Event Name Sermon given at Matins on the Second Sunday before Lent 2017
Start Date 19th Feb 2017 10:00am

The Reverend David Stanton, Canon in Residence

My sermons at Matins this month are based upon recently released films. Last week I spoke about the film entitled ‘United Kingdom’ which is based on a little known romance between a Botswana king and his British wife. The sermon before that was based on the film ‘Silence’ by Martin Scorsese, all about Jesuit missionaries in 17th-century Japan.

This morning I shall be reflecting through faith upon a recent film called ‘Anthropoid’ which is set in the beautiful city of Prague, during the Second World War, and is clearly depicted as the vibrant cosmopolitan city that it was at the time.

It begins with two resistance fighters parachuting into the Czech forests on a dangerous and highly secret mission. The Director Sean Ellis set out to narrate a plot to assassinate the ‘Butcher of Prague’, SS - Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, by a group of Czech commandos in May 1942.

Heydrich was the main architect behind the terrible ‘Final Solution’; he was the Reich's third in command behind Hitler and Himmler and the leader of Nazi forces in Czechoslovakia. He was brutal to the people of this country.

Here the ethical conflicts of an assassination are immediately thrust upon the viewer, for any assassination attempt in Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia, would undoubtedly have resulted in the roundup and execution of thousands of innocent civilians.

Yet justifying Heydrich’s assassination was not a simple matter, as Anthropoid’s heroes discover. In the film, they find themselves grappling with a profound tension between the core principles of just war theory.

In many ways, the more vicious an enemy is in a just war, the more compelling the cause is for fighting them. But paradoxically, in the most extreme cases, the greater the evil of an enemy, the harder it may be to justify an attack.

This is because if a regime is prepared to act like the Nazis in Prague and inflict massive, indiscriminate violence in retaliation to any attack, it poses an almost impossible dilemma for its opponents.

They will have to choose between either not resisting at all, or committing acts that will have such terrible consequences for their compatriots, that they may well be self-defeating.

So could an attack on Heydrich be ethically justified? Could you sacrifice a city to save a country? This is the ethical dilemma that runs through the film, and this dilemma causes sharp disagreements between the resistance fighters.

If you know that your action will result in the death of thousands, do you assassinate a man who will continue to kill thousands? This is a variation of the classic ‘Trolley Dilemma’, when we’re posed with the option to kill one to save many.

But in this case it’s the reverse; can you kill one to save many, knowing many will die as a result. How many? Indeed it raises the question, would the assassination save more than doing nothing?

Surely the answer is to kill the evil Heydrich. And surely the guilt must ultimately lie fully upon the Nazis themselves. This sort of ‘Just war’ cinema, that developed soon after the war, has two fundamental characteristics.

Firstly, by contrast to ‘anti-war’ cinema, it takes seriously the possibility that war is sometimes morally justified. Secondly, it tackles ethical questions arising for those caught up in just wars as soldiers.

And so, is it possible for people of faith, to view such assassination as a regrettable consequence of doing the right thing? Indeed can the killing of a mass murderer ever be just a tangential, unavoidable, bad moral consequence.

St Thomas Aquinas, back in the 13th century, was thinking of a similar situation, when he came up with four conditions that he thought must be met for acting morally with a bad moral consequence:

Firstly, the action itself cannot be morally wrong. Secondly, the bad effect must not lead directly to the good effect. Thirdly, the intention must only be to achieve good  with the bad effect only being an unintended side effect. Fourthly the good effect must be at least as morally good as the bad effect is morally bad.

So if we apply all this to the plot to assassinate the ‘Butcher of Prague’, I believe Aquinas would argue that the actual action here is in the saving one’s countrymen, and that the unintended side effect is the killing of this SS Officer Reinhard Heydrich.

Here Aquinas may argue that the killing somehow comes later in the chain of events, only after the good effect of saving others. In other words, saving thousands of people is a moral positive, whereas killing a mass murderer is a moral negative.

Although, mercifully, we will probably never be called upon to make such difficult choices, it’s important that we understand the Christian moral framework in which they operate.

Films such as this highlight the inherent dilemma within Christian ethics, and reminds us that we’re all called to exercise our ethical judgment as God’s children and as people created in God’s image.

Although we each have our own free will, we’re never actually free agents, with license to do whatever we like with no consideration for how our lives are connected to God and others. What makes us true individuals is that God calls us by name.

Our individuality isn’t a personal achievement or power, and perhaps most importantly of all, it’s only really established in community with God.

Ultimately, we’re actually most ourselves, most alive, not when we seek to direct and control things all by ourselves, but when we recognise and admit that our life is grounded in and sustained by God.

This crucial fact was emphasised today within our New Testament lesson from St Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae: that through Christ, God was pleased to reconcile all things to himself.

We must always remember that whatever difficult and autonomous choices we make, we must remain consistent with the fact that we do not belong to ourselves, but to God.

© 2018 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

Website design - Design by Structure