Should Christians Fight? Bert Brocklesby and Conisbrough Methodist Church

At last night’s Bible Study, we looked at George Fox, the best-known founder of the Society of Friends (Quakers). Afterwards, we examined that most famous of Quaker principles- pacifism or non-violence. Having read the Lord’s words in Matthew 5, it is clear that pacifism has Biblical warrant.

Last week I visited Conisbrough in South Yorkshire. I went to see its imposing medieval castle and its Methodist Church. The latter is fairly ordinary- a Victorian red brick chapel, pretty in its simplicity and elegant in its symmetry. It was here, though, in January 1915, that Bert Brocklesby got up to preach. He was the organist, Sunday School teacher and, until that night, one of the circuit lay preachers. He ascended the large pulpit and asked his congregation if they could imagine Christ in military dress bayonetting a German soldier. The answer of course was no. How, therefore, Bert asked, could we who follow His example, support the war effort? The congregation was stunned. Patriotic sentiment was high, and speaking ill of the war was deemed treasonous by many. Mrs Appleyard, a leading member of the church, said what many were probably thinking: "He has only preached it because he is frightened to go himself". Suffice to say, he was not asked back.

When Bert was conscripted in July 1916, he informed the tribunal that he could not fight on the grounds of conscience. The Military Service Act did allow for exemptions due to a tender conscience, but only if they would attend to non-combative war duties, such as peeling spuds, digging trenches or tending the wounded. This Bert also refused on the grounds that it was indirectly supporting the killing of humans made in God’s image. He was duly imprisoned at Richmond Castle (his cell graffiti is still visible) and tried for his life in France, though the sentence was never carried out. After the war, he was refused the right to vote and received abuse and contempt from many of his fellow citizens whose sons and fathers had gone off to fight for king and country.

Was he right? The Bible certainly does prefer peace to war:

But this word of the Lord came to me: 'You have shed much blood and have fought many wars. You are not to build a house for my Name, because you have shed much blood on the earth in my sight. (1 Chronicles 22:8)

King David was denied the privilege of building God’s temple on account of his warring; it was instead handed to his more peaceful son, Solomon.

They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore (Isaiah 2:4).

This is also the motto of the BBC. It is set in the future and is a vision of peace and prosperity. Should we not aim at the ideal now, rather than simply wait for Christ’s reign as Prince of Peace?

You shall not murder (Exodus 20:13)

This is often invoked by pacifists. Technically and legally, the death of a uniformed soldier at the hands of an enemy at time of war is not murder, but lawful killing. But is it lawful according to heaven’s judiciary?

Jesus invites his followers to not resist the evil man that is, using physical force. If someone wishes to rob your tunic, give him your cloak as well. And if one strikes one cheek, offer him the other.

However, God in the Old Testament evidently approves of warfare:

1 Samuel 15:18: 'Go and completely destroy those wicked people, the Amalekites; wage war against them until you have wiped them out.'

As the God of a particular nation, he offered them civic laws and the means by which they would defend themselves from earthly enemies. We latter people of God wrestle not against flesh and blood but spiritual powers.

Prov 22:15: Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him

Pacifism doesn’t just cover warfare, but the refusal to engage in all manner of violence. This would include inflicting corporal punishment on children. Many modern parents manage perfectly well without it; others point to scripture and suggest that the spirit of rebellion so endemic in our culture is borne by an undisciplined up-bringing.

It was an interesting discussion we had. Would one use force to save a relative from an attacker? Would we invoke the death penalty for murderers? If our nation was under attack, and people were conscripted to fight, would we go?