Written by: Rev. Nathan Hill
This week marks a historical milestone in global conflict—on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the hostilities of the First World War ended in 1918. From this time onward, all commonwealth nations (and many outside of the commonwealth) have observed this day as a time to remember those who fought in the First World War (and all subsequent wars) and those who ultimately died as a result of war. Many commemoration ceremonies will be held in Canada on Wednesday of this week as our nation observes Remembrance Day.
I have always been of several minds about how the church ought to acknowledge this observance in our nation. At first glance we might say Remembrance Day is a civic or secular observance that has little crossover or connection with theology and the church. Yet, honouring people for deeds well done and personal sacrifice is certainly consistent with our Christian values, so long as the deed or service is honourable to our faith. Which raises another conundrum—within Christian faith traditions we find a noteworthy minority that would argue in favor of absolute pacifism as a logical consequence of their faith. Christian groups like the Quakers and Mennonites would fall into this category, as would recognizable individuals like Martin Luther King Jr. and theologian John Howard Yoder, author of the book “Politics of Jesus” that I was introduced to in a seminary ethics class.
How then does the church come together to commemorate and honour those who have provided (and are still providing) service in the face of global conflict? There is one significant link between church history, global conflict, and this day of commemoration that I think can provide a way forward here, and it reaches back to the theology and ethics of Augustine (5th century AD) and Thomas Aquinas (13th century AD). Together, these theologians have provided an ethic for society that is still examined and discussed to this present day—the just war theory.
In order for a conflict or a war to be justifiable in the eyes of God and humankind, these theologians suggested that it must be based upon three things: Proper authority (i.e., the conflict is waged by a legitimate authority that represents the common good of a group of people), Just cause (i.e., to restore some fundamental right or possession that has been denied), and Right intention (i.e., the central motive must be to restore the peace, and the conflict ought not change its objective after it begins). Many would argue that conflict falling within these categories has satisfied the demands of theology, examination of Scripture, and the test of time, as its foundations persist until today.
No matter our view on conflict, pacifism, or violence, on this week each year in November we can at least honour those who have been of service to our nation and have strived to protect the liberties and abundance that we enjoy today. We can also honour the role that the church has had in shaping social ethics over the years. The just war theory began with theologians and has been elaborated upon by philosophers, ethicists, and other since then—up to this present day. In a time where social and theological ethics are bent on divergence once again in ours and other nations across the world, is there a way that we can intelligently offer a new ethic that respects Scripture while inviting society to take a look? Can we, like Aquinas and Augustine, begin an ethic that is faithful to God and responds to a need in our culture? It has been said that the pen is mightier than the sword—perhaps this is your calling?
As you remember and honour veterans this week, also remember and honour the contributions that Christian theologians have made to the ethics of global conflict, and then dream about the legacy that you can create in your area that just might warrant honour even one century removed from today.