Letter from a Scottish Soldier to George Ellis

The following letter from a Scottish soldier was sent to Dr. Ellis after he received the Templeton Prize in 2004. Ellis read this during the live event at WHYY in Philadelphia to illustrate his concept of kenosis in action in a strange situation. Ellis says that despite the British army's overpowering force, they risked their lives in order to achieve peace by not retailiating but by exercising restraint, even while being attacked. It's this type of sacrifice, Ellis points out, that can be applied to the situation in Iraq.

In 1967 I was a young officer in a Scottish battalion engaged in peacekeeping duties in Aden town in what is now Yemen. The situation was similar to Iraq, with people being killed every day. As always, those who suffered the most were the innocent local people. Not only were we tough, but we had the power to pretty well destroy the whole town had we wished.

But we had a commanding officer who understood how to make peace, and he led us to do something very unusual, not to react when we were attacked. Only if we were 100 percent certain that a particular person had thrown a grenade or fired a shot at us were we allowed to fire. During our tour of duty we had 102 grenades thrown at us, and in response the battalion fired the grand total of two shots, killing one grenade-thrower. The cost to us was over 100 of our own men wounded, and surely by the grace of God only one killed. When they threw rocks at us, we stood fast. When they threw grenades, we hit the deck and after the explosions we got to our feet and stood fast. We did not react in anger or indiscriminately. This was not the anticipated reaction. Slowly, very slowly, the local people began to trust us and made it clear to the local terrorists that they were not welcome in their area.

At one stage neighboring battalions were having a torrid time with attacks. We were playing soccer with the locals. We had, in fact, brought peace to the area at the cost of our own blood. How had this been achieved? Principally because we were led by a man whom every soldier in the battalion knew would die for him if required. Each soldier in turn came to be prepared to sacrifice himself for such a man. Many people may sneer that we were merely obeying orders, but this was not the case. Our commanding officer was more highly regarded by his soldiers than the general, one must almost say loved. So gradually the heart of the peacemaker began to grow in the man and determination to succeed whatever the cost. Probably most of the soldiers, like myself, only realized years afterwards what had been achieved.

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George F. R. Ellis

is Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Cape Town, recipient of the Templeton Prize, and the author of many books, including On the Moral Nature of the Universe: Cosmology, Theology, and Ethics.

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