by Robert Brow
As we prepare for Armistice Day on Tuesday, we focus on Jesus’ words "Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God." In our translation it reads "Give to the government what belongs to government, and give to God what belongs to God" (Matthew 22:21). Armistice Day will remind us that giving to the government in time of war can be very costly.
Some of you remember the very personal cost of those who lost their lives in your family and among your friends. My best friend at school was Kay Irgens. He was a brilliant artist, and he had a great future ahead of him, but he was killed when he served as tank officer during the war in France. In India my best friend was Robin Lochner, and he was killed in the war in Burma.
When I was called up seven days after my eighteenth birthday the recruiting officer asked me what religion I was. I said I was an atheist. He said "You can’t be an atheist in the army. Who is going to bury you when you get killed in battle?" I explained my parents were atheists, and I did not believe in God. So he turned to the sergeant and said "Put him down as Church of England." That’s how I became an Anglican! But I continued as an atheist throughout my five years in the Army.
Strangely I believed in luck. You see atheists also have faith. They say "I believe in the great god Luck, creator of the world." Though my two friends were killed in battle, I hoped I would be lucky. Touch wood, I would escape.
One of my jobs as a weapons instructor in India was to teach grenade throwing. I had to go down into a concrete pit below ground level with one recruit at a time. When I said "prepare to throw" the recruit had to pull the grenade away from the safety ring in his left hand and hold the grenade lever down in his right hand. When I said "throw" we had to duck down and there were five seconds before the grenade went off. If the grenade did not go off I had to crawl out, set a charge of dynamite against the dud grenade, light the fuse, and jump back into the pit.
Sometimes the recruit would drop the grenade, and I had to pick it up, throw it out, and force his head down within the five seconds. I discovered that the previous instructor had a recruit who dropped the grenade and fell face down on to it.. The instructor tried to pull him off, but the grenade went off and the man was killed. The instructor was very badly wounded with shrapnel in his arms and legs. The men used to laugh at me because whenever I had a narrow escape I would walk over to a tree and touch wood. Touching wood is also faith in the great god Luck.
After five years in the Army I was demobilized, and the government graciously paid for me to go to university. My first week I was persuaded to go to a Christian meeting, and when I got back to my room I suddenly found myself talking to Jesus. I prayed "If you can do anything with me, please get on with it." Next morning I bought a Bible, and began reading about God.
I soon found Christians friends who were Quakers, and they said war is never right. Later I met Mennonites who said they would not even call in the police if they were attacked. I decided that could not be right. Surely you call in the police if your wife and children are being attacked. I decided that I had to live in a world where all sorts of criminals had to be controlled by the police, and an army was needed for defense against external enemies.
I remember being impressed in my officer’s training by the very strict army rules about obeying the Geneva Convention. As long as the enemy were shooting at you, you fired at them and killed as many as possible. But as soon as they dropped their guns, and held up their hands or ran up a white flag, you immediately stopped shooting and began treating them as friends. Their wounds had to be treated, surgeons fought to save their life, they were fed, clothed and protected in camps till the end of the war. You had to LOVE YOUR ENEMIES.
That illustrates the change from rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s to rendering to God what is God’s. You may have to use a gun and kill in war, or as a police officer, but there is another divine law of morality and compassion.
As I thought about this I came to see that when Jesus said I was to turn the other cheek, that did not mean I was to turn the other person’s cheek. When I was preaching at St. James’ Church there was one sermon that got more response from the women in the congregation than any other. It was a time when several women had been mugged and raped and robbed on the streets of Kingston. I said that if I saw one of them being attacked, I would not pass by and turn the other cheek. I would jump on the guy and beat the hell out of him. That would not be difficult. In the army I used to teach unarmed combat. But then of course I would go and visit the guy in hospital and pray for him to recover. We fight in the protection of others, and we also love our enemies. After the sermon a dozen women came and said "I am glad you would defend me if I was being mugged."
Recently I have been studying the many references in the Psalms and the Prophets to the Sovereign King, the Lord Messiah, who reigns among the nations. "O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth" (Psalm 8:1). The King of kings and Lord of lords is described as being very tough as he exercises wrath on tyrants and oppressive regimes. We may think he takes too long before he does this, but we know from history that in his own time he intervenes as he assigns wrath among the nations.
In the New Testament we read how Simon Peter went around as a disciple of Jesus for two or three years before he came to understand who Jesus really was. When he came to faith he said "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:16).
That means that Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of lords among the nations. On the one hand is very tough with enemies of his Kingdom, but very gentle with the poor and needy. When he went to the cross he was willing to turn his own cheek. But after his resurrection and ascension he continues his reign to intervene in judgment on oppressors. As Mary sang in the Magnificat "He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly" (Luke 1:52).
So Armistice Day reminds us that on the one hand we are on the side of law and order for the protection of the weak and oppressed. We appreciate our police force, and we pray for our army in its peace keeping work. Every year we honor those who have given their lives so that others can be free. On the other hand, like Jesus, we are willing to love our enemies and to turn our own cheek at our own cost in his service. Like war that can be very costly.
Having grasped that principle, we apply it in every situation of our lives. Some of you are facing very costly decisions in your family and work situations. Jesus’ way is to care about and fight for the rights of others including our children and family. But we also love the enemies that threaten us.