Putting the Bible to work

Can the set scripture readings for last Sunday, which came out of the same Middle East that is so troubled at the moment, and out of times of threat and oppression too, offer anything helpful to us across the ages? The answer (I’m an Anglican!) is probably a resounding maybe – even the devoutly amongst us will realise that the scriptures in question were not written as a political handbook for the twenty first century – but since we do believe that they were written in general for our learning and that God speaks through them today as every day, it is worth a go.

So here are three possible ways in those readings might give us some clues: you must decide how helpful they are in uncovering a solution.

1. Luke 3:7-18 First, when some soldiers ask John the Baptist what they should do, he tells them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’ The context is that they are presumably Roman soldiers and as such part of an occupying force, which was in an easy position to supplement its salary by extorting extra from the locals. Remarkably, the Baptist does not just tell them to clear off. His track record suggests that this was not simply a failure of nerve. He seems to accept the political reality of their presence, but urge that they act justly, by their own lights, within it. This for me connects up with our Christian theology of the “just war”, which also accepts that at times the general commandment to eschew violence will face political realities that call for exceptions – but that there are rules governing such exceptions that must be taken very seriously. It might be worth remembering what the conditions which justify military action are, as formulated within Catholic teaching for instance, and wondering as we do whether there is anything here for us:

a. the damage being inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

b. all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

c. there must be serious prospects of success;

d. the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.

2. Zephaniah 3.14-20 Secondly, Zephaniah foresees the Babylonian action against Jerusalem, and fearing that the nation will trust over-confidently in its own might not God’s, importantly reminds us of the provisional and partial nature of our own actions in bringing about peace and justice. The agent in his prophecy is not an Israelite king or army but the Lord who is in their midst, and the “I” to whom he repeatedly refers that will put things right– “I will remove, I will deal, I will save, I will change” – is God. Assuming that simple, outright feelings of revenge at least are kept at bay, there is still the temptation to a false over-confidence, perhaps exaggerated for effect, that may boost morale and forge fighting spirit in the short run, but that is likely to lead to miscalculation in the long. Our faith reminds us that in the end only God can bring in the kingdom, and that a degree of humility and self-questioning in these matters is a sign of wisdom not weakness.

3. Philippians 4.4-7 Finally, Paul writing to the Philippians who were suffering persecution, urges the importance of remaining gentle in spirit and letting the indwelling peace of Christ resolve our fears and anxieties, rather than allowing them to drive our behaviour in more negative directions. The teaching here is not just for the great and the good who will be determining high policy but for all of us, as we try to resist the temptation to those sort of short-cut emotionally-driven reactions that stop us loving our neighbours and our enemies alike, and which can so easily import with them the conflicts we see elsewhere into our own communities.

Well, as I said, it is for each of us as Christian disciples to work out our own salvation in fear and trembling on subjects like this – it is not our tradition and would undermine all we stand for if we were to take direction from the clergy. But hopefully, in what is after all a season of reflection on some of the most serious aspects of our existence, the scriptures and through them the Spirit will continue to lead us into the truth and most of all into that deep truth that we find in Christ our Lord.