War is, without doubt, the most destructive force on our planet. Forget earthquakes, hurricanes and volcanoes. Their destructive power – though often immense for a few hours – pales into insignificance against the destructive power of war. The destruction of cities, the millions of victims of any world-wide conflict, the destruction of whole economies and entire races of human beings – these are just some of the effects of war.
Nuclear war cranks up the destructive potential to an even greater height. It was Albert Einstein, reflecting on the pure destructive potential of the weapon he helped to create who said, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” He understood that a worldwide nuclear war had the potential to push the human race back into the Stone Age.
And yet, War is an inevitable and, it seems, ever-present aspect of human nature. So, what can we learn from the wars of the past (let alone the wars of today)? On this 70th anniversary of the surrender of Japan, perhaps it is worth a look at the causes of that particular conflict.
Between 1928 and 1932, Japan faced domestic crisis. The Great Depression which affected the whole world also affected Japan. There were spiralling prices, economic collapse, unemployment, falling exports and social unrest. In November 1930, the Prime Minister of Japan was shot by an ultra-nationalist. In 1932, the army tried to assassinate the next Prime Minister, and ultimately the military seized control of the country. Between 1932 and 1936, admirals ruled Japan. Confident and arrogant, they believed that the whole of Asia should be ruled by them – as a way out of economic collapse. China was invaded, and in response, in 1941, the United States announced a punitive oil embargo. For the Japanese leaders, that move was a perfect pretext for war, unleashed in December 1941 with the Pearl Harbour attack.
The rest, as they say, is history – including the history that some here today, like Bill Marshall and Govan Easton lived through in all its horror. But it is the history behind the history from which we need to learn. The conditions which prompted the rise of the Japanese military machine are similar to those that led to the rise of Hitler, half a world away. Market forces in crisis, spiralling debt, unemployment and poverty – however caused. It is when economies go bad that people look to extremist leaders for solutions.
That is, of course, precisely why so many people in the Middle East are following the mad mullahs of ISIL today. Have you seen how they live? Have you seen the poverty of shanty towns, unemployment on a massive scale, lives shackled by debt owed to Western banks and institutions? People who are downtrodden by debt and poverty look for someone to blame. It is not hard for their leaders to point the finger at us, with all our stored up wealth. All that ISIL then has to do is remind their followers that many Americans and British people are Christians – and a war about economics quickly becomes a war about faith. People will blow themselves up for a belief. They will fly into skyscrapers for the promise of heaven.
War is what happens when language fails, and when we focus our angst, our fears, our problems on some other easily identified group. For the Nazis, it was the Jews. For the Japanese, it was the ‘evil Americans’ and their allies. Today, for billions of people throughout the world, the West is perceived as ‘the great Satan’. To those who live in abject poverty, shanty towns and starvation, we who live in relative comfort with our bank accounts and shares are seen as the problem. Our apparent refusal to share our wealth, our insistence on closed borders, our pre-occupation with pleasure-seeking, these are all hated by the rest of the world in their misery and poverty.
Of course, our own perspective is entirely different. Today, we give thanks for 70 years of peace in our own land. For us at home, life has been peaceful. We have been able to go about quietly building our society, largely without the fear of doodle-bugs or other bombs dropping onto us.
But in fact, such peace at home is largely an illusion. British Troops have been involved in wars all over the planet – since 1945. Many of you will remember such wars – many of you have even fought in them. Greece, Malaya, Korea, Egypt, Kenya, Cyprus, Indonesia, Dhofar, Aden, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Lebanon, the Gulf War, Bosnia, Iraq, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq (again), Libya, and now ISIL.
To imagine that the Second World War was the last Great War is to be naive in the extreme. There has never been a ‘war to end all wars’. And there never will be – for as long as human beings choose violence over talking, self-preservation over sharing, hatred of the ‘other’ over love of neighbour.
But there is another way. Writing around 2,700 years ago, the Hebrew prophet Micah dreamed of a day when all the peoples of the earth would ‘learn the ways of God’. “He will teach us his ways”, said Micah, “so that we will walk in his paths”. “He will settle the disputes between peoples, and they will beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Everyone will sit in peace under their own vine, and no-one will make them afraid”.
This peace will only come about when the peoples of the earth finally accept the rule and governorship of God. Such peace will only come about when the people of the earth begin to take seriously what God meant when he told us to love our neighbours as ourselves – a message repeated again and again through the Hebrew Scriptures, and taken up with vigour by Jesus of Nazareth. Only when we stop keeping the best stuff for ourselves, being content to watch our neighbours in other lands starve and die, will the world ever find the peace for which we all yearn.
If we will let him, the Lord will indeed be our Shepherd. If we will follow his ways, he will indeed lead us beside still waters. Our cups will indeed overflow.
But how will this be achieved? There is no other way but the way of changing one person at a time. To quote Mahatma Ghandi, ‘if you change yourself, you will change your world’.
So today, we give thanks for the 70 years of relative peace we have enjoyed here in Britain. We remember, once again, those who gave their lives – or who were forced to give up their lives – for our peace. Today we especially pay tribute to those who endured the horror of the Death Railway and the Far East prisons. We remember, too, the innocent children of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – those who never raised a weapon against any one of us. We remember them, and all those who have sacrificed themselves, or who were sacrificed, in the vast number of conflicts ever since.
But let us not simply remember them. Let us honour their sacrifice with a sacrifice of our own. Let us, each one, commit ourselves to living differently from today. Let us put aside the lure of wealth, and the pettiness of nationality, and realise that we are all, each one, children of the same God. Let us learn from him, and follow his ways…so that perhaps, one day, such commemorations as this will no longer be necessary.