Sermon at All Saints, Coddington: Remembrance Sunday 2015
Jonah 3.1-10; Mark 1.14-20
My memories of the Second World War are those of a small child who grew up learning to detest German and Japanese people. As a young ordinand, I preached in churches where I talked with men who were younger then than I am now, and who had survived the horrors of life and death on the Western front in the 1914-18 war. I remember as a growing boy Korea, Suez, Malaya and Cyprus, and the dozen or so smaller engagements of our armed forces – Kenya, Aden and the rest. Right through my life – as through your lives – there have always been wars: big wars, small wars, violence, death, wounding, bereavement and grief. What can one say when contemplating that sorry story? That sometimes war is necessary? Only the most ardent pacifist would say that it was wrong of our government to confront with all means at our disposal the wickedness of the Third Reich and the cruelties of imperialistic Japan: indeed those of my older friends who had been pacifists - who had even signed the Peace Pledge - took up arms in 1939 because they saw no alternative.
Some people argue that war is always wrong, and that it can be avoided if we consistently applied ourselves to making peace. Perhaps then the occasion of war might not arise. Perhaps, from the perspective of the God who made us all, it is possible to confront wickedness and tyranny early in its criminal development and so prevent it from gaining political hold. Perhaps we could arrest as criminals those who would otherwise eventually lead us into wars. Perhaps - but I know I do not have that degree of vision, of selfless courage and integrity, of political creativity, and so I cannot expect my political leaders to do what I cannot even contemplate. It is wonderful, of course, when political leaders from different nations do display that degree of vision, of generosity and courage to reach out so as to defuse conflicts, to find better ways to co-exist - in short, to create peace.
Thus it is that, when we make remembrance on days such as this, we contemplate the price of war while we remember the ending of armed conflict. We remember too the human, social and political failures that led us to those wars. The prophet Jonah did not believe that it was possible for a great nation, once it had wandered from the path that God had ordained, to then turn, to repent, to re-order its life. So much so, that Jonah was plain unwilling to attempt preaching repentance. More than that, the story goes on to tell us that he was furious with God - first for requiring him to preach repentance to a nation that had lost its way, and then furious when his preaching God’s word proved effective! The moral seems to be that God believes great nations are capable of waking up to God’s call, even if his prophets do not.
The cost of international conflict is, however, not borne solely or even primarily by prophets - nor by politicians and rulers. Much of the culture passed down to us from the so-called Great War concerns the price paid by ordinary people. The experience of the soldiers recruited to fight and kill other soldiers is reflected in the poetry of the time (Brooke and Sassoon for example), in the songs of the day, in the letters home (currently referenced in a wonderful collaboration on Radio 4 between the BBC and the Imperial War Museums), and in the trench humour which spoke of the experience of the PBI, the Poor Bloody Infantry – bloody in all senses of the word.
As we all know, World War Two took the death toll to even greater numbers than World War One, if we count the millions of civilian deaths. The world had moved on from its first truly industrial war to an experience of total war. It is therefore nothing short of obscene to glorify war, to deny that it represents a massive failure in God’s experiment to create humanity. Those men and women and children did not – except in rare cases of voluntary heroism – “lay down” their lives. Their lives were snatched from them. So what we remember on this day is just this: the failure of our species to live justly and creatively and to deal better with conflict. And we remember with sadness the deaths and the millions of physical, mental and spiritual injuries inflicted by our species on our species. We also remember, in the midst of all that horror, the often extraordinary creativity, skill and courage with which we humans can act in extremis. We acknowledge that, in the extremities of war, we are also capable of responding with resolution, with bravery, even with grace and generosity. Those of us who survive honour those who did not.