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A Sermon to Tony Blair: The True End of the Iraq War

October 17, 2009

rowan“For the word of God is living and active … it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account”  — Hebrews 4:12-13

It is an extraordinary moment when those at the height of earthly power are seen sitting painfully quiet in their seats as the truth of their brokenness is laid bare under the Word of God on national television.

This 3-minute video from an October service in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London honoring England’s Iraq war dead strikes familiar notes from national worship events:  a cavernous sanctuary, majestic organ music, the procession of the mighty—in this case the Queen, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and his predecessor Tony Blair.

But decidedly unfamiliar is the sermon of Archbishop Rowan Williams whose central theme from Ecclesiastes and Ephesians to the audience of 2,000 was “the cost of justice” toward which, he claimed, even war must reach.  Even if this makes Tony Blair squirm.

There is, said Williams, the human cost of justice.  This is why we honor the dead and the grief of their loved ones, for these soldiers were ones “who simply got on with the task they were given because they believed that order and justice mattered.”

Owning the complexity of war is an additional cost of justice. “In a world as complicated as ours has become,” preached Williams, “it would be a very rash person who would feel able to say without hesitation, this [war] was absolutely the right or the wrong thing to do, the right or the wrong place to be.”  No matter our politics, war is always a tragedy and never a simple demarcation of complete evil versus complete good.  “This terrible war” is how Abraham Lincoln spoke of arguably the most clear-cut of them all.

And finally there is the part of sermon where Blair, England’s war architect, may have squirmed.  “Rowan Williams Attacks Government Over Iraq War” said one London paper.

But the paper got the sermon wrong.  Far deeper than critiquing policy, Williams said that even for those who choose war, imitating Christ’s love requires decisions toward the ultimate end of “genuinely doing something for the sake of long-term building or healing.”  Said Williams: “When we as Christians consider the sacrifice that purchased peace and mercy for the whole world, we think not only of the death of Jesus on the cross but also of the cost of love and openness to the stranger that marked his entire life.”

After speaking of “visible enemies” (“a dictator, a terrorist”) Williams spoke of “the invisible enemy” who “may be hiding in the temptation to look for short cuts in the search for justice – letting ends justify means, letting others rather than oneself carry the cost, denying the difficulties or the failures so as to present a good public face.”  The true end of justice lays a high cost upon the mighty:

“… when such conflict appeared on the horizon, there were those among both policy makers and commentators who were able to talk about it without really measuring the price, the cost of justice.  Perhaps we have learned something – if only that there is ‘a time to keep silence’, a time to let go of the satisfyingly overblown language that is so tempting for human beings when war is in the air.”

America shares in the tragedy of this same war.  Whatever our politics, may we know the time for silence, refuse shortcuts toward justice, and pray for desires toward ultimate ends.

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