Remembrance Sunday Meditation: 13th November 2016
An army recruitment poster from a few decades ago read:
‘Join the army, see the world, meet interesting people’.
A comedian added the words
'... and kill them’.
For decades, young people have been encouraged to join the armed forces as an interesting and challenging career choice, or as a step in their education. Probably most do not anticipate killing anyone, but in practice, many will find themselves in combat.
For Remembrance Sunday, the lectionary readings present something of a problem. We gather to honour those who have fought in wars, to remember the dead, and to promise help to their families. Members of the armed forces are welcomed into our churches, and then we make them listen to passages like this:
‘They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.’ Micah 4:3
‘He makes wars to cease to the ends of the earth’ Psalm 46:9
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.’Matthew 5:9
‘On each side of the river stood the tree of life ... and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.’ Revelation 22:2
No Christian would view the above words negatively. They speak of hope for a better world; they are redolent of longing for peace, for an end to suffering and destruction, and the Church endorses these sentiments. So Christians appear to have a foot in both camps – preaching peace, but honouring those who fight.
No sane person can want war. Even ‘just’ wars have their innocent victims and cause terrible devastation to the landscape. They bring about not only death but disability, and in their wake come disease, disruption of food supplies, contamination of water, and the breakdown of infrastructure. Their financial cost is enormous. If only people would not fight, the world would have so much more to spend on agriculture, irrigation, hospitals, schools, transport and the environment.
This is a fallen world, though, and people do fight. Some wars are completely senseless – meaningless fighting over a few acres of land – but some appear to be unavoidable. Bad decisions made following the First World War – ‘the war to end all wars’ – sowed the seeds that led to the evil invested in Hitler, an evil that had to be answered in another World War.
And so we call men and women to join our armed services and we send them to fight; we tell them they are serving their country. We grieve for them when they die and we honour their bodies when they are brought home for burial. For those who are left, we provide further career opportunities and help for their families. For the wounded there is hospital treatment, rehabilitation or pensions. But ruined lives, mental illness, crime and imprisonment, marital breakdown or dysfunctional family life is the price that many pay. And often we honour the dead more than the living.
The Christian faith is there for everyone, and we are right to hold Remembrance Day services for service personnel past and present, and for those who love them.
I have a friend called Charlie who is a retired soldier – a former army pilot. He comes from a long line of soldiers who probably saw Sandhurst as the only possible rite of passage to adulthood. I don’t think Charlie ever saw active service, though his father and grandfather must have fought in the two World Wars, but he is proud of his army years. He lives in a village which is populated mostly by retired service personnel, and Remembrance Day is a proud occasion for them.
One year, they had a visiting vicar to take their service. They had come to church wearing their medals, as they did each year, slapping each other on the back, addressing each other as ‘old boy’, and saying things like, ‘Jolly good show, what?’ For them it was an occasion for recalling their achievements, remembering fallen colleagues and treasuring their years in the services. However, the visiting vicar was a pacifist. He told them how wrong it was to fight in wars; he talked of the devastation that war brings; he said that everyone should refuse to fight – and then wars would end. The old soldiers were appalled. The message was not what they had come to church for, not what they wanted to hear at all.
I have a great deal of fellow-feeling for that vicar. I think war is wrong, and the Bible passages we are presented with for Remembrance Sunday state the same message; God wants to bring us peace. Wars have been fought in our name, however. The precarious peace we enjoy was bought at the expense of those who laid down their lives in wartime. Even as we strive for peace, we must remember those who have died for our security and value those who offer their service. We must continue to remember the wars that have been fought on our behalf and to think about the participants, the victims and the cost – until the day that war becomes unthinkable.