SERMON “Honour and Remembrance”
As we look at the media coverage of today’s Remembrance events, we see medals which speak of occasions of immense bravery and dedication in military service to this country. And those occasions in turn represent years of training, discipline, application and sheer hard work, often, without doubt, in difficult, dangerous and unpleasant conditions.
Many in my generation and in the young generation have never known the immediacy of war and so our understanding may be shaped disproportionately by the film industry in which we see depicted heroic, uniformed men doing daring feats to preserve our freedom against evil aggressors – it can be the stuff of epic sagas and lavish movies. The news reports from Afghanistan in the past years, months, weeks and days are therefore stark reminders for us all that war can not only present unimaginable horrors for the combatants, but can rob families and whole communities of loved ones. Only rarely is it a time or place of glory.
The Christian observance of Remembrance Sunday doesn’t glorify war. Remembrance Sunday is a time when we are honest about the horrors of war, recognising the sacrifice many brave men and women have made fighting for what they believe in. Much of our remembrance is focussed on the Second World War, and there is no doubt that in the 1930s a great evil swept throughout Europe and that without the resistance of the allied forces our world would have been overwhelmed by that evil. But the threat from terrorist organisations around the world today is arguably just as menacing. Those who have faced those threats, and continue to do so, deserve our heartfelt gratitude.
We honour them today; the fallen, the survivors, the present combatants. We honour the courage of those who were willing to fight for what they believed was right. We honour the sacrifice of those who stood fast in the face of unimaginable horrors. We honour those who gave, and continue to give, so much.
Yet, honour and gratitude aren’t the complete picture, either. What of debates about the justification for war. War gives rise to such hugely conflicting emotions.
On one side there is the strength of communal feeling, of community, of all being in it together, of being part of a courageous country facing up to evil.
But the other side of the heroic and selfless patriotism of war is the horror: the ugliness and the atrocities, the brutalising, the inhumanity, the massacre of innocents and the terrible, needless, sometimes lifelong suffering of the victims.
And for a Christian, between those two aspects of nobility and ugliness, lies the tension. Is it right to defeat evil through warfare, knowing the terrible costs of war? Or would the costs be worse, would evil get its way, if we refused to go to war? Is war the lesser of two terrible evils?
Jesus said: “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you.” (Luke 6:27) He also said: “Do not resist one who is evil. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matt. 5:39) And he refused to be seen as the military saviour the Jews were expecting.
But this world we live in today is a very different one. Communications then were nothing like they are now, where we all know appalling details of gas chambers and of prison camps like Auschwitz and Dachau and Belsen; appalling details of the denial of human rights by some governments which is still happening today and the terrible toll of terrorist attacks across the globe.
Perhaps Jesus spoke in the singular: “Do not resist one who is evil”. He didn’t say anything about mass evil. Indeed when he found evil perpetrated by a large group, that is by the rulers of the temple and the moneychangers, he used force against them to clear the temple. He was on familiar terms with army leaders (remember how he cured the centurion’s servant) and in Luke 14:31-32 he uses the army as an illustration to make a point, when he says,” Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace”. So perhaps he wasn’t a pacifist.
We know that war, though brutal, can be an effective and a relatively swift way of dealing decisively with evil. Yet increasingly many people in the west, particularly Christians, feel extremely uneasy about supporting wars.
To war or not to war! That is the question. And it’s a question that’s certainly been rumbling about increasingly in this country. It is a question which I cannot, and would not, presume to answer. But I’m pretty sure that the ultimate desire of all Christians is to experience the state described in our reading from Micah:
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
3 He will judge between many peoples
and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide.
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.
That’s the ideal voiced in the bible, but for us it seems to be utopia: we simply don’t know how to achieve it.
But I do know this. I do know I’m standing here today because of the sacrifices made by others. I have the freedom to say whatever I wish to say. I have the freedom to worship however I wish to worship. I live in a country which, for all its faults, at least upholds human rights.
In our Gospel reading today we heard: ‘Greater love has no man than this, to lay down his life for his friends.’ The sacrifice of so many through 2 world wars and in the on-going conflicts in our world is brought about by a desire to stand up for what is right, to fight for truth and justice. We can only be thankful for those who are willing to fight for our freedom.
So let us continue to honour our dead and to hold high the torch which they can no longer carry. Let us in our own way fight for justice, peace and truth – and be willing to give ourselves up for that fight, as Jesus gave himself up to death for each one of us.