There is a memorable scene in the American drama The West Wing. It is a period of intense international threat. Pakistan and India- two nuclear powers- are lining up troops on their respective borders. President Bartlet’s mind goes to the book of Revelation and he refers to the so called four horses of the Apocalypse in Revelation 6. It is a passage that I am lined up to preach on next February here at Woody Road. This week it has felt particularly pertinent- “Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people kill each other. To him was given a large sword.” (v.4)
It is less than a week since the evil murders in Paris when the seemingly regular atrocities seen in places like Baghdad were brought near to us. Rightly, there have been appropriate expressions of solidarity and condolence. In this piece though I want to do some hard thinking. As I’ve read various responses to what has gone on it seems to me that there is a danger of idealism.
One form of idealism has come in the form of Jeremy Corbyn. He has argued that the events in Paris have emphasised the need for a political settlement in Syria. He has expressed hesitancy about the police’s right to shoot to kill potential terrorists and doubts about the virtue of killing “Jihadi John” without first going through a trial. In some ways, Corbyn is admirable. His is clearly a voice of principle and he is determined to express that despite the fact that he is going against the prevailing consensus in our society- in some ways he is a fine example to Christians.
But, in the end, I am not convinced. Not, I hasten to add, because I am opposed to peaceful settlements or judicial process. Rather, I believe he has for too optimistic a view of human nature- he seems to suggest that if only people would talk to each other then everything would work out. The Christian should not be that naive- we live in a world where there is evil. That is manifest in our hearts, our communities, our nations and on the international scene. It is why Revelation 6 speaks of ongoing history involving war, why Jesus tells us there will always be wars and rumours of wars and why the state is given the power of the sword to punish evil and reign in its worst excesses in Romans 13. If I am honest, it is why I don’t find platitudes about peace particularly helpful in this context.
So am I arguing for a right wing position instead? No, for in its way it is equally idealistic. This may be an unpopular thing to suggest but there were good moral reasons for the Iraq War of 2003. Here was an attempt to intervene rather than stand on the sidelines, to rescue a country from a dictator and bring it into the light of democracy. Well, we know how it has turned out. Likewise the so called Arab Spring was praised because it would lead to a democratic movement that would usher in peace and prosperity. Sadly it has spawned the precise opposite. The last fifteen years or so have left us rightly sceptical about idealistic plans to intervene in another part of the world such that we can create peace.
It is enough to make you feel some sympathy for politicians. What should they do in this situation? Truth be told, I have no idea. It seems to me impossible to predict what any course of action will bring. I am not convinced that simply talking to people works for not everybody is reasonable. But would bombing Syria destroy ISIL or would it simply create a whole new wave of recruits for their cause? Who knows?
So how should the Christian respond? I take for granted that which many others have written about this week- praying for those bereaved, being friendly towards and not discriminating against Muslim neighbours and so on. At the grand scale ,though, I think this is a call to be humble about what we as human beings can do. Human beings are capable of appalling evil and we are utterly incapable of bringing about peace. It is the role of politicians to sound as though they are in control but we (and I suspect they behind closed doors) know that to be wrong. “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save.” (Psalm 146:3)
It seems to me that the biblical message at times like this is not that we can create peace if we all love each other a bit more or if we have some great strategic plan for the world. The message is this- the only real hope for the world is the return of Jesus. There is a biblical idealism but it is predicated on what Jesus will accomplish, not on what humans will achieve. The day will come when those four horsemen no longer have to do their jobs- when the kingdom of this world becomes the kingdom of our Lord and Christ and he will reign for ever and ever. That will be a great day for all tears and evil will be gone for ever. It is the great hope even of the Old Testament:
“Let all creation rejoice before the LORD, for he comes,
He comes to judge the earth,
He will judge the world in righteousness
and the peoples in his faithfulness.” (Psalm 96:13)