Bond: licensed to kill and not to kill

War Memorial, Peterborough Parish Church

War Memorial, Peterborough Parish Church

Bond is back! The new film, Spectre, was released a couple of weeks ago and last week we went to sample the delights that are a new Bond film. I’m enjoying the backstory that we are getting with the more recent films, going back as they have to the first books by Ian Fleming. They are filling in things which mean the relationships with characters like Moneypenny and M have more depth to them, are much more rounded. It would be interesting to see the earlier films remade in the light of these prequels, having seen what we’ve now seen. In the latest, without giving away any spoilers, M has a conversation with one of his counterparts about whether we need people to do the dirty work of conflict or they could be replaced by drones. M’s reply is that the ‘Double 0’ status is not just a license to kill; it is also a license not to kill. The agent is required to make split second decisions and no drone can make that judgment call. The implication is that there is a moral side to what the double 0s are sent to do.

We see in the film, as we’ve seen in other Bond films, James decide between pulling the trigger and not doing. In the film ‘The Living Daylights’, Timothy Dalton’s Bond decides that the ‘cellist sniper has been set-up and disobeys his orders to take her out. This gets him into trouble with a rather autocratic M in that film who expects him to just obey orders and not exercise judgment. Bond is the moral one. A human being is required precisely because judgment is needed. War that only involves drones would lack all morality and quickly become an extension of some kind of video game played out on distant shores with no sense of consequences. Bond is back and so are the moral judgments made in the field.

I have been reading a book by Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford. It has the surprising title ‘In defence of war’. It is a reassessment of Just War theory, which has become popular, often repeated. Nigel Biggar takes a fresh look at it and applies it to modern warfare and political aims. He concludes that the key to the whole debate about whether war can be justified in certain circumstances lies with the first classic test, that of ‘Just Cause’. It is only if there is a good reason for going to war in the first place that there can be any hope of the other tests being met. Right cause means that there must be an injustice to be righted. Only then can any assessment be made of whether there is a need for this action. The injustice needs to be of an extreme and atrocious nature. Deaths and persecution, horrific torture and oppression need to be present otherwise the extreme action which warfare brings has no justification. Wanting to expand territory or get hold of someone else’s natural resources – oil for instance – is not a good enough ‘cause’ to go to war. For war to have any hope of being justified it cannot be reduced to just ‘the pursuit of policy by other means’ in Carl von Clausewitz’s famous definition from the early nineteenth century. That policy must itself be just. Clausewitz’s phrase does point to the need for an aim, but it leaves far too much out. The aim is itself under scrutiny.

From this righting of a significant wrong entry point springs the requirement for a legitimate authority to do the righting, for there to be legitimacy to the action. In our democratic times that authority needs to be publicly accountable and it is right for the public to call them to account. There is no room for ‘a love that asks no questions’. The next test is that of the last resort. Other options should have been exhausted and for those other options to be considered they need to be real ones, feasible. This itself flows into the next which is that the actions should be proportionate to achieve the aim flowing from the cause. That opens up a whole new moral dilemma. War by definition brings at best the unpalatable and grotesque into the frame. There is no way round it involving death and destruction, mutilation and scenes of an horrific nature. It is not surprising that those exposed to it can suffer years, even a lifetime’s trauma, flashbacks and haunting dreams in the night. For some there is never an end game which justifies this. For many the use of weapons like Trident is never an option. The means and the cause are fundamentally linked here. The final two tests are that the plan should have a reasonable chance of success – not be foolhardy – and non-combatants should be protected. Collateral damage is no excuse.

So I don’t know if you have ever thought of Bond films as being ones of moral choices exercised in the murky real politick of power and conflict, of justice and defence of justice. He is far more than just a drone or killing machine. He has to exercise judgment in the field.

There are hints of this in the first reading with the story of Jonah (3:1-5, 10). In the story Jonah is sent to right a wrong, to warn of destruction coming unless the people of Nineveh change their ways from the great injustices and oppression they are living, described delicately as ‘great wickedness’. Nineveh is today the Iraqi city of Mosel and that is a city overrun by ISIS and so we are brought to consider with the moral debate of our time how to respond to the evil and threat they present. Should there be boots on the ground or bombs from the air? What are the prospects of success and what would success look like? What other options are there before us? Who is the right authority to tackle this problem? The just cause is set because atrocious acts are being committed; it is an evil to be confronted. Protecting non-combatants is important to prevent giving propaganda to terrorist recruiters and liberators being seen as an occupying force, which former diplomat now MP Rory Stewart has identified as a major problem.

Jonah doesn’t want to go. Who would? He is sent to preach a message of repentance to a people showing no sign of being receptive to that message. His story is a sign that all efforts have not yet been exhausted, even if this is the last chance. Someone who can be trusted so that their alternative message can be heard and tried can have dramatic effects. They can also be executed and murdered. War comes when they are ignored, when voices that try to call back from the abyss are ignored. Peace is always worth a chance.

The last resort test requires us to expand our imagination to envision a different response, a non-violent one. Great and inspirational leaders like Martin Luther King and Gandhi displayed the rich bounty of fresh imagination in advocating peaceful demonstrations and not rioting. They demanded free speech and they shamed their oppressors. They are remembered because they survived long enough to be heard and their deaths became defining, shaming moments, and in time catalysts of change. As the moral balance was tipped oppression became unsustainable. The last resort test can require the freeing of the imagination to see what we can’t see at the moment, to dare to dream, to be a Jonah sent on what at first might look like a stupid mission. The last resort test is no easy option or quick justification for the impatient.

Last night’s Dr Who brought us the Doctor standing between two warring groups. It was a thinly disguised portrayal of the problem presented by extremism and our responses. In a moment of brilliance he pronounced:

“The only way people can live in peace is if they are prepared to forgive.”

No magic button, but a triumph of the imagination to break the impasse and endless cycle of violence begetting violence. Don’t rush to last resort.

Remembrance Sunday is not a day to glorify war. It is not a day for shallow regret either. Real remembrance demands that we struggle with the difficult questions of threat, oppression, peace and justice, violence and restraint. It requires us to imagine fresh opportunities that mean if war comes it really is the last resort, but has a serious end game for success to be to everyone’s benefit and good. Bond is back: licensed to kill and not to kill too.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 8th November 2015

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About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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