Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky Canon Theologian
Sunday, 30th July 2006
Readings: Song of Solomon 2; 1 Pet 4: 7-14
In The Song of Solomon, from which our first reading came, Lebanon is repeatedly associated with images of beauty. The book itself is a delightful love song, which Christians have all too quickly wanted to turn into an allegory about the love of the soul for God. The way it speaks about Lebanon reminds us that it is a celebration of young love in the culture of the ancient near East: 'The scent of your garments is like the scent of Lebanon' (4:11); 'My beloved is all radiant ... His appearance is like Lebanon, choice as the cedars' (5:10, 15). In Biblical times the cedars of Lebanon were famous. Because they were the best wood available, they were used in the building of the Solomon's Temple. Now they are all gone.
The New Testament reading spoke about a community under threat: 'The end of all things is at hand; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers' (1 Pet 4:7). No time here for the love poetry of youth; here a very different kind of love is needed. ' Above all maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.' This is a community that is facing extinction, and must be ready for it. 'Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you ... as though something strange were happening to you'. This is a community whose life together had been pared down to the essentials because there is no time left for anything else, and the greatest essential is love for one another. We would probably say they were wrong to expect the 'fiery ordeal' in their time. Our question today is about those who are facing the 'fiery ordeal' now.
The shock of what is currently going on in Lebanon, Gaza and Israel faces all of us, those caught up in the fighting and those of us watching on our televisions, with terrible questions. I have no special expertise in the politics and history of the situation. I am simply a Christian who watches the news like anybody else. The first question, which comes back time and again when we see such horrors is how God, if there is a God who has the power to stop such things, could possibly allow them to happen. And to that question there is no simple answer - except to say that if we give up on God, and look on human life as a meaningless accident, we then have the problem of accounting for love; and when, with the help of the readings like those we had this morning, I think of the beauty and power of love, it becomes as hard not to believe - as it is to believe when I see the suffering of people caught up in the war-zones of the world.
We are rightly shocked when we see such awful things. Such suffering, caused by human beings to other human beings, is an outrage. Sadly, though, we need to put things in some sort of perspective. According to a UN estimate yesterday, in the 18 days since two Israeli soldiers were captured on the Lebanese border some 600 civilians in South Lebanon have been killed, about a third of whom were children. We are seeing less of Israeli casualties, but these too are mounting, and these too include innocent children. All of this is truly awful, but it is salutary to remember that according to UNICEF about 1200 people are dying daily in the conflict in Congo, that about half of them are children, and there is virtually no international pressure to bring a stop to the conflict. We are extremely selective in our concerns.
The background to the conflict in Lebanon is complex and it is not the place for me to go through it here. We may want to say this is simply a new expression of the conflict there has been for generations between Arabs and Jews, and it is nothing to do with us, but it is not so easy to shrug off our involvement. Apart from the ancient religious history of the Jews, the land of Israel is vital for the identity of the Jewish people because of the vicious persecution Jews have experienced for generations, in Britain as elsewhere, culminating in the Holocaust. The British played a crucial part in the establishment of Israel when, in 1917, without in any way consulting the Palestinian people, the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, promised to the Jews a homeland in Palestine. After the Second World War, many Palestinians were expelled from their homeland so that this promise could be kept.
Since Hezbollah, the militant Islamic organisation that is firing rockets into Israel from Lebanon, has backing from Iran, we need to remember that the British and the Americans supported the regime of the last Shah of Iran, which was overthrown by the Islamic revolution of 1979, and we then supported Saddam Hussein in the war between Iraq and Iran. Quite apart from the current British involvement in Iraq, we should not forget how deep has been the involvement of Britain, France and the US in the region for decades. Even if that involvement doesn't suit us any more and now costs us dear, we cannot walk away from the situation, saying we have no responsibility for it.
Britain is a key member of the United Nations: it has a seat on the Security Council. Security Council resolution 512, passed on 19 June 1982, expresses deep concern at the suffering of the Lebanese and Palestinian civilian populations, calls upon all the parties to the conflict to respect the rights of the civilian populations, to refrain from all acts of violence against those populations and to take all appropriate measures to alleviate the suffering caused by the conflict. We have been here before! The United Nations has received much bad publicity for its corruption and its failure to prevent conflicts, but it can only be as strong as its member states make it. Without it the world would be so much a bleaker place. We should not forget the huge amount of peacekeeping work done by the UN (4 UN international observers were killed in Lebanon last week), its work with refugees and its work with children. If we did not have the United Nations, what other forum would there be to bring nations together to attempt to bring about diplomatic progress on a whole range of situations where violence is threatened or has broken out? But Britain has to play its part in seeing that UN resolutions are observed on the ground. Throughout the Arab world it has been noted that Israel consistently ignores Resolution 242, which calls upon it to pull back from territory, not just in Gaza, but on the West Bank and the Golan heights, occupied in the 1967 War. When Britain was calling upon Saddam Hussein to comply with UN resolution 1441, it was conspicuously silent about Israel's continued occupation of territories it had seized in 1967. This double standard has done much to lower British moral authority in the Arab world.
But what can ordinary people like you and me do to stop the fighting? There are incredibly brave individuals who try to act personally as builders of the peace, like Tom Hurndall (a young British man) and Rachel Corrie (a young American), both of whom paid with their lives. There are reporters who risk and sometimes lose their lives so we can know what is going on. There are those who offer themselves as election observers. Along with 17000 UN troops, 1300 will be observing the Presidential election in Congo today. If we do not make some effort to listen to their reports, to learn from them, and, where possible, to act upon them, we render their efforts pointless.
What, then, can we do? We can't all be election observers, and we can't respond to every world need, but we can be members of churches with power and influence to change things. The churches in this country are of course in touch with the beleaguered churches of the Lebanon and Israel-Palestine and giving what support they can. We can and must pray for our brothers and sisters, we must remember all caught up in the conflict in our prayers, and there may be more that we can do by belonging to groups that seek to be better informed about the situation, or by contacting elected representatives to express our support for initiatives that will bring peace. The United Nations Association builds support for the UN at local level and there is much we can do to support organisations like Oxfam, Save the Children and Amnesty International, which work as builders of the peace. It may yet be that the conflict in Lebanon will generate a stream of refugees, some of which will come to Britain. Of course, we shall welcome them. Or shall we? We need again to be careful of double standards. Thousands of people have come to Britain seeking refuge from the conflict in Congo and many of these are either destitute in our big cities or deported back to the war-torn country from which they came.
Each one of us has to find his of her path to peace, and pursue it (cf 1 Pet 3:11), through whatever 'fiery ordeal' we, or those close to us, may have to face. If we have the example of Jesus Christ to guide us and the Spirit of Peace to give us hope, we shall not be fooled into thinking this will be an easy path. It is a path which could cost everything, even our lives, but it is the only possible path of hope for humanity. It begins here, in our own communities, and in what we can do amongst our families and friends, in our churches and our places of work, to build the peace that is so much needed in Lebanon, Israel and Gaza - a peace where a new generation can live and love and, where, as we heard in our first reading, 'the winter is past, the rain is over and gone, the flowers appears on the earth; [and] the time of singing has come'.