levels of killing power, but without the disadvantages of nuclear war; namely, that nuclear war is unwinnable and uncontainable. If nations think that conventional warfare (now as deadly as nuclear) is winnable and containable, then it becomes more likely that conventional warfare will break out. When it does break out it will annihilate as many people as only a nuclear war could have consumed three decades ago.

The truth is, many conventional weapons are now deadlier than nuclear weapons. The F-4 Phantom Fighter aircraft delivers greater destruction conventionally than does the nuclear cruise missile. Conventional chemical warfare can readily obliterate cities the size of Hiroshima . So who needs nuclear weapons?

The Starlight scope, a heat-sensor the size of a small telescope, can tell the difference between male and female bodies at a range of 1000 metres by means of the difference in heat given off by the pelvic areas of a man and a woman. The Starlight scope can therefore detect any heat-producing item: tank, soldier, missile-launcher, artillery piece.

Speaking of artillery, we should understand that the killing capacity of conventional artillery is 400% greater now than in World War II. In World War II TNT was the explosive in artillery shells. Today it’s plastic. Plastic explosives are far more powerful than old-fashioned TNT. It used to be that an artillery shell killed people by means of metal fragments that spewed out and struck people within a few feet of it. Today a small artillery shell only four inches in diameter but containing plastic explosive will kill anyone within 200 feet of it – but not by metal fragments; by concussion, sheer blast, without any metal fragments at all.

In World War II aiming was very inexact. It took an artillery crew six minutes to zero in on a target. Today all aiming is done by computer. The computer zeroes in on a target in fifteen seconds. In WW II it was very difficult to hit a moving target. Today laser illumination will direct an artillery projectile onto a target 30 km. away moving at 80 kmh.

So much for artillery. What about armour? In WW II a tank could penetrate 5 inches of steel plate at a range of one mile. Today a tank can penetrate 10 inches of steel plate at a range of three miles.

But of course tanks don’t merely fire at targets. Tanks are also targets to be fired at. Anti-tank guns can penetrate the most-heavily armoured tank. The truth is, however, the tank doesn’t have to be penetrated at all. One kind of anti-tank projectile doesn’t penetrate the tank; instead, when the projectile strikes the tank it spreads a “blob” of plastic explosive no bigger than a dinner plate on the tank’s surface. The dinner plate of plastic explodes so powerfully that the thick armour of the tank is dented, only dented. Still, the explosion outside the tank is so thunderous that chunks of metal are blasted off inside the tank and the crew dies instantly.

What about air power? One helicopter ( America ’s C-130H), discharging all its conventional weapons at once, can reduce all the buildings in a city block to rubble in less than one minute. So who needs nuclear weapons?

The Fuel Air Munition bomb carries an explosive liquid that is released in a dense cloud over a heavily populated city. When the cloud is properly formed a fuse in the same bomb ignites the cloud. The ensuing destruction is greater than that of many nuclear warheads. So who needs nuclear weapons?

And then there are chemical weapons. Chemical weapons are exceedingly destructive. They happen to kill exceedingly slowly. Plainly the worst feature of chemical weapons will be their psychological devastation.

While we are speaking of psychology we must be sure to understand that in any war psychiatric casualties outnumber deaths 3-1. This 3-1 ratio has remained constant since the American Civil War in the 1860s when it was found that a soldier was three times as likely to become deranged as he was to be killed. The same ratio obtained in both World Wars. In 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon , once again psychiatric casualties prevailed at a ratio of 3-1. (When a war ceases all sides have myriads of veterans who are psychiatrically ruined for life.)

This ratio will change when war next breaks out. It is expected, for several reasons, that the ratio of psychiatric casualties to deaths will change from 3-1 to as high as 100-1. In other words, any major conflict today will see unprecedented carnage and unprecedented craziness.


V: — What I have brought forward today: where does it all leave us? It should leave us hearing with unstopped ears our Lord Jesus Christ who cried, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” If our ears are really unstopped we shall note that Jesus speaks of peacemakers, not peace-wishers or peace-hopers or peace-preferrers. War, we know, “breaks out.” But peace never “breaks out.” Peace has to be made.   Jesus insists that peace, unlike war, has to be made. Then we must never begrudge money and effort given over to peacemaking. We must never begrudge money spent on international travels and visits and exchanges. For as long as we are meeting one another we recognise a common humanness in each other. As long as we are meeting each other we de-mystify our neighbour as ogre or monster or less-than-human.

Jesus says “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” “Son of” is a Hebrew expression that means “reflecting the nature of.” To be a son of God is to reflect the nature of God. Therefore it must be God’s nature to make peace. And so it is. Then we have to examine how God makes peace with us, his rebellious creatures, so that we might learn to make peace among our neighbours. How does God make peace?

[1] We are told in scripture that God has made peace with a wayward world “through the blood of the cross.” In other words, God makes peace with a wayward world through a sacrifice that he makes at enormous cost to himself.   If God can make peace only through his self-offering and self-renunciation, we can be peacemakers only in the same way ourselves.

I stress this because we tend to venerate the sacrifices made for war but belittle the sacrifices made for peace. I am not denigrating in any way the sacrifices Canadians and others made in war. Still, I do want us to understand that sacrifices made for peace are to be honoured as much. Peacemaking entails no less sacrifice than war-waging.

Then we must never scorn the service peacemakers render and the sacrifice they make. Fifty years ago we applauded the person who made costly sacrifice, especially the supreme sacrifice, in time of war. Then we must do as much for those who strive to make peace. If a soldier crouched in freezing mud in a foxhole for hours on end we thanked him. I know people who, for the sake of peace and the demonstrations essential to peace, have done as much and suffered as much – yet they are rarely thanked. Surely they are entitled to something besides scorn and ridicule. They merit the same recognition as the bravest war hero.

The “Sojourners” organization in the USA is a group of Christians dedicated to pursuing peace and justice. Several years ago, during the “cold war” between the USA and the USSR , the Sojourners community learned of a railway train that was transporting nuclear warheads across the country to a military site. One of the “Sojourners,” protesting the traffic in nuclear weapons, lay down on the railway tracks. The train ran over him, severing both legs. He survived only because a nurse happened to be nearby and she prevented him from bleeding to death. The press ridiculed the man as silly. Had he thought the train was going to stop? (In truth, he had thought it would.) And now he was legless for the rest of his life? “He gave up his legs for nothing, stupid man,” public opinion opined.

No Christian who clings to the cross can say this.   Bystanders on Good Friday would have said that our Lord gave up his life for nothing. He announced himself, “No one takes my life from me; I lay it down of my own accord.” Then plainly he didn’t have to go to the cross. The two criminals on either side of him – their lives were taken; they had no choice in the matter. Jesus laid down his life. Uselessly? God made his peace with the world right there. You and I must never be found saying “pointless” dismissively when we hear or read of what someone, somewhere, is doing to make peace. Remember, peace has to be made; peace doesn’t break out.

[2] While we are pondering how God makes peace we must understand that God never short-circuits justice. The prophet Jeremiah insists that a false peace (soon to break down) occurs when “wounds are healed lightly;” that is, when injustices aren’t redressed. To want peace without justice is to want magic – and everywhere in scripture God’s face is set flint-hard against magic. Peace without justice is impossible. When Jeremiah denounces those who shout “Peace, Peace” where there is no peace, no shalom, Jeremiah means we mustn’t cry for peace where we won’t do anything for justice.

In all of this I want to return to the cross. Plainly God doesn’t make peace by “puppeteering” people and situations and events. God makes peace between himself and the world by that sacrifice whose price he himself pays gladly. In his self-giving, justice is served; legitimate grievance is addressed; violations are admitted to be violations; and there is no false peace. Genuine peace between God and his creation is made as God himself enters the fray and sacrifices himself for the sake of peace.

The peace that Christ summons us to make; our peacemaking (genuine peace that doesn’t attempt a false peace through healing wounds lightly) entails no less sacrifice than war-waging.


The unknown writer of Hebrews urges us, “Strive for peace with all men….” Paul pleads, “If possible, as far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all.” Jesus insists that it is the makers of genuine peace who are going to be recognised on the Day of Judgement as having mirrored in especial manner the nature of God himself.


                                                                                             Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                                                               

November 2004