"England expects that every man will do his duty”. So signaled Admiral Lord Nelson to the fleet at Trafalgar. This was during the same war in which the standard of the Havant Volunteers, hanging above our heads, was raised.
But what is ‘duty’? Duty is that obligation we owe to each other, as fellow citizens, in any community. It is the action we perform, regardless of our personal desires. It is an action which puts the needs of our community, or our country, above our personal wants.
As such, ‘duty’ has a rather old fashioned ring about it, to our modern ears. We live in a society in which personal happiness and personal fulfillment has become the primary goal. To the modern, western mind, it often doesn’t matter very much who else suffers, or who else is living in poverty, as long as I have everything I need. As long as I am happy. As an example of this kind of thinking, here’s a quote from Grant Cordone, a self-help guru and business advisor. He says ‘Success is your duty, obligation and responsibility’. He is referring of course to personal success.
But of course, the search for personal happiness, success and wealth is never a pathway to the building of a society. Building society requires an instinct for self-sacrifice among all its members.
On Friday, incidentally on Armistice Day, we witnessed the re-taking of Kherson by the Ukrainian Army, from the presently terrorist state of Russia. This would not have happened if Ukrainian citizens had neglected their duty. If the Ukrainian volunteers had each decided that their personal happiness and safety was more important to them, if they had decided to flee to Europe with their families, then we would never have seen Friday’s victory come to pass. If the Western nations had not done their duty, and stood by Ukraine by supplying them, Kherson would still be in Russian hands today.
We must remember, however, that the young men and women of the Russian army are also doing their duty, as they see it. They have been systematically lied to, by their government. They have been told that Ukrainians are Nazis who, with the support of the Western powers, are about to invade Mother Russia. So they, too, fight out of duty to their country, albeit misguided.
And this is of course where duty has its limits. For duty to be holy, righteous and purposeful, it must itself be subject to a higher authority still. Duty must be subservient to Truth. Any person who prepares to do their duty must first do the hard work of working out what is true about the situation they face. We live in a post-truth world, in which propaganda, and so-called ‘fake-truth’ is harnessed for political ends or personal gain. And it is hard, indeed, to disentangle the half-truths from the lies. How can a Russian soldier, for example, know whether his duty is misplaced, if he does not have access to the Truth? How, then, can anyone’s call to duty be assessed, for Truthfulness?
Jesus Christ said that he was the way, the life, and the Truth. In other words, he taught that by following his way of life, and his teachings, we would be led by his Spirit into all Truth. Christians, then, have a yardstick by which to judge the various truth-claims with which we are bombarded, by the political maelstrom around us. So, whenever a truth-claim is uttered by a national leader, the Christian holds that claim up against the teaching of Christ – to discern whether or not there is a duty to be followed.
And so, the Christian asks themselves, ‘how does this truth-claim equate to the wisdom of Christ’. Let’s say, for example, there are competing claims about immigrants ‘invading’ our shores. How do those truth-claims stand up against the Bible’s teaching about giving hospitality to the stranger? Let’s say that there are political forces who want to reduce the income of those who rely on the State for essential support. How does that policy stand up against the Bible’s teaching on caring for the poorest in our community? Let’s say that there are political and economic forces who want to destroy the Amazon, or keep pumping carbon into our atmosphere. How does that stand up against the Bible’s teaching that humankind has a duty to take care of the Earth? Let’s imagine that a call to arms is issued to the members of 16 Regiment here today, to take up their weapons and fight against a foe. How will that call stand up against the Bible and Christianity’s teaching about what is, or is not, a just war?
These are not easy questions, and there are no easy answers. But in general, I observe, Western society has lost its touch-stone, its ability to discern right from wrong, because it has lost touch with the teachings of Christ. For me to do my duty, in every circumstance of life, I need to know with clarity and truth what that duty is. The teachings of Christ give me a lens, or perhaps a stained glass window, through which to discern what is, and what is not, my duty.
I am a Canon of Cape Coast in Ghana, West Africa. I have seen with my own eyes the slave-trading fortresses built by the British army of yesteryear. I’ve seen the putrid dungeons in which slaves were guarded by British soldiers, who all believed they were doing their duty. I’ve seen the first church in Ghana, built over the entrance to those very dungeons. I know that not every duty carried out by our own soldiers, and our own clergymen, could be described as springing from the pure Truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Today, we remember, and we give thanks, for all those who have done their duty for their country before us. But as we give thanks for the duty displayed by the fallen of the past, and we pray for the service-men and women of the present, let us also pray for the wisdom to discern among the lies and propaganda of the world where our duty lies – our duty to our community, to our nation, and to our God. Amen.