Here is the recording of my sermon for Remembrance Sunday, given in Hertford College Chapel, Oxford, on Sunday 10 November 2013. In the context of an Oxford college, I touch on a couple of philosophical issues about war, something I most probably would not do in a church. I find this subject difficult, and am still not sure I put this in the best way I could.
The news media are full of plans to attack Syria this evening. On Thursday, Parliament is to be recalled to debate such an attack. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has returned early from holiday to ‘deal’ with the situation. At the same time, the US and France are making similar initial noises about an attack.
I believe these rumours of war are wrong, and urge politicians to think again.
On a personal note, I have been a regular visitor to Syria over the years, for research, study and leisure. I love Syria and its wonderful people. Over the last year, I have had quite a few terribly sad conversations with Syrian friends about the rapidly deteriorating situation.
A line has been crossed: chemical weapons have been used in Syria. Most likely they were deployed by forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad. Yet there is still just enough doubt, even with a visit from inspectors, to shade any certainty. The use of chemical weapons is a clearly defined war crime. Yet no war crime precipitates a licence to wage war under international law: committing a war crime does not give an automatic right to bomb a country. International law strictly requires a UN Security Council resolution to wage war, and, with Russian and Chinese vetoes, that is not going to happen anytime soon. It seems to be the new ‘white man’s burden’ to police the world, rounding up its tyrants, yet any civilised police forces needs to operate within predefined laws and with public goodwill and consensus.
Apart from the legal problem, there is a serious underestimation of the seriousness of the situation. Yes, I believe the situation is too serious for a military ‘solution’. The reasons for this seriousness are
- Bashar al-Assad is a desperate dictator at the head of a complex power network. Forcing him back further into a diplomatic corner will almost certainly make him and his network more desperate, and capable of lashing out with untold consequences.
- Syria has entered a civil war. What began as peaceful protest, turned into violent protest when met with government violence, and has since become a full-scale civil war. Gradually, the opposition has shifted from the control of community groups and exiled critics of Assad into the hands of violent, opportunistic gangs, and those importing a religious fundamentalism alien to over a millennium of Syrian multiculturalism. Any military action will change the current balance of the civil war. This is not to say status quo is desirable, but neither necessarily is any shift in balance between two equally undesirable sides.
- Not one pot of coffee is brewed in the Middle East without international repercussions. There are Syrian refugees living precariously in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey among other places. Iran and Hezbollah have a strategic interest in supporting Assad in their neighbourhood. As ever, if there is Western military intervention in Syria, however ‘surgical’, Israel will see what regional advantage it can make of the instability, which is likely to be an excuse to bomb sites in Syria, Lebanon and Iran. The West would be culpable for unleashing Israeli attacks.
There is much angst about sitting by and doing nothing. ‘Appeasement’ has a bad rap historically, but it is a logical fallacy to ‘do something’ just because it is felt that something must be done. Military action is always believed to be a last resort, and thus a sign of failure and weakness. Rather than asking if this plan of action will result in a measurable improvement of the situation, it is done for the sake of doing.
Of course, more diplomacy would be welcome, but the West has burnt so many of its diplomatic bridges already that it looks like careless arson. David Cameron should not look to his ‘success’ at bombing Libya, that had unseen consequences in Mali. Libya’s population is under 6 million, Syria’s is over 22 million.
Syria’s large Christian minority are beginning to suffer greatly, in the midst of the general suffering. It cuts me to the heart, but I deplore those Christians outside of Syria who call for military intervention. Standing by is not the weak option. It takes wisdom and courage, when provoked to lash out, to realise that it will only exacerbate the situation, and that the true course of action is to stand firm. To desperate, and weep, yes, but still to stand firm.
The habit of being given a pulpit from which to speak one’s mind, and receiving “Nice sermon, vicar!” as the only for of constructive criticism gives clergy little understanding of our communication skills. This becomes painfully obvious when we speak to the media; under pressure, drivel and nonsense utters forth. Perhaps, clergy are the worst people from whom to expect a carefully nuanced response to sensitive issues in the media.
I don’t know about sympathy for the Taliban, but I have sympathy for Bishop Stephen Venner. He has retired from being Bishop of Dover, which entails looking after the C of E in East Kent on behalf of the Archbishop of Canterbury (who is far too busy wrestling with lesbian bishops and Ugandan homophobes), and has become Bishop to the Forces, which entails looking after the spiritual needs of the British armed forces on behalf of the Archbishop of Canterbury (who is far too busy…). For the last couple of years Bishop Venner has also added Bishop for the Falkland Islands to his pointy hats, a role he performs on behalf of the Archbishop of Canterbury (who is far too busy…). You do get the impression of someone who has always been in the shadows, keeping the church running while his boss pontificates. As Bishop to the Forces, Venner succeeds Bishop David Connor, who remains at his rather pointless job of head polisher of the second great shrine of royalist pomp that is Windsor Chapel. Continue reading