A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Alvyn Petterson on 12th November 2023
We will remember them.
But how? By picturing in our minds the small wooden crosses, one a three-barred Ukrainian cross, in the churchyard outside? Through reflecting upon names on a village war memorial, engraved long ago but poignant nevertheless, especially when they include those of two or three sons from the one family? By recalling that regiment of small, poppy-adorned crosses, standing erect on the sward on the north side of Westminster Abbey? By revisiting the legend over a large brass plaque in a college chapel somewhere, tanquam aurum in fornace probavit illos Deus, even as gold in a furnace, God has refined them? By remembering a parent or a grandparent who served in the second World War, or a relative who fought in the Falklands, or in Bosnia or in Iraq.
We will remember them.
But all too often our remembering is set in the past, and it impinges upon the present, if at all, but casually. We remember them, with thanksgiving,
with our lips,
but not always also
with our lives,
not always also
by giving up ourselves to [God’s] service, and by walking before [God] in holiness and righteousness all our days.
Our remembering need not, however, only and always be but retrospective, be but lip service. Centuries ago, the people of Israel were an oppressed people. Strangers in the land of Egypt they may well have been. But strangers to God in the land of their oppression they were not. For these God led, from captivity to freedom, from paucity to a land flowing with milk and honey. And, having liberated them, job done, as it were, did God then turn aside from them? No. On the contrary, God called upon them, even in their new situation, not to forget their bitter past. God called upon them to remember God’s care for them when they were in Egypt, in harsh captivity under Pharaoh, and remembering well that time, now
not [to] wrong the stranger [sc. in their midst] nor oppress him. For [they themselves, the people of Israel] were strangers in the land of Egypt.
For the people of Israel, remembering was not to be simply a retrospective practice. It was to be informed by their past and to shape their future. God’s care for them, extended to them especially when they were so vulnerable in Egypt, was to be their prompt henceforth to care for the vulnerable, for the widow and the orphan, for the alien, for the stranger within their gate.
For us also there can be, and there should be a remembering of the past which impinges creatively upon the present.
Just over a century ago gas drifted indiscriminately over the fields of Flanders. Had people then remembered well, that gassing might have been the gassing to end all gassing. But they did not; and it was not.
Less than forty years ago mustard gas and nerve gas agents still were being used, this time against Iranian troops gathered along the southern border with Iraq. Four years later, on the 16th March 1988, mustard gas and sarin again were being used by Iraqi planes and artillery against the northern Iraqi town of Halabja. Some five thousand people, mainly women and children, were killed that day.
But still people did not remember well. Between July 2012 and April 2021 bombs dropped indiscriminately took the place of gas drifting cavalierly. Nearly eighty-two thousand barrel bombs, crude, home-made devices, cheap to make, but costly, so costly in terms of lives destroyed, were dropped by the Syrian regime on their opponents. In those nine years over eleven thousand civilians, of whom just shy of two thousand were children, were killed. In one month alone, in 2014, some eighty-three barrel bombs were dropped on Aleppo, in north-western Syria, killing some one hundred people.
I saw children without heads, body parts everywhere, a factory worker from a suburb of Aleppo reported. It was how I imagine hell to be.
War, even a civil war, maybe especially a civil war, such as that in Syria, we must remember, always has been and always will be a bloody business. But war, we must also remember, must not always be an amoral free-for-all. That is why there are conventions, international conventions, prohibiting, for example, the use of gas and chemical attacks, why more than one hundred countries have banned the use of cluster-bombs. And, further, that is why a Just War theory was developed by the thirteenth century theologian Thomas Aquinas [1225 – 1274], a theory later qualified by the inclusion in its conditions of the idea of “proportionality,” the requirement, inter alia, that a war should be fought only against legitimate targets, of whom civilians are not one.
Yet still people have not remembered well. As recently as July of this year US-supplied cluster bombs which scatter multiple bomblets – small objects which may lie around, unexploded, for years, small, shiny objects open to being picked up by curious, innocent, naïve children – have been used in the Ukraine against Russian forces, “used,” according to US sources, “appropriately, … quite efficiently.” Any parent whose child should chance to pick up one of these unexploded bomblets may bitterly agree with John Kirby, the US’ National Security Spokesman : cluster bombs are indeed “quite efficient.”
Today, please God, we will remember those who fought for justice and peace for this country, as for many others. Please God, we will remember, with gratitude, those who gave, and still readily give their lives, their todays for our tomorrows. And, while mindful that sometimes war, though evil, may be the only option, the least evil of all the other evil options, please God, still remembering well those who lie ‘in some corner of a foreign field,’ we, severally and together, will do all in our powers to protect the stranger within our global gate, the innocent non-combatant, Israeli or Palestinian, Iranian or Iraqi or Syrian – they all are humans, fellow human being, made by God, made for God – the young, curious child in some foreign land, the elderly Ukrainian or hospital-bound Palestinian unable to move to some safer space. To this last end we could do worse than revisiting the websites of such agencies as Amnesty International or The Halo Trust. I am suggesting doing such, not instead of praying, but in addition to praying, that our prayers may be the better informed, that our intercessions may be undergirded with a passion for God’s justice and righteousness.
And, if you think that all that should and can be done regarding the use of gas and cluster munitions has been done, you may yet wish to reflect upon the use, or more accurately, the misuse of food and of water or of fuel as weapons of war.
But either way, please God, let us remember well, that others may live well.