Forgive the Bishop to the Armed Forces. He knows not what he does
Stephen Venner, Bishop to the Armed Forces, has got himself into a lot of hot water over comments he has made regarding the Taliban.
He is “a sickening disgrace” according to the Telegraph’s Nile Gardiner.
This is what the bishop said:
“We’ve been too simplistic in our attitude towards the Taliban.”
“There’s a large number of things that the Taliban say and stand for which none of us in the west could approve, but simply to say therefore that everything they do is bad is not helping the situation because it’s not honest really.”
“The Taliban can perhaps be admired for their conviction to their faith and their sense of loyalty to each other.”
He has now apologised although it has an element of the “I-have-been-misinterpreted-by-the-media” line which we hear from so many bishops these days (sometimes justified) which is wearing a little thin now for many people.
You can see what the bishop was trying to do. He seems to have been attempting an intervention, urging a reassessment of how the Taliban are viewed. It was an attempt to move away from the demonisation of enemies toward a fuller understanding of what orthodox Christianity teaches - that all are made in the image of God.
But the problem he faces is institutional. As Bishop to the Armed Forces he stands at the centre of a far-too-close relationship between the church and the military, which compromises the Christian message, and results in fudges like that of the last 24 hours.
The Church has been kidding itself for years that it can easily square its current position with Jesus’ teachings about war, forgiveness and violence. It can’t. Jesus was unequivocal in his command to love enemies, forgive and turn the other cheek. This has of course been wrongly interpreted down the centuries as appeasement and passivity in the face of evil, rather than active, nonviolent resistance.
But even 'just war' theory acknowledges that war is always an evil. However, as bishop to the Armed Forces he can’t say this – particularly at a time when military leaders are propoing that in order to support the armed forces you have to support the mission in Afghanistan too. So what he has ended up doing is trying to scrabble around to find some things that we might be able to love enemies for such as their “loyalty” or “conviction”.
But the point of Jesus message is that we are called to love when there is absolutely nothing to praise enemies for. When they are committing the most heinous acts of evil, then that is when Christians believe that we are called to forgive. This is after all what Jesus did as soldiers nailed him to the cross. It was not “forgive them father, because these Romans are really loyal to their cohorts” or “forgive them because they believe that I really am a danger to the empire”. Rather it was “forgive them for they don’t know the evil they are committing”.
When you aren’t able to stand up, stand up for Jesus, as the “soldiers of the cross” are called to do, then you end up with fudges which are always going to cause trouble, doing more damage than good.
The bishop's message was neither distinctively Christian, nor helpful. The church does have a scandalous message. But it’s scandalous for a different reason. And it won’t be able to deliver it until the church stops being theologically hamstrung and puts a greater distance between it and the armed forces.
This needn't mean abandonning its pastoral role. Indeed, care and love for members of the armed forces should be entirely compatable with active peaceaking. But it would involve reimagining that relationship in a way that gives more space to a Christian perspective on peace and war. We have suggested that a good start would be to have a bishop to the 'unarmed' forces too, to recognise the work of many Christians and churches in peacemaking and conflict prevention.
The Bishop will now backtrack and feel he has to throw his support behind not just the soldiers in Afghanistan, but the mission itself. But let’s give Stephen Venner a break and a bit of forgiveness. Like those before him, he too “knows not what he does”.
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