Sermon on Remembrance Sunday 2019
Preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at
Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church
Remembrance has been making a comeback in recent decades. Thirty years ago if November 11th fell on a weekday, it might have gone largely unmarked, people just carrying on with their busy lives. Nowadays 11.00 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month, whatever day it falls on, gets a much greater public response. Even supermarkets, a major power in the land, choose to observe two minutes silence in remembrance of those killed in war.
Perhaps the realisation in the mid-1990s, that we would soon lose the last of the generation that fought in the First World War, was an impetus to re-emphasise the practice of remembering. In 2009 this came to pass, with the death of Harry Patch, the last living UK resident to have fought in the trenches. Today, in 2019, the ranks of those who fought in the Second World War are also thinning; something that hits close to home for the shared identity of this nation. Now, as people across the nation gather for remembrance, some do so with personal memories of a later war or wars; some are remembering friends or family members who died; some of us simply remember in general those who lost their lives in terrible circumstances.
So, what does Christian faith have to say concerning this remembering? What is the appropriate Christian stance towards remembering those who have died in war? To answer questions like that we need to listen carefully to the voice of Jesus; recognising where we are today and asking ourselves where we should be travelling to tomorrow.
The problem with listening for the voice of Jesus is that Jesus is liable to tell you something inconvenient or unwelcome. The excerpt from the Sermon Mount we have just listened to is an outstanding example:
- 39 “Do not resist those who wrong you”
- 41 “If someone in [the occupying] authority presses you into service for one mile, go with him two.” The “authority” here is the Roman imperial authority or those who cooperated with it. In time it would press Jesus into service to carry a piece of timber a mile or two, to the place of his execution.
And, of course, let’s not forget …
v.44 “Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors”
On first listening the message to Jesus’ followers seems to be clear: a proper remembering for Christians involves a rejection of any involvement in warfare. Jesus’s message goes further than many a pacifist would, with his demand not for non-violent resistance, but for total non-resistance: “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn and offer him the other also.” (v.39) It’s not even as if Jesus’ followers can claim such behaviour would reduce the volume of violence that occurs. The treatment the non-resistant Jesus received at his ‘trials’ and execution gives the lie to that suggestion.
Listening hard to Jesus, however, also involves questioning what we first hear. Do these words of Jesus really form the basis for how whole peoples and nations in our modern setting should live their lives in time of war? Jesus’s teaching took place in the context of a post-war occupation, not war itself. Also, both Jesus and the church that first published Matthew’s Gospel lived with a lively expectation that the end of all things was near. Twenty-first century westerners have a different perspective. Two thousand years have passed and still the end has not yet come. On the other hand, we find nothing in Jesus’s words consistent with the practice of Christian warfare. The Church during the first three centuries of its life understood that when on the night of his arrest Jesus told Peter to put away his sword, he disarmed all Christians for all time.
So how did we get to where we are today? What do we think when we see pictures of British service personnel facing deadly dangers abroad? What’s your opinion about the huge amount of money ploughed into equipment such as the Royal Navy’s two new aircraft carriers, to say nothing of the multi-million-pound jets that will fly from them? How do you feel about the fact that all of this comes accompanied by Christian military chaplains?
Incidentally, these include two URC ministers alongside whom I trained for ministry. One has accompanied soldiers on active service in Afghanistan, the other was the first chaplain onboard the new aircraft carrier, HMS Elizabeth. Today’s reality is that many Christian men and women of good conscience do serve in our armed forces. You may know some of them.
In the Frank MacGuiness’s play, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme Northern Irish Protestant soldiers, about to go over the top to their annihilation in July 1916, pause to sing the hymn, “I’m But a Stranger Here, Heaven is my Home”. I sort of understand what the hymn is getting at (based as it is around biblical calls to be “in the world but not of it”), but after two thousand years of Christian history it is difficult to always sustain that sentiment.
After all, from the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine onwards the Christian Church has been at the centre of Western society. Christian identity was envisaged less as being a stranger on earth and more as a good citizen of the state. And we want to be, and claim to be, good citizens. Sometimes, Christians will even be heard publicly demanding that this country recognise and acknowledge the significance of its Christian heritage in forming our national identity today.
Yet, there are difficulties and dangers here. Certainly, there is no reason why Christians should expect second-class treatment because of our faith, but there is no gospel mandate for seeking preferential treatment for Christians, or demanding conformity to Christian views and norms as a basis for acceptance as a citizen.
With this in mind, what should Christian remembrance look like in the days ahead? Well, we will be realistic, recognise that involvement in warfare is a price that many Christians are prepared to pay, not as some great glorious adventure, but as an integral part of the duties of good citizenship.
Many Christians would be happy to have a Prime Minister who is also a Christian, though I’m not aware that in this general Election campaign this option is currently on offer. Weighing up party manifestos, offers and promises, we want a Christian perspective to inform policies on education, on health, and on eradicating poverty. But a Christian Prime Minister who presides over the departments of Education, Health, and Work and Pensions also, inescapably, must preside over the Ministry of Defence. To have a Christian PM making the decisions about allocation of resources for the NHS means that same Christian has to make decisions about the allocation of military resources also. And decisions made in one area may well have significant implications in the other.
So, we Christians may have to “realistic”, but we are never allowed to cease listening to an alternative voice. One such was George Zabelka (1915-1992). Father George Zabelka, a Catholic priest was chaplain for the American airmen who dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. He gave them his blessing. Over the next twenty years, he gradually came to believe that he had been terribly wrong. Here are some words from a speech he gave on the 40th anniversary of the bombings.
“Those who have seen real war will bear me out. I assure you, it is not of Christ. It is not Christ’s way. There is no way to conduct real war in conformity with the teachings of Jesus … The ethics of mass butchery cannot be found in the teachings of Jesus. In Just War ethics, Jesus Christ, who is supposed to be all in the Christian life, is irrelevant. He might as well never have existed. In Just War ethics, no appeal is made to him or his teaching, because no appeal can be made to him or his teaching, for neither he nor his teaching gives standards for Christians to follow in order to determine what level of slaughter is acceptable.
So the world is watching today. Ethical hairsplitting over the morality of various types of instruments and structures of mass slaughter is not what the world needs from the Church, although it is what the world has come to expect from the followers of Christ. What the world needs is a grouping of Christians that will stand up and pay up with Jesus Christ. What the world needs is Christians who, in language that the simplest soul could understand, will proclaim: the follower of Christ cannot participate in mass slaughter. He or she must love as Christ loved, live as Christ lived, and, if necessary, die as Christ died, loving one’s enemies.”
Powerful words. They are representative of groups and actions that have surfaced and re-surfaced within the Christian Church across the centuries – from medieval Waldensians to Reformation Anabaptists; from the quiet witness of seventeenth century Quakers to the loud call to peaceful protest, found in the preaching of Martin Luther King Jr.
As we move into an era where public indifference pushes the church more and more to the margins of our civil society it might be that one positive outcome of this process is that we feel more able to listen to these alternative voices, and not feel over-beholden to conform to the requirements of the state, in matters-military as well as non-military. A small church, with no institutional ties to the state, such as the United Reformed Church, might be in a good position to do so.
Whether that turns out to be the case or not, true Christian remembrance, such as we attempt today, will never be entirely easy. In fact, it should not be easy. Christians wish to make a positive contribution to society (which always leads to involvement in politics to some extent, and possibly includes even military service). Yet we same Christians are not absolved from the responsibility of listening to the inconvenient voice of Jesus, even though it comes from a different historical era and setting. Ultimately, his is the voice that encourages us not only to remember those who have died in war but also calls us to work and to support all efforts to ensure that others need never do so again.