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The armed man: perpetrator, victim and instrument of God's justice

One of the tragedies of our sin-marred world is that it too often takes violence to end or control worse violence

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The armed man: perpetrator, victim and instrument of God's justice
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For a long time, I have wanted to listen to the Welsh composer Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace. I had heard excerpts that piqued that interest.

In addition to prayers from the Latin Rite Mass in Greek (Kyrie) and Latin (Sanctus, Agnus Dei and Benedictus), the work incorporates the Adhann, the Muslim call to prayer, as well as passages from the Bible and the Hindu epic the Mahabharata. The work also uses the words of poets from the Middle Ages to the present.

The name and opening song are a medieval secular French chanson, L'homme armé: “The armed man should be feared. / Everywhere it has been proclaimed / That each man shall arm himself / With a coat of iron mail. / The armed man should be feared.”

Ironically, the tune became popularly used in the composition of sung Masses in the Late Middle Ages and in the Renaissance.

A radio station to which I listen broadcasts the piece each year to mark the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States, and this year I finally listened to it.

The Armed Man is a dramatic presentation in words and music. It takes the armed man through the fear of impending battle, actual battle and its aftermath to climax with a poem by Sankichi Toge, a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and the Mahabharata account of the destruction of animals by fire.

After the horror, the Lamb of God brings peaceful reflectiveness and a call for peace sung to the French tune but with English words from a writer of the same period, Thomas Malory: “Better is peace than always war” and adds a question mark to the French, “The armed man should be feared.”

Finally, there is the recognition that peace comes as a gift of God in words from the Book of Revelation 21:4: “God shall wipe away all tears / And there shall be no more death / Neither sorrow nor crying / Neither shall there be anymore pain.”

Ironically, perhaps, the Mass was commissioned in 1999 by the Royal Armouries, the museum of British military artifacts, to mark the end of the most war-filled century in human history. The texts were chosen in part by the Master of the Royal Armouries, who also composed a poignant poem giving voice to an armed man who survives and mourns a dead comrade.

Sad to say, this 21st century continues the violence of the last one. As the folk-style ballad of my student days asked, “Oh, when will they ever learn?”

Jenkins portrays the armed man not as a perpetrator but as a victim of war. In fact, that is the case for most soldiers. Part of their victimization is that they are made into perpetrators. It is unsettling that to reach the peaceful end the armed man goes through violence as victim and perpetrator. Must violence be the path to peace?

It is 75 years since the end of the most destructive war in history, World War II. There were undoubtedly many devout prayers said back then for the end of the death, destruction, uncertainty, terror and genocide, and we cannot know what role those prayers played in the defeat of the Nazi and Japanese genocidal aggression.

We do know that the defeat would not have happened without the violence of war. Auschwitz was closed by Soviet Red Army troops, not rosaries. Much that was done by the winning side, like mass terror bombing of population centers, was undoubtedly evil, and not a few individuals involved in the war on that winning side committed personal sins and atrocities. God apparently worked through it all. Might God have done otherwise?

The answer is like the Englishman’s comment on strawberries: “Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did.”

That becomes a reason to reject absolute pacifism. It did not and could not have stopped the evil 75 years and more ago. It was the armed man, perpetrator and victim, who did what was presumably the will of God, the end of terrible evil.

Violence is unjustified, but it remains one of the tragedies of our sin-marred, sin-deformed world that it too often takes violence to end or control worse violence.

Resort to violence cannot, of course, be for the sake of pride, selfishness or any other aim than an honest pursuit of justice, for without justice there can be no peace.

As the world was careening toward World War II, Pope Pius XII chose as his motto Opus justitiae pax, the Latin version of words from Isaiah (32:17): “The effect of righteousness shall be peace.”

We must work for justice because there is no other way to peace. And though it must always be a last resort, we must accept the terrible possibility that there may be times when the only way to justice is with the armed man.

Father William Grimm is the publisher of UCA News based in Tokyo, Japan. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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