Walking a Tightrope
Come and join me, up here on this tightrope. Because that’s what it feels like, on Remembrance Sunday, that we’re walking a tightrope, trying to balance the different themes that we want to embrace in our service.
On the one hand: a 100% longing for peace, a detestation of war, a cry to God that war may cease to be known upon earth. On the other hand: a remembrance of all those who have died in war, including those who served in the armed forces, whose lives and deaths we want to honour and give thanks for.
Those who pray above all for peace, are sometimes anxious that too great an emphasis on the courage and sacrifice of those who fought, may somehow be understood as glorifying war, making the possibility of peace more remote. Those who want to remember the courage and sacrifice are afraid, that if we emphasise peace too much, we devalue the sacrifice of those who died, and somehow suggest that their deaths were in vain.
And of course we don’t want to fall off in either of those directions. We want to give full weight to both – as long as that weight is a balance, rather than one that makes us fall off.
So first: Peace. Surely there can’t be any doubt that God’s real desire is peace. No matter how much war there is in the Bible, as nations contend with each other, and the little nation of God’s people struggles for survival – that’s just the reality of history , the ultimate aim and promise, is that there will be peace when God’s rule and God’s law are fully known.
In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised up above the hills.
Peoples shall stream to it,
and many nations shall come and say:
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
We believe that the Prince of Peace has come, Jesus is that Prince of Peace, bringing the possibility of reconciliation between human beings and God, or rather showing that God has given himself, made the final sacrifice of himself, in order to reconcile us to himself. His grace, his undeserved love, reaching out to us, you and me, Be reconciled, let’s make it up, stop fighting against me, and against all the good there could be in the world, all the blessing that there could be for the whole of creation. Stop fighting, be reconciled. But we know how far the world is from hearing that message and believing it; the work of mission has only just begun; even people who call themselves Christians have not yet learned to live as God invites us to live.
And then, remembering the dead. My niece has recently been posting on the internet some pictures of her grandfather, my dad, taken during the Second World War. He’s in uniform, smiling, with comrades, sometimes sporting a funny little moustache that looks like the first one I tried to grow, in South Africa, the Middle East, Italy. He’s 21 or 22 years old. (Anyone here?) Well, Dad survived the War (else I wouldn’t be here!) But when we read out the names of those who didn’t, let’s bear in mind that many of them were even younger. They were boys, young men, sent into battle by their country and its leaders. Some of them may have been those who joined up with great excitement and enthusiasm to experience a great adventure. Some of them may have been called up when their turn came, and been terrified. We’ve learned a bit about how terrible conditions were in the trenches of the Western Front, and the terror and seeming hopelessness of going ‘over the top’. Yet they did their duty. And though historians and others still argue about the justice of various wars, we want to honour those young men and what they did; and all those who have fought and died in subsequent wars: Second World War, Korea, Northern Ireland, Falklands, Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan. That willingness to do their duty, to serve their country, to face the danger, is still a thing to honour.
But let’s not be coy about this. We often talk about how they gave their lives, to cushion or conceal the truth. I don’t suppose any of them wanted to die. Their lives were taken from them, often by appalling violence and with appalling cruelty and pain. And that’s true also of all the other casualties of war, the civilians and the non-combatants, which is why we also remember them today: the names we shall read out stand for those many more thousands, millions of victims.
As we seek to do this, let me share some statistics to bring this up to date. Remembrance Sunday isn’t just about remembering what we call the Great War, but all the later and still current ones. According to Wikipedia, List of ongoing armed conflicts, there are currently 12 armed conflicts causing 1000+ deaths per year, and 30? fewer than 1000 deaths – ‘or unknown’. Most of those don’t really involve us, perhaps, but what about this? During the past half-century, Britain has fought more foreign wars than any other country. During Tony Blair’s premiership, he sent British troops into battle five times in six years. And since the end of WW2, British troops have been killed in action every single year except one (1968) So commemoration is just as important as ever. And as we commemorate, we remember this further statistic: Of today’s ‘war dead’, only 1 in 10 is a soldier. 90% of the victims of war nowadays are civilians, and half of them are children. Isn’t this why war has to stop? Why we need to pray and work all the harder towards that end?
Of course, we like to think, or we hope and pray, that all the actions our troops are involved in at this time are peace-keeping, or peace-making, operations. If our involvement in that war succeeds in helping make a country a safer, better place for its people, is that worth the cost in lives and material resources? If we could leave Afghanistan in a condition of true peace, shalom, in which they might be free from the power of religious fanatics who shoot teenage girls in the head for wanting to go to school? Who murder women teachers, because educated women present too great a threat to the men with the guns? It’s heartbreaking that this has proved to be an unwinnable war; that we have to walk away from it with no certainty that they will have that peace. Iraq is an even more tragic example, in which it has become clear that the intelligence that took us to war was just wrong. And now part of the delayed cost of getting rid of a (let’s admit it) particularly nasty tyrant, apart from the lives lost and the financial cost, is the threatened extinction of Christianity in many of those middle and near eastern countries. Iraq, Syria, Egypt – all used to have important and ancient Christian churches, even though they were minorities. But now those Christians are facing such persecution and attack that many are leaving or giving up. There is the real and tragic possibility that they may cease to exist within our lifetime. How much is the West’s willingness to go to war with those countries responsible for that outcome?
What all this recent history should encourage us to do is ask the question: Is there a better way? Is there a better way than war, or force of arms, to resolve international differences? Exponents of the just war theory say that war should only ever be a last resort. It seems to me that we have been too quick, in the last quarter-century, to resort to that last resort. It should be a last resort which, increasingly, we never go to. For the sake of those war dead, nearly half of them children. For the sake of the millions of other war victims who aren’t dead, just bereaved, forced to become displaced or stateless persons who have lost every material thing they ever had. Isn’t all that suffering far far too high a price to pay for any victory, or more often no victory at all?
Let me finish with this piece, written by Bill, a Second World War veteran.
The Veteran’s Lament
So here we stand again. A year has passed.
Once more our sorrow turns to millions killed.
What have we learned?
What do you say to us, dear soldier
from your eternal silence?
Do you implore us to improve our killing efficiency,
to make bigger and better bombs,
condemning millions more to your sad fate?
Do you cheer us on in our blindness?
How many thousands have we added to your number, this past year?
No – I hear you plead now. I hear you cry to us across the years:
‘Weep not for me but for those yet unborn.
Go! – save your own children from my fate
Go! – thank me, by walking away today
to reject the futility, the waste, and the lie
that you have repeated over and over
even as you stand
for where do your billions go,
if not to ensure far more will know the hell I knew?
It is too late for me.
I have no voice but yours,
please – speak for me.
So, when you stand here again,
when this next year has passed,
come here in certainty
that you have taken some small step
along a different road…’
Bill, World War Two veteran