We have gathered together today to remember before God those who have gone before us, who gave their lives in war in order that those whom they loved would be saved, and be enabled to flourish in their lives and homes in peace. This year we especially mark the passage of 90 years since the foundation of the Royal British Legion. How can we best honour those who gave their lives for us?
Well, in a simple sense, we can honour them by what we do today – simply by remembering them, and naming them. Anything beyond that runs the risk of being superfluous – but I would run that risk today. Clearly it is in living out our lives freely, making the most of the gift that we have received as a result of their sacrifice, that we do honour them. A straightforward example will demonstrate this point: in Afghanistan today there are girls being educated who would not be were it not for the courage and sacrifice of those men and women serving there. For those schoolgirls to honour those soldiers simply requires them to take advantage of their education, to have and to enjoy better lives. That is enough of a purpose and an honour. Sadly, what seems straightforward thousands of miles away seems much less clear closer to home. For what does it mean in this country to enjoy such better lives? What might it mean for us to enjoy the freedom that has been so expensively bought? How can we here, today, best honour those who have given their lives for us?
Earlier this week, as part of his homework assignment from Mersea school, my eldest son has been tasked with learning something about the First World War, most specifically about the trenches. Now the trenches were a barrier, there was the enemy in front, and there was the home to be protected behind. I expect to be going through his homework with him this afternoon, and what I am wanting to teach my son is that the place for battle, the place for military excellence, for courage and skill, is on that front line. But the most important thing is that those virtues are placed in service of something larger – something larger than any one soldier’s own interests or personal advantage. This is what makes the difference between the heroes and the villains in all the stories that he has become familiar with. For example, my son greatly enjoys the Harry Potter stories – Harry Potter fights on behalf of a community and, in the end, he accepts his own death in order that they might flourish. His enemy, Voldemort, is simply pursuing his own immortality, and he is quite willing to dispose of his closest allies if it allows him to get closer to his wish. What I want to do is tie together what he has been learning through reading such fictional stories, with what actually has happened, and does happen, in our world.
It is this sense of serving something larger than our own desires that makes the difference between the hero and the villain, and it is this sense of something larger that I think our society has been forgetting for several decades now. It has become unfashionable to say that there are objective values, that some things are definitely right, and some things are definitely wrong – irrespective of what anyone might actually think about them. It is because our society has been so corroded by this moral relativism that we have the spectacle of young men hanging from the Cenotaph in London during the student protests last December, whose defence was that they didn’t realise the significance of what they were doing. They hadn’t been told the stories, their community hadn’t insisted on the importance of telling them the stories, of saying – this matters.
I asked earlier what it might mean for us to enjoy the freedom that has been so expensively bought – and that is Christian language. As Christians we claim that in Jesus is our fullest and truest freedom – and that it is in so far as those who laid down their lives for us did so in resemblance to Jesus laying down his life for us that we honour them, and we remember them. What that means is that their stories find their meaning and purpose through being a part of the larger true story, the story of the creation of the world in love, the breaking of that world through our own sinful mistakes, and then the ongoing healing of that world through a loving sacrifice. As Christians we insist that there are values that are independent of our own judgement or preference, values that are woven into the fabric of this world by the one through whom it was all created, and it is by tuning in to those values and aligning ourselves with them that we start to touch the real and genuine freedom which is God’s intention for us. Freedom is not license, the ability to do whatever pleases us. True freedom comes from recognising the nature of the world and aligning ourselves with it: the truth shall set us free. This is the overall story that binds us together and within which all our own individual stories find their meaning. This is the story that gives us the fabric of our common life – and it is that fabric that has been unstitched over several decades by those with no awareness of the havoc that they have caused – Father forgive them for they know not what they do.
I asked at the beginning of these words what is it that we can do to best honour those who have given their lives for us. I believe that I can now offer you an answer: the answer is simple, but very hard to live up to. We honour them best by telling their stories, and we give those stories meaning by embedding it within the larger story which gives it sense and purpose. We honour our heroes – those who fought for something larger, something bigger than themselves – by also telling the story that is bigger than them themselves. It is this bigger story which allows us as a community to live together and to enjoy the fruits of a hard-earned peace. This is our common story, within which the stories of the veterans and fallen take their place and within which they find their meaning – and we honour them by continuing to tell all of those stories, from the stories of Jesus in the gospels through all the different stories of those who at different times in different places have given their lives and health that we might enjoy our lives and health. As the Kohima declaration has it: when you go home, tell them of us and say, for their tomorrow, we gave our today. That is the essential thing, to best honour those who have given their lives for us: keep the story which structures our lives alive. So today, when you go home, tell them.
The fundamental difference, of course, is that Jesus laid down his life unarmed, praying that God would forgive his enemies, having previously rebuked his disciples for taking up the sword to defend him.
I think this makes the commonly drawn parallel inappropriate.
I would have told your son that a belief “in something larger than any one soldier’s own interests or personal advantage” is the most abused piece of rhetoric in existence. Really, such concepts cannot avoid the fallacy of reification when used non-rhetorically and there was huge peer pressure upon young men to throw their lives way away in an incredibly wasteful and brutal war with nothing more at stake than the power of a tiny fraction of the European ruling class to continue the rape, pillage, and in some cases, the mass genocide of tribal non-European people.
In Ireland, Irish men who fought and died for the British empire during WW1 are still considered traitors by a sizeable percentage of the population. One mans higher cause is another mans enemy.
Tim – I chose my words quite carefully…
Observer – wouldn’t want to disagree with much of that sentiment, but the Remembrance service isn’t the place to expound it. I’m sure you’re not arguing that people should only seek their own advantage.
I am surprised that the comments by Fr. Tim (whose blog I read, and whom I greatly respect) and theObserver are so negative. I do not wish to get into an argument, so I will content myself by thanking you for this, which I presume was a sermon for Remembrance Day.
Here in the US, the “war to end all wars” has been almost entirely forgotten. Perhaps it is because the US was peripheral to that struggle and did not bear the suffering that the European countries on both sides, along with Canada, Australia, et.al.
But World War II, in which we played more of a part, has almost equally been forgotten, as have almost all of the “stories,” especially anything before the 1960’s. I gave a donation recently to an effort to place portraits of George Washington in public schools. There used to be such portraits in almost every classroom; they are long gone, and the memory of the “father of our country” is dim. Children are taught almost nothing about him, or about the period of the Revolution.
At our staff meeting recently, which happened to fall on All Saints’ Day, the Rector asked us to reflect verbally on saints who have “guided our steps.” I named Robert E. Lee (like Washington, a devoted Episcopalian), and he had considerable difficulty with it. So, I name and remember him here as well, in the sense that you have expressed so well in this essay. He took a leading role in a war of which he wanted no part, seeking to defend his home and his people. When that cause failed, he devoted the remainder of his life to rebuilding the community and his local parish (of which he was Senior Warden).
His story is part of what it is to be an American, a Christian, and an Episcopalian.
I would deny that my comment is ‘negative’, although Sam may be right that I was reading into his remarks things I have hear many times from others.
Sam is not a pacifist; I am. It seems very clear to me that the teaching of Jesus can never support the use of lethal violence. And yet, at Remembrance Day after Remembrance Day, I have heard the ‘greater love hath no man than this’ quote taken completely out of its context and used to glorify soldiers who died in battle. Jesus (who the quote is actually about) did not die in battle; he died unarmed, having turned the other cheek and forgiven his killers. And that’s what ‘taking up the cross’ means, I think.
Fr. Tim, Fr. Sam, and others: After I wrote my comment, I remembered a hymn by Shirley Erena Murray that you may not know; she is a New Zealander and wrote it for Anzac Day, but it applies equally to Remembrance Day, and might be of use for services.
Shirley is a pacifist, and this appears in the hymn. In her comments about it, she wrote: “The old hymns traditionally sung on this occasion no longer reflect the ethos of successive generations. I felt it was time to have… a hymn which expresses our respect and gratitude, along with our abhorrence of war, yet honours also those conscientious objectors who were treated very shamefully in our prisons for refusing to fight.”
The text is copyright, so I do not want to quote more than a few lines. It is “Honor the Dead, our country’s fighting brave,” found in her book “Touch the Earth Lightly,” number 20.
“Honor the dead, our country’s fighting brave,
honor the children left in foreign grave…
“Honor the brave whose conscience was their call,
answered no bugle, went against the wall…
branded as cowards, in our country’s name…
“Weep for the waste of all that might have been…
Thanks – I’ll have to look that one up.