It is 100 years since the start of the First World War and since 1919, people have stood silently – on November 11th and, like us today, on the nearest Sunday before – to remember the dead of that War that was to end all wars, of the world war that followed it, and the wars that have followed those. There has been a shift in the last century. In 1919, those who had died were almost all – even then not all – servicemen, those who had gone to the front to serve their country and fallen. And a big part of it is still about that: remembering those who joined – and join – armies and navies and air forces and are sent to fight, and who have given up their lives in that cause. We remember those who died, for their sacrifice, but also all those who fought, for the terrible cost to them personally because of the things that society requires them to do, and then live with, in its name in war. But because in war society requires of its servicemen and -women that they do these terrible things, and because through the twentieth century the consequences of those expectations have increasingly been experienced also by those who are not members of the armed forces, it seems to me fitting that we remember today also all those others who died in war: in bombing raids, those civilians who lost their lives simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Remembering those who died, those who were killed – those who killed and were killed – points us beyond Remembrance Sunday as an act of national pride and reminds us that war brings human beings into terrible conflict. One of the most terrifying things about war is how it brutalises and dehumanises. Some time ago, I read Antony Beevor’s, Berlin: The Downfall 1945. Beevor writes of the horrifying and brutal events of the last weeks of the World War Two. Underlying them, especially on the Eastern front, was the appalling and brutalising propaganda used by the Russians against the Germans and the Germans against the Russians. Beevor comments:
One of the most unintentionally revealing remarks was made by … General Maslov. described German children crying as they searched desperately for their parents in a blazing town. ‘What was surprising,’ wrote Maslov, ‘was that they were crying in exactly the same way that our children cry.’ Just think about that statement for a minute………..
Such attitudes may be common to all wars. Accounts of the ritual humiliation and torture of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan remind us that the dehumanisation of the enemy is not confined to other times and other peoples.
On a different level, to be sure, but also disturbing is the uninformed, undifferentiated accounts of Islam in much of Western media or of the Jews and Israel in much or the Arabic media. Caricatures are disturbing because it can be a very small step from parody and ignorance to persecution.
Reflecting on the brutality and inhumanity of Auschwitz, Thomas Merton wrote that in order for something like Auschwitz to happen,
It is enough to affirm one basic principle: anyone belonging to class x or nation y or race z is to be regarded as subhuman and worthless, and consequently has no right to exist. All the rest will follow without difficulty.
Merton went on:
As long as this principle is easily available, as long as it is taken for granted, as long as it can be spread out on the front pages at a moment’s notice and accepted by all, we have no need of monsters: ordinary policemen and good citizens will take care of everything.
That is, accepting caricatures of inhumanity can too easily turn ordinary people inhuman. Surely Remembrance must be at least in part about reminding ourselves that other people whoever they are, are not caricatures, not beasts, but other human beings. These are children, who cry like our own. This is a member of the same congregation, who lost her sister in an Allied Bombing raid in 1946 . These are women and men, who may be strangers but also could be our friends.
Finding out where God is in all of this is very difficult. During the First World War, theologians on both sides wanted to claim that God had been on their side. But in 1916, in the midst of the First World War, a theologian named Peter Taylor Forsyth gave a series of lectures called The Justification of God. Forsyth warned against any simple attempt at finding God in the events of war. “An event like the war at least aids God’s purpose in this,” he writes, “that it shocks and rouses us into some due sense of what evil is, and what a Saviour’s task with it is.” In the war he suggested, “We are having a revelation of the awful and desperate nature of evil.”
For Forsyth, the horror of the War pointed to the Redemption, and not to a partisan God who could be claimed by one side or the other. The war pointed, in fact, to that utter conviction that lies in the words of Job:
“For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God.” [Job 19.25-26]
So many who have lost their lives in war, and we remember them today. If their death can awake in us an understanding of our need to break down barriers of hate and the call to all of humankind to discover in each other their common, God-given humanity, then we are remembering them as they should be remembered. And remembering what they gave for us. That, having them all in our remembrance, we might at last listen to the our gentle shepherds voice and set about building a better world.
This sermon is taken in large part from a sermon written by: Charlotte Methuen, assistant priest at St Margaret’s Newlands (Scottish Episcopal Church) in Glasgow, Scotland.