A sermon for Remembrance Day preached by David Barton at St Mary’s Church Iffley on 12th November 2017
It is an extraordinary thing when you think of it. 99 years after Armistice Day, and 72 years after the end of the last war in Europe, and still across these Islands today people gather in Churches and around War Memorials to observe two minutes of silence and remember those who have died. In many ways we have never forgotten either war. Film and television remain fascinated by that contrast between the golden Edwardian autumn in the years running up to 1914, and then the descent into the darkness and mud and the long winter of the trenches. That haunting experience is what drove this Armistice remembrance in the years immediately following 1918 – the trauma of it all, the hideous numbers of those who had been slaughtered, the friends, lovers, husbands, brothers, wives and sisters who never came back. The loss was everywhere. It was unmissable. And in many ways that is the haunting memory that still powers this remembrance.
And we also know that the losses did not really stop in 1918. Rather they paused while the fragile peace slowly crumbled. Within twenty years the same nations were slipping into war again. So, perhaps on an instinctive level we make this annual remembrance because it is such a dark, dark piece of our history. And there are still a number of us around to remember it’s latter stages, and know what it all meant. So the suffering of millions, the cruelties and the shocking loss of life, the enormous numbers of refugees right across Europe after 1945 – that collection of memories is certainly worth gathering together and holding up today.
And yet it’s worth recording that there were other things that did not get lost in the darkness of the trenches and the lost peace. Because those that survived the trenches, and the generation just young enough to escape them, went on to emerge from World War Two with a new kind of hope and idealism.
Perhaps it was horror at the return of war, and a determination that this time the peace would last. And perhaps it was that, more than any other war for centuries the Second World War had a clear sense of being a moral struggle – something that was always in question during the First World War. For once it was possible to resonate with that phrase in the Gospels, used on these occasions: “Greater love has no one than this, that a man should lay down his life for his friends.” It was a fight for family and friends, for the defence of everything people called home. But it quickly became a fight for the rights and liberties of others, people we did not know, strangers. It was a world struggle, and for those who fought there was a sense this was in defence of a set of values – values that really mattered.
So the women and men who returned in 1945 did so acutely aware of poverty and injustice at home, and a larger world to be remade beyond it. Politicians of the time dared large things. They put in place the welfare state, and the health service. They rebuilt Western Europe with new patterns of politics and cooperation. The grisly trials of the Nazi Leaders at Nuremberg might have been simply a bad memory. But the ideas of international justice were hammered out there. And they led directly on into the creation of a strengthened United Nations and the Declaration of Human Rights. And in this country we went on to ditch an empire and turn it into a Commonwealth.
And we should also remember that all this wasn’t about the visible sorts of courage in conflict, though of course that mattered. It was about people in all sorts of mundane, routine jobs, in factories, as air raid wardens, as special constables, in the WVS and so much more. They were equally part of war and reconstruction.
In the history of warfare the response to WW2 is remarkable and unusual – all of it growing out of the darkest days of War. So that, and all of them we should remember here today and do so with gratitude.
But none of it should allow us to forget the origins of this day and what they symbolise. The red poppies we wear flourished in Flanders only because of the chemicals of the shells and the human remains buried in the soil, giving it an extraordinary fertility. They should tell us that War is a disaster. An admission of terrible failure.
On the eve of WW2 in November 1939, William Temple, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote to a friend of how he was committed to the decision to go to war. And yet, he said, “We recognise that this is all to do with the sin in which we are all implicated, so that the best thing we can do is still a bad thing. War itself,” he said, “never produces a positive good, though it can restrain its worse evils.”
I think it is broadly true to say that something of that legacy has remained with us – a wariness about empty talk, a mistrust of political rhetoric, and an awareness of the realities that people have had to endure. And the wars that have been waged since 1945 have only reinforced that. They have taught us that war can never be contained. Think of Viet Nam, and remember the corrosive effect that war, distant though it was, had on the morale and well being of America. And we know too well the consequences of the Iraq war – ongoing in the chaos of Syria and the terror that haunts the cities of Europe. There have been no winners here. These are wars in which everyone seems to have lost.
What then does this yearly remembrance say to a Christian? Two things we might ponder. The first is that we should remind ourselves, again and again, that none of us can hide from the consequences of suffering. We do not live just to ourselves. The good of one and the good of all are inseparable. As John Donne wrote, “Every man’s death diminishes me.” But we need to turn that round, learn the lesson that those emerging from WW2 learned, and create a new vision of interdependence. Our flourishing is more dependent on our ability to help others to flourish than we realise. It is desperately sad that countries in the West seem to be in danger of turning inwards, turning our back on those places where poverty and conflict are endemic. But these are the breeding grounds for future terrorism and war. A world of peace has to be willed, actively built.
And we should think about the word Glory, and what it means to a Christian. It’s a word associated with aggression and military strength. But Christians have redefined it. We see glory in Jesus, crucified on the cross. Glory is about the integrity and compassion of God, shining in God’s human creation, even in the darkest place. The early Christians – and Christians since – sought to live in a way that would reflect God’s compassion and healing glory, by living lives of generosity and forgiveness. “The glory of God is a human person fully alive” said a very early Christian saint. Glory is life, humanity, wholeness, a wholeness that seeks wholeness for everyone.
To live in such a way – and to build a world in such a way – is the strength we pray for. And that is surely the only way of honouring those we remember today.