The Revd Brutus Green
As the world never ceases to spin on its axis, and technology continually transforms all aspects of human life, there will always be those who cling to the past and those who wish to forever leave it behind. If you’ve seen the vicar’s phone you will know what I mean. Wars, traditionally, have been times of great innovation, necessity being mother to invention. And the First World War which we particularly remember today takes the credit for such innovations as tanks, flamethrowers, poison gas, aircraft carriers, and also more generally helpful things like air traffic control and mobile X-ray machines.
The cost of not staying up to date in war bears an especially high price. Field Marshal Douglas Haig, commander during the infamous Battle of the Somme, gives us a particular example. Haig was very popular even after the war. But from the 60s he became vilified, particularly by the satirical musical “Oh What a Lovely War”. The musical might not have made it on to the West End but Princess Margaret went to see it and said afterwards that what’s been “said here tonight should have been said long ago” to the Lord Chamberlain. The family of Haig protested but it was a hit. It’s been said that it tells you more about the 60s than the War, but its view was continued by ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ and remains a prevalent though not uncontested view.
Haig was a creature of habit, and the big push that started the battle of the Somme began predictably, as always, at 7.30am. There was no attempt at surprise and 66,000 men walked forward steadily in a line, carrying as they were up to 100 pounds of kit towards the German line. Haig overestimated his earlier bombardment, and underestimated the German machine gun. Within an hour there were 30,000 wounded or dead. By the end of the first day there were 20,000 dead and 35,000 injured with no significant objectives achieved. The Daily Mail, ever the objective truth-teller, described how “The very attitudes of the dead fallen eagerly forwards, have a look of expectant hope. You would say that they died with the light of expectant victory in their eyes.” The other papers were no more truthful, with the Times describing the wounded as “extraordinarily cheery and brave” and the Observer claiming we had “excelled our best hopes”. It is not Haig alone that bears the blame for this, the greatest disaster in British military history, but his attitude is significant. In 1926 with a bewildered nation mourning nearly a million dead, Haig wrote: ‘I believe that the value of the horse and the opportunity of the horse in the future are likely to be as great as ever. Aeroplanes and tanks are only accessories to the men and the horse, and I feel as time goes on you will find just as much use for the horse - the well bred horse - as you have ever done in the past.” St John’s has long been a parish predisposed to the horse, but even we know the horse’s limitations. Which begs the question, as we enter this centenary of the war’s outbreak, how do we remember it? And why should we remember it?
Christianity is a faith of remembrance. The Hebrew Bible has a continual command to remember the Lord and throughout reminds the Hebrews of his great works of salvation. A particular highlight is the famous passage from Ecclesiastes, read at the late Queen Mother’s funeral, “Remember now thy creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them’. And today’s New Testament lesson exhorted us to ‘stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us’. Remember and uphold the tradition. And we also are a religion of our ancestors. So as in today’s Gospel, the Lord is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. But, even more than Scripture, Liturgy, feasts and festivals all are acts of collective remembrance recalling great acts and sacrifices, and by their continual repetition bringing depth and meaning to human experience. During the Oxford Movement when Anglican priests, monks and nuns went out to the Victorian slums to work and bring relief to the industrialized poor, all they asked for was to receive the eucharist daily, in order to find inspiration remembering the sacrifice of Christ and sharing solidarity in receiving Christ together.
So much of family life, cultural and social life, and national life is held together by rituals, from eating together, to coming together at Christmas, going to a pantomine or afternoon tea, that our sense of who we are and what we’re about depends upon them. Rituals can become bad though. Bad habits, ritual humiliations, the Two-minutes hates in George Orwell’s 1984, blood-rituals that swear revenge. Remembrance of violence and pain can swing both ways, desperately seeking peace or viciously perpetuating violence. I was shocked to hear this week of a German being berated for wearing a poppy. I wonder how you feel about this.You may agree. You may think it’s forgiveable if the person fought in the war; if the person lost a loved one in the war; what if a grandparent died in the war? But at St John’s we are an international community; what do poppies say and what does Remembrance Sunday mean to a mixed community born out of two generations which in various ways had expunged, exterminated and humiliated families and nations across Europe and the world? What and how are we remembering?
Again there are types of remembrance that cling to the past, and there are types that are willing to move on. We can remember the Great War to hold on to enmity and mistrust; to never forgive a people; to remember our victory over another set of nations; as a foundation for our people against all others. Or we remember lest we forget; we remember the war which the science-fiction writer H.G. Wells too optimistically called “the war to end wars”, to remember the stupidity of war; that these two wars killed more than a hundred million people between them; people like you and I, but more likely people younger than you and I. I’ve spent some time recently at army bases and with those wanting to join up. The demographic is 16-22, which seems impossibly young; a generation of Harry Potters being sent off to deadly situations. Do we not remember to try and protect all children from killing and being killed?
How we remember affects what sort of people we are. We cannot let go of the past without forgetting who we are. We have to adapt to the world before us though. If we remember in order to hold on to superiority, or to hold on to anger against other nations, or some sort of personal vengeance or grudge, or misguided sense of glory, then we will become a particular sort of people. But if we remember to give honour to those whom we loved, and the values we cherish; if we remember to remember the weakness of all flesh before weaponry, and the weakness of all minds before power, pride, envy, cruelty and above all fear; but live in the present, then we remember well. If we remember with faith, hope and love then we remember well.
The holiest part of the communion service, where at times all would have bowed their heads and crossed themselves, is the words of institution. It is here we remember Christ’s words, even as he is remembering the great act of the Hebrew’s deliverance, the passover of the angel of death. And Christ’s words are a command “Do this in remembrance of me.” Our central command as Christians is to remember the death and resurrection of a man who gave his life for others. There have been those who have remembered these words with violence - who have called Jews “Christ-killers” and forced them from their homes, expatriated or exterminated. But to the Jews who celebrated the meal with Jesus, and the Gentiles who continued this with them in the face of persecution and death, it was the sharing of a meal of solidarity. Solidarity with all those who suffer, and especially those who had died and were continuing to die in the faith.
This is the remembering that draws all of us here today and unites us as one body. After all the French and English have been at war most of their history, the Americans won their independence from us in battle, and the twentieth-century pitched friends and families across Europe on different unwanted sides of reckless wars. The remembering we do here does not undo that history of suffering and tragedy; it does not remain trapped in the past; but it hopes for something better; for a united humanity and a common good. It hopes that out of suffering and death, through love, can arise new life.
And for the tragedy that rocked Europe for thirty years and more, for the wasted youth and avoidable suffering, all we can do is give thanks and leave them to God. If we have no faith then it is a bleak and cold thought. A hundred million youths cut down before they’d begun, and a humanity that hardly deserves another chance and cannot believe in being better. But if we dare to believe then “they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. [Because] the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob... is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’ In the resurrection “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last… after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side.” Today we remember the fallen and all who give their lives for their country, in faith, with hope, for love. Amen.