A message from our Minister, The Rev Dr Neil Dougall - November 2018
This month marks 100 years since the end of the First World War. The Great War, as it was called then, was a traumatic experience for our small town. The fact that there are 154 names on the town’s war memorial, compared to 40 names for the Second World War, gives an insight into the scale of loss experienced.
Every school pupil knows that the assassination of Archduke Frank Ferdinand in Sarajevo triggered the war. What is far from clear, though, is why this event triggered the war. I have been reading two tomes on the subject, The Pity of War by Niall Ferguson, and Catastrophe by Max Hastings.
There’s no doubt that relations between the Europe powers in 1914 were complicated and complex. The assassination created shockwaves which unsettled a fragile balance. That war then broke out is understandable. However, it was not inescapable. That it can be explained does not mean it was inevitable. Different decisions might have led to a different outcome. Millions of lives might have been spared.
Between them Ferguson and Hastings paint a picture of poor leadership on all sides. Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary was out of his depth. Lloyd George said that while Grey ‘could deal with questions that had rational answers; when faced with inexplicable, he tended to retreat’. Ferguson calls H. H. Asquith, the British Prime Minister, a weathervane who blew with the wind.
The problem wasn’t confined to Britain. Tsar Nicholas II of Russia lacked backbone. Lord Lansdowne said that ‘the way to deal with the Tsar was to be the last to leave the room’. In Germany, Helmut Von Moltke, the Chief of Staff played a critical role. Hastings says that ‘like his royal master, the chief of staff was fundamentally a weak man seeking to masquerade as a strong one’.
Meanwhile the French leaders were nowhere to be seen. After the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, Europe was in turmoil. In these critical weeks the French President and Prime Minister decided to travel by sea to St Petersburg in Russia. The voyage each way took six days during which no messages reached them. Hours after they set sale to return to France, Austria delivered its ultimatum to Serbia. Russian began mobilising troops, Germany followed suit. France found itself stuck in a vacuum because no one had authority to make decisions.
In times of crises good leadership makes a difference. It can limit damage, reduce tension and even discover a solution that no one imagined was possible. Equally, when complex problems arise weak leadership can be disastrous. Events spiral out of control and take on a life of their own.
Not many people think that the leaders of our nation are doing a very good job at the moment. We are living through complicated and complex times. The good news is that the issues are not about war and peace. The bad news is that the challenges seem intractable. We will be living with the consequences of whatever decisions are made for decades to come. Unfortunately, our leaders do not appear to be up to the task of agreeing solutions and implementing them.
As a result they are criticised relentlessly. Our frustration and fear about what might happen is expressed in constant complaint and derision. While this is understandable it is largely unproductive. It’s also not the only response open to us. There is something we can and should do. We can pray.
The Apostle Paul urged Timothy, ‘I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people - for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness’. (1 Timothy 2:1,2 ).
God expects Christians to pray for their leaders. He doesn’t ask us to approve of them, agree with what they stand for or support what they say. But he wants us to pray for them.
In Paul’s day democracy did not exist. People had no say in who their leaders were. They didn’t get a chance every four or five years to express their verdict on their performance. Yet far from being powerless, Christians discovered they were being asked to shape their community through prayer. By praying they could affect how the magistrate behaved, the governor governed and the Emperor ruled.
God does not ask us to be simpering sycophants. Equally we are not to be constant critics. Praying for our leaders is one way we can make a positive contribution. Our leaders, whether they are in Haddington, Hollywood, Westminster or Brussels need our prayers and will be affected by our prayers. Our prayers can help our leaders rise to the challenges that we face at the moment and make better decisions than otherwise they might.
To see other messages from Neil, click on the appropriate month in the table below.
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