There’s been a concern this week that this weekend, Remembrance weekend, might be dragged into some of the wider political concerns of our world. We meet as the war in Ukraine enters a second winter. We meet in the light of events in Israel and Palestine, and images of the horrific violence and loss of life in both of these conflicts cannot but be in our thoughts. These, and other conflicts, find their way into this act of worship as (to use the words at the beginning of our worship) we commit ourselves to work in penitence and faith for reconciliation between nations so that all might live in freedom, justice and peace.
But Remembrance Sunday has other purposes too. We are called to remember (and to care for) those whose lives have been disfigured by war and terror. And, at the heart of our worship is the 2 minutes silence in which we remember those whose lives have been given and taken away in conflicts past and present.
Those words – lives given and taken away – from the introduction to our service have been carefully chosen, for they recognise that, for all that the men and women of our Armed Forces, Merchant Navy, Emergency services and civilian populations caught up in war may well have given their service to the country willingly, their lives were taken much too soon for those who mourn them. Lest we forget, that grief is of course, still very real for the families of those who died in more recent conflicts.
Why did people serve in uniform all those years ago? Why do people still volunteer for a career in the Forces which may ask them to risk their lives? Years back perhaps there was little or no choice: conscription, peer pressure, economic circumstance…the reasons will have been legion as the troops headed off to the trenches of Northern France a century and more ago. The same too for the Second World war as the whole world was caught up in the battle against totalitarianism and men and women were asked to ‘do their bit’. But in the mix, both then and now, individuals and nations have had to ask big questions of themselves: what are we prepared to fight for? What values are so important to us that we are prepared to fight for them at great personal cost, even to give our lives for them?
What answer would you give? What would you be prepared to fight for? Previous generations found shared purpose in the defence of freedom, the protection of the innocent and the restraint of evil. These values find their origin in our inheritance of faith: as we witness the clash of civilisations in our own day it is becoming increasingly clear that they are not universally shared. Aggressors of yesteryear could not be allowed to go unchallenged. The answer to the question ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ was a firm ‘Yes’ – a ‘Yes’ that recognised that weaker nations should not live in fear of larger aggressors. That international boundaries should not be crossed. More recently we seem to have become less sure of our obligation to uphold justice within the world community – the painful experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan could easily have resulted in our withdrawing from the world – but the country’s ongoing support for Ukraine and the heated responses (if not agreement) to the situation in the Middle East might indicate that nationally we still feel we have a role to play in standing up for what we believe to be just and true.
Because if we don’t …if we don’t follow the example of our forebears (those we honour today) then we cede the world to those prepared to rule it through naked power, through the use of brutal force and extreme violence. Look around. Notice the desire of country after country for ‘strong’ leaders, notice the intolerance of other peoples’ views that is infecting our politics – the desire to crush opponents rather than seek common ground. See the grim cruelty of ISIS and Hamas, remember the ongoing bombardment of towns and cities far from the frontline in Ukraine and the war crimes against civilians and POWs by the Wagner Group. Remember too that these conflicts have found their way onto our streets through terrorism and state sponsored assassination.
It’s not a question of seeking out conflict. More, a question of being true to values that respect life, uphold justice and work for the freedom of all.
And where is God in this? We heard some verses from Psalm 33 as our scripture reading. Words which included a faith assessment of military power and technology: ‘No king is saved by the might of his host, no warrior delivered by his great strength. A horse is a vain hope for deliverance: for all its strength it cannot save’. Not everybody would agree to this assessment, would they? It is by no means clear that military might does not save! I do not for a moment believe that the Israel of the psalmist’s day was ‘pacifist’ – the scriptures are filled with battles and conflict – but of much greater importance in this psalm than military might and strength is humility and trust expressed in attending to God’s purposes and will as best we know them. The psalmist wrote in a pre-industrial world: he knew that the nations bordering his country had huge armies and terrifyingly used chariots on the battlefield. His own country was small and outgunned, but he still felt that faithfulness to God is what gives a nation its strength.
‘The eye of the Lord is upon those who fear Him…Our soul waits longingly for the Lord’. These things force us to consider well the ‘why’ of military intervention and the ‘how’ – most especially in considering the protection of civilians and for finding peace after any conflict. The injection of concerns of faith and morality…of values…. into the way we engage with the world acts as a brake on the most destructive and worst parts of our human responses to threat and fear.
So we remember. We remember those who gave their lives, whose lives were taken from them in conflict. We remember the cost of doing what is right, what is deemed necessary. As we remember, we humbly repent of how we, as a people, have got things wrong – and the awful costs that involved for us and for those with whom we have been at war. And with our psalm in mind we remember too that the exercise of force and power (in all walks of life let alone in time of conflict) is best done by people of humility, people prepared to work and hope for a better future where the values of the Kingdom of God prevail.
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