Nate Cull:  A Peace Sunday Sermon- 8 August 2010  

I work at Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology in the centre city. This week we have been celebrating "Polyculture" week - in which students who attend CPIT from all across the world give performances of music and dance from their home countries.

The CPIT main atrium often feels these days like a sort of mini- United Nations. As I walk between buildings, I see students wearing headscarves and speaking in many Middle-Eastern dialects I can't even recognise.

There is a row of flagpoles outside the main entrance flying flags from all the nations who attend our institution.

But this Thursday, all the flagpoles except one were empty. The New Zealand flag flew alone and at half-mast - on order of the New Zealand Government.

Why was this? Because one New Zealand soldier died this week, in Afghanistan.

According to press reports, the Hummvee in which 28-year-old Army Lieutenant Timothy O'Donnell was riding was attacked in an ambush by insurgents using rocket propelled grenades, small arms fire and improvised explosives. Three other soldiers in the patrol were injured; the rest escaped the encounter unharmed.

The death of Timothy O'Donnell is important because he is the first New Zealand soldier to die in combat in Afghanistan in nearly nine years of Coalition operations there. The newspapers have several pages of reporting, commentary, and interviews with friends and family members. There are statements on Timothy's character from those who knew him. There are editorials and letters to the editor. What does this mean for New Zealand, for the war, for our foreign policy? What does it mean about us as a nation, about our national courage and honour and moral fibre, about our views on politics and religion?

The newspaper accounts do not mention how many Afghan insurgents - if any - were killed as a result of the Coalition counterattack, how they died, and by what wounds. There is not even any indication that the men who set the ambush were human beings with their own long and complicated religious and political history, with mothers, fathers, and families of their own. With their own rage, grief, and honour.

But they were.

This week we also remember another dark moment in the history of war and peace. 65 years ago, on 6 August 1945, the United States dropped the first nuclear weapon on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. This bomb and the second which followed it, on Nagasaki, ended World War 2 and plunged the world abruptly into the Cold War between the USA and the Soviet Union. The nuclear confrontation, and the casual horror of words like 'Launch On Warning' and 'Mutual Assured Destruction' would last until 1989.

I remember the quiet fear of growing up in the 1980s. I remember movies like 'The Day After' showing us what would happen if those missiles launched: that nuclear weapons meant a kind of war which had no honour, no dignity, and no place for any human qualities. And I remember the brief moment of impossible joy when I learned that the Cold War was ending. I had assumed for all my childhood that the world simply didn't have a future. Suddenly that fear was proven wrong.

And then twelve years later in September 2001, the world was thrown back into a new war: this time with religious overtones. Western leaders were speaking openly and proudly of a new Crusade: a "clash of civilisations" to replace the Cold War, a war to the death of Christendom against Islam.

This kind of rhetoric chilled me to the bone, and still does.

I often find myself wondering just what it means to follow Jesus today. There are so many churches, so many different views about who Jesus is and what he taught.

But it seems to me that no matter which church one attends, there is one fact about Jesus which everyone agrees on: that he did not kill anyone, and that he died forgiving even his enemies.

Who are our enemies in Afghanistan?

The majority ethic group in Afghanistan, and the main group who support the Taliban, are the Pashtun people.

But I would like to talk specifically today about one Pashtun Afghan leader who you may never have heard of, although he was as famous as Mahatma Gandhi - and was in fact one of Ghandi's contemporaries and close friends.

That man was named Khan Abdul Ghaffer Khan. He was born in 1890 in Chasadda, in what is now Pakistan. His early education was at a village mosque and then a Christian mission school, and was on the point of travelling to England for higher education but decided instead to dedicate his life to reforming Pashtun society. While Gandhi drew inspiration from his Hindu faith, Gaffer Khan saw nonviolence as the core teaching of Islam.  In 1929 he created a nonviolent movement known as the Khudai Khidmatgar - the Servants of God.

The Khudai Khidmatgar was structured like a military organisation, with ranks and a uniform, but without weapons - similar in many ways to the Salvation Army. Members had to sign a pledge on joining: to serve God and their neighbours without payment and without regard for race or religion, to not take revenge or join blood-feuds, and to be non-violent in all their actions. Members travelled to Afghan villages and started schools, construction projects, and performed other acts of service. Through their political wing they also pushed strongly, alongside Gandhi, for Indian independence from Britain.

At their height they were said to have 100,000 members.

The British government began to see Ghaffar Khan as a political threat and claimed he was a Communist. On April 23, 1930, British troops arrested him during a nonviolent demonstration, and then fired on the crowd and drove through with armoured cars. During the massacre of over a hundred protestors, the Kudai Khidmatgar remained nonviolent.

During the 1930s, the British continued to arrest, torture and imprison Ghaffar Khan and members of this movement, including bombing border towns. When World War 2 broke out, Ghaffar Khan resigned from India's Congress Party rather than support the war, and this was also seen as treason by the British.

But his greatest heartbreak came after the Indian independence movement succeeded. Ghaffa Khan opposed the creation of Pakistan, fearing religious violence. When the new state was created, he was seen as 'a friend of India and a traitor', and was arrested - not by the British, but by the new Islamic regime. He would spend most of the rest of his life in prison in Pakistan.

Ghaffar Khan died under house arrest in 1988. In Afghanistan, he was still so well respected that the civil war paused briefly with a cease-fire to allow him to be buried. That was the same Afghan civil war which led directly to the Soviet invasion, the rise of the Taliban, the American invasion, and which ultimately took the life of Timothy O'Donnell last week.

Timothy O'Donnell was a New Zealand soldier, and gave his life serving the New Zealand military. Does the New Zealand military presence in Afghanistan make the situation better, or worse? That's a question which I can't answer. I also don't assume it's to be an automatic 'yes'. The British and the Soviets also thought they were doing the right thing being over there.

But because of Ghaffar Khan, and his Servants of God, I know that violence is not Afghanistan's only export. The Kudai Khidmatgar organisation is the most inspiring example of nonviolence I've seen in the 20th century.

There is one more intriguing thing I have learned about the Pashtun people. Of all the people groups in the world, they have a peculiar oral tradition, documented since the 10th century. The believe that they are what they call Bani Israel: descendents of the lost tribes of Israel. Recent genetic testing techniques might be able to determine whether that belief has any truth in it.

If the Afghans are originally from ancient Israel, I don't know that that would make Jesus love them more - but it certainly couldn't make him love them less.

This quotation is attributed to Ghaffar Khan:

"I have one great desire. I want to rescue these gentle, brave, patriotic people from the tyranny of the foreigners who have disgraced and dishonored them. I want to create for them a world of freedom, where they can live in peace, where they can laugh and be happy. I want to kiss the ground where their ruined houses once stood, before they were destroyed by savage strangers. I want to take a broom and sweep the alleys and the lanes and I want to clean their houses with my own hands. I want to wash away the stains of blood from their garments. I want to show the world how beautiful they are, these people from the hills, and then I want to proclaim : show me, if you can, any gentler, more courteous, more cultured people than these."

These are some of the links from my research:

THREE YouTube presentations (1)   (2)   (3)