Remembrance Sunday 2018.
Rev’d Simon Buckley.
What have the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw and the author of War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy- got in common? Apart from being writers of course, it is that they both became pacifists after fighting in the Crimean war of the mid 19th century. For them both it was a reaction to the futility and carnage of war that they had witnessed when combined with the vision of the new world order set out by Jesus in the beatitudes- the sermon on the mount- that provided their motivation and inspiration. Shaw was to write at the outbreak of World War I “Unless we are all prepared to fight Militarism at home as well as abroad, the cessation of hostilities will last only until the belligerents have recovered from their exhaustion”. If this was a University seminar I guess I’d now say “discuss” !
As we look back one hundred and four years since he wrote those words, and exactly one hundred years since the ‘war to end all wars’ drew its bloody conclusion, it does feel as though we only have times of peace while the war-mongers are gathering strength for another, or a different, fight. Has there been a moment in time when, whether on this shore or another, there hasn’t been some war or conflict being waged? The end of one war can feel like an interlude before the next.
Trawling the resources for commemorating the Centenary of the end of the First World War for today’s service I failed to find the glorious words of celebration and victory, that I just could not feel or manufacture on my own. Perhaps because others felt a similar unease and even a hundred years on the end of WWI is best marked with grateful silence.
After all how do you mark-
Ten million soldiers dead. Perhaps twenty million maimed. Perhaps twenty million children without fathers. Perhaps thirty million families bereaved, handicapped, distressed as a direct result of the fighting. Thousands of homes destroyed, land ruined. Mass deportation into slavery. Hundreds of thousands dead of starvation. One million Armenians massacred by the Turks. Triumph no-where. Human dignity, self-respect; torn to pieces. A monumental failure for humankind – a failure to speak and listen, to find common ground, to negotiate. A futile, illogical and mindless reliance on the use of force which devastated the user and victim alike, illustrating the fact that no other species is capable of causing horror and distress on such a scale. Humankind had created powers that collectively it had neither the intelligence nor the morality to control.
One hundred years on we cannot celebrate the end of that war and simply mark as a footnote that:
More than a hundred million people have died in wars since then. The twentieth century became the century of war; to which the First World War was merely an overture. Nor can we ignore the fact that those who ordered their nations into action, and less still, those who so willingly obeyed the call to war had no clear concept of what it was meant to achieve. They fought frequently for crudely nationalistic and personal reasons.
Once the British people had committed themselves to war to save Belgium (and Britain) from the German invasion they accepted extensions of the war without a murmur of protest. Women and Men found themselves fighting and dying in other parts of the world for reasons that probably made very little sense.
All they could do was “pack up their troubles in their old kit bag and (through gritted teeth) smile, smile, smile”.
The poet Carol Ann Duffy captures something of the futility, the anger and hopelessness that a war, even one called ‘Great’ can leave us feeling:
(The Wound in Time: Carol Ann Duffy)
It is the wound in Time. The century’s tides,
chanting their bitter psalms, cannot heal it.
Not the war to end all wars; death’s birthing place;
the earth nursing its ticking metal eggs, hatching
new carnage. But how could you know, brave
as belief as you boarded the boats, singing?
The end of God in the poisonous, shrapneled air.
Poetry gargling its own blood. We sense it was love
you gave your world for; the town squares silent,
awaiting their cenotaphs. What happened next?
War. And after that? War. And now? War. War.
History might as well be water, chastising this shore;
for we learn nothing from your endless sacrifice.
Your faces drowning in the pages of the sea.
Every war is another ‘wound in time’ that scars humanity and the world it inhabits.
It is, I think, the reading of the names that are engraved on our war memorials that is most poignant on Remembrance Sunday- when the ‘ten million’ victims become recognised as individuals and are named as residents of Soho, our neighbours past. Naming them is important- it turns them from statistics into people and restores their dignity: the very opposite of swapping a name for a number tattooed on the arm at the entrance to Auschwitz. As the prophet Isaiah records God say “I have called you by name, you are mine”. We are precious individuals not nameless statistics to God.
There are two accounts of Jesus calling groups of disciples to follow him: There’s the group of seventy-two unnamed recruits sent out on his mission, but it is the smaller group of twelve named individuals who put down their fishing nets or left their homes and followed him who inspire our admiration and capture our attention more. Their names read like a roll-call of enlisting soldiers in some of the gospels, falling into line in response to Jesus proclaiming the Good News of God’s coming kingdom; just like those farmers who one hundred and four years ago put down their scythes and left their fields to enlist and fight an uncertain cause.
Did either, or both groups, give their lives in vain? God’s kingdom is both present and yet far from fully realised; and we continue to have only outbreaks of peace in a world that feels as dangerous, if not more dangerous- albeit in a different way- than it did a century ago.
Perhaps peace, like justice or healing cannot be achieved and ticked off like an item on a shopping list, achieved by one generation in a single window in history, but are things that must be continually striven for, rediscovered and maybe even fought for afresh in every generation. Like space travel- the moon that was once the goal has been discovered to be almost a landmark to a greater unseen world. Like a marriage in which the wedding is both the consummation of the couple’s love and the beginning of a daily process of falling more closely in love. So, the quest for peace will, inevitably, be a timeless one.
We must not only learn from those who have gone before, but recognise we could not be -even where we are– without their courage, their sacrifice, their willingness to respond to hearing their name called. Without Peter and James and John and others like them there would be no church. Without Charles Ablewhite, Harold Allen and Sidney Appleby and all their comrades whose names we read from our war memorial earlier, there would arguably be less peace than we have known. For all the apparent futility of war, their sacrifice need not have been in vain.
(In Flanders Fields- By John McRae)
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Whether their deaths were in vain really lies within our hands: Whether we continue their work – their ‘quarrel with the foe’ and hold high the torch they throw to us, working for peace in our own lives, community, nation and world. The ‘war to end all wars’?
Christ calls each of us by name to each play our small part in making it so.
Highlighted text in italics and poetry from :