Canon Treasurer - Revd Canon Leanne Roberts
We don’t often think about the soldiers
There is so much going on in our Passion narrative, so many characters and complications and horror, that those who are charged with actually carrying out the torture and crucifixion of Jesus can feel like mere bit-parts, anonymous figures who get the job done.
I was struck forcibly by the final phrase in our reading: ‘And that is what the soldiers did.’ It is matter-of-fact. It was their job. They had no choice. They were likely not new to this.
Soldiers are very present to us at the moment, in our news, in our world. We have heard terrible stories of the atrocities committed in the name of war: the torture, murder, rape of civilians that, we think, are surely outside the brief to dismantle an opposing military, and take control of power?
And I wondered, similarly, about these soliders in the Passion story; they were told to arrest, guard, escort, and eventually crucify Jesus. But did they have to mock? Did they have to spit? Did they have to torment him with a crown of thorns? Again, this feels as if it were outside their immediate brief.
I suspect the reason so much brutality exists – then, and now – is that they – and we – need to dehumanize others in order to justify actions we cannot naturally accept. If the one to whom we are tempted to brutalise is not really, to us, an actual person, if we make them so very ‘other’ as to be unrecognizable, if this person is really nothing like our father, or sister, or friend, then we can revel in our power, and lose our control – and, inevitably, our own humanity in the process.
I was speaking recently to a good friend who is a Senior Army Chaplain. I remember well when he did his tours of Afghanistan, and my fear for his safety. I remember, too, his return, and seeing how it had changed him; how his responsibility to those under his spiritual care had warred with his own fears and concerns, and how often these needed to be put aside in the face of injury and death.
So in my recent conversation, I asked him what, in his opinion, were soldiers most afraid of. He replied, without hesitation, ‘disgrace’. The disgrace of letting down comrades, letting down country, letting down self. Fear of being thought cowardly, dishonourable, unreliable in life and death situations.
Soldiers are understandably proud of their training, their discipline, their responsibility. Fear of disgrace is, then, the shadow side, the burden that comes with risking oneself on behalf of others.
One of the greatest so-called war poets, Wilfred Owen, writes this:
Patting goodbye, doubtless they told the lad
He’d always show the Hun a brave man’s face;
Father would sooner him dead than in disgrace,—
Was proud to see him going, aye, and glad.
Perhaps his Mother whimpered how she’d fret
Until he got a nice, safe wound to nurse.
Sisters would wish girls too could shoot, charge, curse, . . .
Brothers—would send his favourite cigarette,
Each week, month after month, they wrote the same,
Thinking him sheltered in some Y. M. Hut,
Where once an hour a bullet missed its aim
And misses teased the hunger of his brain.
His eyes grew old with wincing, and his hand
Reckless with ague. Courage leaked, as sand
From the best sandbags after years of rain.
But never leave, wound, fever, trench-foot, shock,
Untrapped the wretch. And death seemed still withheld
for torture of lying machinally shelled,
At the pleasure of his world’s Powers who’d run amok.
He’d seen men shoot their hands, on night patrol,
Their people never knew. Yet they were vile.
“Death sooner than dishonour, that’s the style!”
So Father said.
It can be easy for us to be blind to what others are expected or commanded to do in our name. To be blasé about the terrible decisions needing to be made in our world
Soldiers are necessarily firmly under authority. They are trained to act in obedience. They often live in situations of immense pressure, and their understanding of authority, of obedience, protects us, civilians, from decisions and actions which would be at best unpalatable, at worst unthinkable. They are given instruction, and expected to act without question: ‘and that is what the soliders did’.
But while an instruction – go here, go there, watch, fight, rescue – can be clear, how we act within that instruction is often murky and left to our own conscience. There are honourable soldiers, and there are dishonourable soliders, because there are honourable humans, and dishonourable ones.
We, too, are people under authority. As Christians we believe that Jesus is our Lord and Saviour, that his instructions are to be followed. We may try our best (though which of us can say that this is the case at every given moment?), but how we operate in the world relies on a more nuanced interpretation and understanding of the instructions we have been given.
Last night we read of Jesus telling his disciples to love one another, as he has loved us.
Do we always behave as those under divine authority?
When do we act, instead, out of fear of being derided, or disapproved of, of being punished, or gossiped about, or criticized?
In what ways do we live according to the world’s expectations rather that God’s, leading us to castigate, gossip, torment, colluding with what we know is mean and dark rather than the more costly response of acting with honour, which may lead to a certain kind of social disgrace?
How often do we live as those under the sway of our longing to be popular, successful, witty, accepted, rather than under the authority of Jesus who calls us to quite a different way of living which is authentic and loving?
This takes us back, I think, to a reflection earlier this week about truth: how can I live truthfully in this moment? Can I risk it? What will they say?
Our fear of disgrace takes many forms, but it usually leads us to behave contrary to our better nature. It encourages us to be cowardly and conflict averse, dishonest and appeasing, more anxious to preserve the good opinions of others than to be true to ourselves and our calling.
Today, we witness Jesus in disgrace. He is pinned to his cross in solidarity with all those who are mocked, punished, abused, denigrated, dismissed.
And this is what the soldiers did.
We distance ourselves from these soldiers at our peril, because they show as an aspect of human nature that is within us all. We cannot change if we do not understand this, but remain stuck in our fears of being less than others expect of us. This is truly an ‘unlived life’, a way of being which is conditional on the whims of others rather than relying on the eternal, unconditional love of God shown to us in Jesus for the fullness of life that is offered to us in every moment.
We need never fear disgrace with God. We are loved entirely, just as we are. We may ask for – and be given – forgiveness, healing, comfort to assuage our shame, but the love was there before it, and never falters.
We are people under authority: not the authority of Pilate, or Herod, or Caiaphas, or Putin, or Johnson, or Starmer, or any of the political and religious powers of this world; but under God, who is love, in whom there is no place for shame or disgrace, but only freedom and peace.
This is Variation on a Theme by Rilke, by Denise Levertov:
A certain day became a presence to me;
there it was, confronting me — a sky, air, light:
a being. And before it started to descend
from the height of noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder as if with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task. The day’s blow
rang out, metallic — or it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew: I can.