77 years ago this morning, the people of Coventry woke up to see the destruction of Operation Moonlight Sonata. In eleven hours, five hundred bombers had pummelled the city, destroying the Anglican cathedral and the market hall, along with factories and homes. Over five hundred people lost their lives that night. For those called to preach on Remembrance Sunday in this city, we do so in the embers of that destruction.
I was asked to lead worship for Earlsdon Methodist Church in the city on Sunday morning and these are some of the thoughts I shared:
Memory is a funny thing. Sometimes it plays tricks on us. It makes us believe that things in the past were not quite as bad as we thought they were. Or that things were better, bigger, colder, brighter: summers always seemed to be hotter than they are today. Life was easier, community was stronger, Christmases were whiter.
Even as we form new memories, there is a process of editing going on in our brains. But that doesn’t diminish the importance of our memories. For they give us a sense of who we are, and root us in a particular time and place. It is because we share memories with others that we are part of a community. So when memory is lost, there is a sense of dislocation, of separation from community. That is why diseases such as Alzheimer’s are so devastating - because it causes that break with others. To remember is to be, and to become human. Today above all other dates in the Church’s and Nation’s calendar is a day for remembrance.
Part of Remembrance Sunday has always been about personal grief and private memories. We look at our television screens today and see veterans weeping tears of grief for their fallen comrades. It is as if it happened yesterday, when in fact it was 60, 70, 80 years ago. However, as the veterans of those conflicts pass away, there are some who say we should abandon this act of remembrance altogether, consign it to history. And if this day were only about personal remembrance, then most of us would have no part of it. We would simply be onlookers as others perform their ritual. But, if there are some who need to speak of their experiences of war, then the rest of us should listen. For we need constantly to be reminded of the horrendous cost of war.
In recent years, this act of remembrance has, in fact undergone something of a revival. Part of it is linked to the increased number of British service men and women involved in active conflict. But part of it has more negative undertones. In the absence of a national day, this ceremony has taken on more nationalistic tones and, for some, become the litmus test of loyalty. Refusal to wear the red poppy has become a shibboleth for integration, especially for our Muslim sisters and brothers. What this reveals is a country that knows itself deeply divided and in need of a shared narrative and a common enemy. We seek, in conflict, to heal the wounds within and it is a false unity.
I have just returned from Sri Lanka where remembering is a way of continuing the conflict. The lack of a shared narrative means that the same events have totally different significance depending on your ethnicity. The struggle still goes on in Ireland to find a way to acknowledge the past in a way that brings healing rather than compound division. In Britain, are we in danger of creating new enemies and external threats in order to bind us together?
We need to remember that, in war and conflict, a rift is caused that take generations to heal. And it doesn’t take long for an ally to turn into an enemy. Before 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm was said to be Queen Victoria’s favourite grandson; an admiral of the British fleet no less. Before his invasion of Kuwait, Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran was supported and funded by the West. Bashir al-Assad had a medical practice on Harley Street in London.
We need to remember that, in modern conflict, more civilians have been killed than anyone else. Today’s technology allows us not only to see the launching of weapons from battleships or submarines. It also allows us to see them land, to see the damage and destruction they cause. We are told that precision is the name of the game. But why is it that civilian casualties still outnumber combatants, whether in Syria or Yemen, Afghanistan or Iraq?
We need to remember that the lives of combatants are changed forever. No longer are conscripts forced to fight in the mud of Flanders. But even so-called professional soldiers are asked to put aside their humanity in order to engage in conflict. I have met professional combatants who are responsible for the deaths of dozens of other people. This is something we ask the Armed Services on our behalf, to live with every day of their lives.
War damages, and destroys. It resolves nothing. We should never believe that it ever will. That is not to say that sometimes it becomes necessary. But we should never consider it anything but the last resort nor should we count war as an inevitable part of human experience. It cannot replace the need for dialogue, it simply postpones it. At some point, we need to talk with our erstwhile enemies, to resolve, to move on, to build.
So we come here today not in any way to glorify war; quite the opposite. We are forced to remember the horrors of war, unspeakable crimes against humanity, the sheer waste of human life and potential. They say the first casualty of war is the truth. But the ultimate victim is the humanity of all involved. In even contemplating war, we sacrifice something of what it is to be a truly decent human being. The consequences of war last for decades in the memories of those we put on the front-line, and yet we expect them to be able to cope.
To be confronted with these unpalatable truths could lead to deep despair. Despair that war is still seen as a necessary or even desirable mode of operation. But truly to see what we have done may also be the seedbed of hope. Despair whispers in our hearts that what we know from the past is all that we can hope for in future. It spins the lie of inevitability. Hope takes our memories and helps us to understand that it need not be this way. Hope constantly poses the question: isn’t there a different way?
This different way is not for the faint-hearted, the soft option for the coward. It involves all our strength and courage, and a total commitment. Once committed, we cannot walk away, or resort to conflict. It means committing ourselves to always seeing those with whom we disagree as fellow human-beings, with families and feelings, with needs and ambitions. It is the work of reconciliation. Once we have looked into our enemy’s eyes, shared their concerns, listened and spoken, it is more difficult to demonize.
Whether we like it or not, ISIS are human beings. Would that they were not, and we could distance ourselves completely from their thoughts and actions. But they share our humanity, and, as Christians, we affirm that they is equally a child of God’s love.
This is not a message the world wants to hear. But no-one said the work of reconciliation would be easy. It often involves conflict with our own community, being treated with suspicion or derision. Such is the cost we are called to pay when we commit ourselves to the One we call Prince of Peace. In Christ, we see the Way of Peace, which is none other than the Way of the Cross. Commitment, sacrifice, self-giving, but above all else, love pave this Way. And though the journey may be hard, obstacle-ridden, there is the assurance that it is the way to Life. So let us commit ourselves to this Way, to seek better ways to resolve our differences, to ensure that when war is waged, it is done so with justice.
Let us take this message of peace and reconciliation and liberate it from the Church by living it in the World. That peace, justice, love characterise all our relationships, and so provide a witness to the world that there is a more excellent way.