Thought for the Day - Canon Dr Alan Billings - 15/10/2012

The Prime Minister has announced that the centenary of the First World War will be marked throughout 2014 with special commemorations. This has already triggered a debate about that War and the century of conflict that followed.

Like everyone else, Christians have struggled over the years to make sense of the Great War and especially the appalling loss of life. There have been two principal responses.

One can be inferred from the memorials erected in many towns and villages soon after the war. When I was a parish priest, I would pass one such each morning in my Kendal church. It bore the names of those from St George's parish that had died. Then above the names was a depiction of Jesus on the cross. But the cross was pictured, not on a hilltop outside Jerusalem, but in the middle of an English field, surrounded by English sheep. A text read, 'The Good Shepherd gives his life for the sheep'. The meaning was clear: As Jesus had laid down his life for others, these men had laid down theirs for England. Their deaths, therefore, were neither a tragedy nor a waste, but a sacrifice. And that's how we continue to speak of the death of anyone killed on active service. It is a life laid down. A sacrifice.

But many Christians were troubled – by the War itself and also by the use of Christian symbols to justify the cause and the bloodletting. One who was disturbed was a decorated army chaplain, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy. His experiences at the front caused him to radically re-think both his attitude towards war and his understanding of God. War, he concluded, was waste; and although few were persuaded by his pacifism, his reflections on God have over time profoundly influenced Christian thinking.

Studdert Kennedy challenged what was until then the orthodox Christian view - the result of Christianity's long association with Greek philosophy - that God in himself could not suffer – since that would imply weakness and imperfection. But this made God seem unmoved in the face of suffering and remote. This was what the soldiers in the trenches told their chaplains. God was as remote from them as the officers in Brigade headquarters. Studdert Kennedy insisted that God was not aloof but – to use his word – a comrade amid the carnage, part of suffering humanity; because he was a crucified God who knew suffering to the bone.

This idea of the crucified God has come to haunt the Christian imagination. It speaks, if you like, of the humanity of God, and is probably more effective in causing Christians to be cautious about war than any restraint imposed by just war theory. It says, in effect, Consider well, because whenever you resort to force, you bring suffering to the heart of God.

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