Holy Trinity Church

Anglican worship in Geneva

Sermon for second Sunday after Trinity – 9th June 2024

Today it’s not the clergy preaching to the choir, but the choir preaching to you….

But even though I’m wearing my choir robes, the metaphorical hat I’m wearing as I speak to you this morning is that of a diplomat. (At this point I should issue the standard declaimer: the reflections that follow are made very much in my personal, not my official capacity.) And I want to offer some reflections about diplomacy and the Christian faith, and what it means to be a Christian as a diplomat.

Diplomacy, and diplomats, have often had a bad rap. James I’s spymaster Sir Henry Wootton famously defined a diplomat as “an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for his country”. President Woodrow Wilson, like many of his generation, was convinced that secret diplomacy had in part caused the First World War; the very first of his Fourteen Points proclaimed “open covenants of peace openly arrived at… diplomacy shall always proceed frankly and in the public view.” In popular culture, in Britain at least, if they’re not portrayed as bumbling toffs, diplomats are often seen as smooth, secretive and scheming.

Day-to-day diplomacy and foreign policy are of course rooted in the all too human reality of our world. The first duty of governments is to ensure the safety and security of the country and its citizens; while it is the military’s job to be prepared to respond to threats, diplomats try to manage tensions in relationships, whether by carrot or stick, so they don’t escalate to that level. They also need to increase prosperity through trade and investment, and in many cases promote the values and culture of their country abroad. That can be largely positive work with friendly countries, and in tougher circumstances – in working on conflict prevention and resolution, for example – diplomats certainly play a role in calming nations who might otherwise furiously rage together. But it can also involve uncomfortable trade-offs and compromises, and in some cases making deals with fairly unpalatable leaders or regimes.

A daunting path, then, for a Christian to tread. How can one stay true to the teachings of Jesus in such a murky, Machiavellian profession? Or is there another way of seeing things?

As civil servants, we render unto the Government what is the Government’s, and unto God what is God’s. But throughout my career as a diplomat, I have taken inspiration from the vision of the peace of God in both the Old Testament and the New: the prophesy that “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more”, the prophesy which was fulfilled in Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

That quotation, ascribed to Isaiah (though a similar one is also to be found in Micah), is carved into the wall opposite United Nations Headquarters in New York, where steps descend from East 43rd St to 1st Avenue. I’ve often thought of this vision of peace among nations as the foundational mission of the United Nations. It expresses the idea that countries need to cooperate with each other in tackling problems that are too big for any of them to solve alone: poverty, disease, climate change, terrorism, or any number of other scourges.

But that idea of “swords into ploughshares” is particularly expressive of the problem I’ve spent the last six years working on here in Geneva: disarmament. At its most ideal, disarmament is about redirecting scarce resources from military budgets to development and welfare, as well as reducing or eliminating classes of weapons that cause unnecessary suffering to combatants or civilians. Arms control, a related concept, is about reducing mistrust and avoiding destabilising arms races, and reducing the chances that nations will feel the need to take up arms against each other. But here we come back to the dilemma central to diplomacy. Almost by definition, disarmament and arms control are not things you do with your friends and allies, but with your adversaries. Appeals to the common good alone will not do the trick; real progress is more likely to be achieved by identifying mutual self-interest, and reciprocal, and sometimes difficult, concessions.

And then we come to the central problem of disarmament, and in many ways of international politics, since 1945; what to do about nuclear weapons. Many argue powerfully that the only appropriate response to a weapon that could conceivably destroy life on Earth is to abolish them forthwith, and indeed every country that possesses nuclear weapons has signed up to the goal of a world without nuclear weapons. But others are convinced that the horrific prospect of the use of nuclear weapons is in fact what will prevent war between the major military powers from breaking out in the first place. And we saw all too clearly in the 20th century what horrific consequences even conventional warfare on a world-wide scale can have.

Many Christians have wrestled with this problem, from those at the top in whose hands the ultimate decision to use nuclear weapons would rest, to those soldiers, sailors and air crew who would be charged with executing it.

Perhaps the old story told in our first reading this morning might suggest a different way of thinking about it. We are told that God placed the Tree of Knowledge in the heart of the Garden of Eden, and instructed Adam and Eve not to eat of its fruit; though he entrusted them with the choice of whether or not to obey. So the knowledge placed into our hands today – fossil fuels, nuclear fission, advanced genetics, artificial intelligence – has the potential to transform the human experience, but also perhaps to destroy it. And the choice of how to use that knowledge is ours.

We have a choice, then. Of course, the solutions we reach will be by their nature imperfect, incomplete and inadequate. But if we choose to listen to God’s call – to “take him at his word,” as our opening hymn put it – to love our neighbours as ourselves; to recognise and resist evil; to strive to listen to and understand each other; and to work to overcome our enmities and grievances and pride and covetousness, for the common good, then perhaps we can come close to the profound peace that is the essence of His Kingdom. And then we will beat our swords into ploughshares and our spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and neither shall we learn war any more.

Amen.

Aidan Liddle