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Lest We Forget

a Sermon for Remembrance Day

St. Luke’s Anglican Church, Winnipeg.   November 11, 2007

The Rev’d Canon Tony Harwood-Jones

 

In St.Luke’s, warfare forms a low-level but constant background to our worship.  The windows and plaques; the mural in the entryway; the honour roll of St. Luke’s; and the recently-installed St. Alban’s honour roll – all call us back to the days of the great wars of the 20th Century.  The parish itself was young, strong, and affluent just before the outbreak of the first World War, and – if you can imagine – 281 men from St. Luke’s enlisted.  43 did not come back.
What anguish there must have been, as in family after family a beloved young son and brother was reported dead!

They dealt with their grief in church – in the presence of God – by setting up these memorials.  They were saying to God, and to themselves, that this untimely death had to mean something; surely it had value and worth; surely it made sense in the mind of God.

You can feel with them their grief, and sense of loss.  Those first Remembrance Days had to have been intensely personal:  “Let it be that my son did not die in vain!”

The horror of the Great War was also fresh in everyone’s mind.  Although propaganda covered it up at first, there was no possibility that the utter devastation and carnage could remain a secret for long.

Under the weight of this horror, and a deeply felt personal and immediate grief, Remembrance day acquired a multiple message:

  1. Sorrow for the loss of loved ones
  2. Belief that such violence and outrage should never EVER have to happen again
    (which is so ironic!  Almost 100 years after the outbreak of WW1, we now acknowledge, ruefully, that humans are still at it: still wounding and maiming and mass-slaughtering one another with unbelievable creativity and inventiveness).
  3. But there was also a third message: a clear undercurrent of pride.  Pride in those wonderful young people who so bravely went off to fight and destroy a dangerous and wicked enemy.

You can feel that pride in the memorials around this church

Churches are really comfortable with the first two messages of Remembrance day: sorrow for the loss of the fallen, and resolve that such carnage should never happen again.  It is this third element of pride in the deeds of the military which brings a measure of disquiet to Christians.

On the one hand, who would not be proud of someone who puts aside hopes of a normal life to risk injury and death in service of a higher cause?

On the other hand military people are trained, equipped, prepared, and willing to deal out unspeakable violence – and do so legitimately – in pursuit of military ends.

Violence in the pursuit of any objective does not square well with the fundamental ethic of Christianity

Central to Christianity, particularly to the Sermon on the Mount (the opening lines of which were read as the Gospel today) is:

Love of neighbour;

Forgiveness of enemy;

The willing endurance of oppression (as in: “if your enemy takes your coat, give him your shirt, too”);

and, in today’s Gospel:

Blessed are the poor, and the gentle, and the peacemaker (note the distinction between a peacemaker and a peacekeeper: a peacekeeper points a gun at someone and says “if you don’t put your weapon down, you’re dead!”  a peacemaker somehow finds a way to inclulcate peace in the very hearts of the combatants).

The matter of the fire-bombing of Dresden:

I cannot agree with those veterans who objected to the Canadian War Museum’s representation of the carpet-bombing, in which approximately 600,000 civilians were killed.   The museum described the action as something whose “value and morality... remains bitterly contested.” 1  The veterans clearly felt that they were being offered disrespect.

Not by me.

From the Christian perspective, deliberate killing and maiming, whether it’s one person or an entire city, is a wrong.  It may be the lesser of several evils, it may have a justifiable outcome, it may be the only thing possible under the circumstances, but it is not a “Good.”

The debate about the nuclear bombing of  Hiroshima and Nagasaki turns on the same issue.

Mennonites – who eschew military violence – may well be closer to the core of Christianity than Anglicans might want to admit.  Indeed, I myself might be a closet Mennonite… if it weren’t for…

The evils of Nazism

Although I am conflicted about it, because of the clear message of the Gospels, I am one who believes that it was righteous, and just, and good to take whatever steps were available to destroy the Nazis.

If it could have been done simply by talking to them, well and good, but if not, then violence was justified.

Try this little thought experiment:  Imagine Jesus himself appearing suddenly in Winston Churchill’s cabinet war room in 1941.  What would He have told Winston to do about Nazism?

The great Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran Pastor and profound Christian, eventually decided Jesus would have approved of assassinating Hitler.

Many sincerely religious men and women signed up to serve in the armed forces against Nazism believing absolutely that Jesus wanted them to do this

But in his own earthly ministry, it is difficult to imagine Jesus taking up a gun; even though again and again Christians have done so in His name

This is not a thought experiment, this actually happened:

Father Gaspar Garcia on Christmas Day 1977, resigned from his position as a parish priest in Nicaragua, in order to join the revolutionary army of his country.  In his letter of resignation, he said, “I have decided to join this war as the humblest soldier... because it is a just war, a war that the Holy Gospels consider good, and which in my conscience as a Christian is good because it is a struggle against a situation that is hateful to the Lord, our Lord.... With rifle in hand, full of faith and full of love for my... people I will fight to my last breath for the coming of the kingdom of justice in our country, this kingdom of justice that the Messiah announced under the star of Bethlehem.” 2

A priest perceived an injustice, and traded in his robes for a gun.  Should we cheer?  or squirm in discomfort?

In my own mind it was morally justified to use force against the Nazis.  But faced with the constant and continuing penchant for humans to behave atrociously, where do I draw the line?

In Rwanda millions were butchered while the United Nations dithered.  Was it more Christ-like to let the atrocity happen?  Or would it have been Christ-like to intervene swiftly, and ferociously?

It is known that Saddam Hussein poisoned or gassed entire communities of his own fellow-citizens.  Does that justify a war against him?  When he swung at the end of a rope, was God’s goodness served?

In Pakistan, in Iran, in Myanmar, in various countries in Africa, and not too long ago in South America, members of the opposition have been carted off to jail, some to be tortured, others to disappear without a trace.  Does that justify military measures against such countries?

In our country, members of the Opposition are not carted off to jail.  We live at peace, and tolerate an amazing diversity of strongly-held opinions.  This is sooo good to my way of thinking.  And yet, is it worth taking up arms to ensure that this remain the case?

Because of the Nazis of the Third Reich, I know that sometimes – some extreme times – military action is right and appropriate and necessary.  I believe the Allied cause in the Second World War was somehow acceptable to God despite the clear message of the Gospels.  And I can do my “remembering” on Remembrance Day with humble thankfulness.

Although it will forever be a painful and difficult thing to decide whether any future emergence of human brutality requires a forcible and violent response, I will not forget those who chose to give up all their hopes and dreams in order to oppose an unspeakable evil – even if the only means they had to hand were dreadful and the source of a lifetime of nightmares;

I will remember, in sorrow and grief, the countless lives lives lost in the violence of warfare;

I will uphold the truth that ultimately it is the peacemaker who is blessed, and that love is always better than hate, forgiveness is always better than revenge;

And I will pray for the day when the incessant carnage will finally come to an end, when war shall be no more, and the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

 

© 2007, Tony Harwood-Jones

You are expected to contact me for permission to reproduce this sermon in whole or in part.


1 From the web, this is the original wording: “The value and morality of the strategic bomber offensive against Germany remains bitterly contested. Bomber Command’s aim was to crush civilian morale and force Germany to surrender by destroying its cities and industrial installations.  Although Bomber Command and American attacks left 600,000 Germans dead and more than five million homeless, the raids resulted in only small reductions of German war production until late in the war.”  http://communities.canada.com/shareit/forums/thread/109929.aspx

2 Phillip Berryman, The Religious Roots of Rebellion; Christians in Central American Revolutions (Maryknoll, New York, 1984), pp. 76–7.