27 August 2015
A spiritual battle
The Evangelical Alliance’s British values survey shows 33 per cent of evangelicals are very proud of the armed forces. So Amaris Cole caught up with Major General Tim Cross CBE. The former soldier was commissioned into the British Army in 1971, after first applying aged 14. He served for a total of 36 years, and was involved in conflicts such as The Troubles, Gulf War, Kosovo War and in Iraq. Since retiring, he has worked with humanitarian organisations, lectured at universities and preached as a Church of England lay minister.
What made you join the army?
I’m often asked that question and the real answer is I don’t know. I always wanted to be a part of the army. I was born in 1951 and I joined the army cadets in 1964, which was obviously 20 years after D-Day, so I was raised in that period where the vast majority of people were involved in the Second World War – they had brothers, sisters, husbands, wives and so forth in the military. Many had of course lost friends and relatives, so the country as a whole was very military conscious – very “military friendly”. With the Korean war in the 1950s, obviously the Suez Crisis in 1956, we still had troops all around the world – it was a part of my upbringing really. I wasn’t particularly intellectual – I didn’t really enjoy school much. I was a scout and then an army cadet. I think I decided pretty early on I didn’t want to be sitting in an office. The army was just a natural place to go. I don’t think it was a conscious decision.
You weren’t a Christian when you joined the army. Would you still have joined it if you were?
I think so. I don’t see why not. I was actually confirmed in Sandhurst [the Royal Military Academy] in 1970 and it was quite unusual.
I’d say [my wife and I] were conventional Christians. Then in 1981 I was doing a tour in Cyprus with the United Nations on a peace keeping tour. We had the opportunity of going to Jerusalem – a tourist type thing for the Easter weekend. Easter Sunday happened to be my 30th birthday and we went to the Garden Tomb. The guide was a retired British army colonel, who showed me around and
challenged me. As a result of that I gave my life – a good, old fashioned born again Christian.
"The British army gets things wrong, of course it does, it's a flawed organisation because it is made up of people like me - and I'm flawed. But underpinning it is this desire to be a force for good in the world, to make a positive difference."
Would that have changed my mind on the military?
Well obviously people asked me if I should have left. It’s something I considered at the time and studied. I could bang on forever about it, but first of all, when you’re in the military you see the reality of a fallen world. Words like ‘sin’ and ‘evil’ are not interesting theological issues – they are a reality. Watching mass graves being dug up in The Falklands and Iraq and seeing what people can do to each other, you realise we live in a hard, brutal, fallen world. In the same way we need a police force in the streets to deal with crime, in my view, we need a force to deal with brutal dictators and nasty people around the world.
Whether that’s Nazi Germany, or whether it’s terrorism, or the rise of the caliphate with what’s going on in places like Tunisia. We need to deal with the reality of the fallen world.
And then if you look at the scriptures – Jesus’ engagement with the centurion: “Never found faith like this anywhere in Israel”, and then Cornelius, whose family is thought to be the first gentile family to be baptised in the Christian Church, who was a Roman centurion. And John, when the soldiers went to him to be baptised, didn’t tell them to stop being soldiers.
I don’t think Jesus was a pacifist, either. You see it in the upper room, when he tells the disciples to sell their cloaks and buy swords. They take them with them to Gethsemane. That’s not the sign of a pacifist movement. It wasn’t the time to use [the swords], the
solution was Jesus dying on the cross and he tells them to lay down their swords. But I don’t think there’s anything pacifist about the Bible – in the New Testament or Old. The issue then is rather like John the Baptist’s comment – it’s how you use that power.
Pulling all that together, would we collectively rather have a British army where there are no Christians? I think that would be awful. What we want is Christians in every aspect of life – military, politics, economics, even working for the Evangelical Alliance!
The military does have a Christian influence. How important is this?
As you’d expect, I think it’s very important, but the British army is not a Christian army. There are a lot of other faiths in it – Gurkhas, Muslims, and others. But it is an army that is unreservedly built on morality, on ethics, on codes. It’s an army that’s signed up to things
like the Geneva Convention, and so on. It’s also an army that prides itself on not being a brutal army. It’s efficient and effective, but the German Nazi army were efficient and effective – but also pretty brutal.
I don’t think there’s any doubt that the vast majority of people in the army are very
comfortable with the fact they have access
to padres [army chaplains]. We run services
in all our operations every day of the week –
not just Sunday. It’s a very important part of
who we are as an organisation.
You’ve been involved with many conflicts – have you witnessed things that have made you question your faith?
No. And I don’t say that lightly. I know people struggle with suffering and ask how God can allow this to happen, but I’ve got no doubts at all – both intellectually and emotionally – that you can’t have free will without things going wrong. God tried to deal with this in early days in the Old Testament, dealing with sin by wiping out people and starting again. The reality is the Christian message is of a God who so loved the world He gave His only son to suffer and to die. The way Jesus was treated by Pilot and the authorities – the crucifixion story – is about God suffering with us.
The suffering I’ve seen is terrible. What do we expect God to do about it? When does He intervene or not intervene? Does He intervene because 20,000 people are dying in Srebrenica? Or does He intervene to stop a young boy on his bicycle falling off and being hit by a car. I have seen some terrible things. I‘ve watched mass graves being dug up. I’ve watched people doing terrible things to each other, and I think my answer to this question is God put me there to do my bit. We have the answer in our own hands. We have to recognise the nature of the world we live in – there are some nasty, evil things out there and it’s a spiritual battle.
I have seen some hugely wonderful people in these conflicts bringing out the best in others.
Our British values survey shows 33 per
cent of evangelicals are very proud of the
armed forces, but the media frequently criticises the UK’s involvement in
conflicts. Why do you think we’re still so
proud of our military?
I do think we have to distinguish between the people who are in the military and the policies that the governments are deciding to apply. I was involved in lots of operations – I didn’t just wake up in the morning and decide it was a good idea to go to Macedonia or Kosovo or Iraq or Northern Ireland. That was government policy. I think lots of people struggle with government policy and the decisions they make, for lots of understandable reasons, but governments in the end have to make decisions that they think are right.
Then you’ve got the nature of the people that have got to go and deal with this stuff. What we’ve seen over the last 20 years sadly is continuous engagement. But in those engagements we have seen fantastic bravery, courage, and professionalism by young people. Their professionalism is as good as any other generation, and people admire them.
The military is a very unique organisation is many ways. People often say to me: why do people do it? Well, they don’t do it for the money. What gets a young 18-year-old to get up in the morning and go out on patrol, knowing there’s a fairly good chance they might come back having been blown up by an IUD, or having lost a leg or an arm? It’s a camaraderie, it’s a friendship. Soldiers wouldn’t use the biblical language, but it’s the friendship, the love, the kindness – the whole aspect of the nature of military business, I think other people do look at it and admire. It’s not that other people aren’t like that, but it’s hard to create that same culture working in a shop or bank.