There is a paradox about Remembrance Sunday. It has resurfaced this year in the debate about white or red poppies. Does it glorify war or is it about committing to peace? It is particularly emotive, raising heckles on both sides, but it’s a paradox that won’t go away.
On one hand war horrifies us all, none more so than those who have fought in them. And yet there is an unpopular truth that for many of those fighting in the first and second world wars, there was also a great sense of fun. That’s been evident recently as we’ve been privileged to hear the voices of those who fought in the First World War. When they reached the trenches, of course, the horror took over and obliterated everything else. But before that the young men experienced their first taste of freedom: freedom from the strictures of a much more rigid society; freedom from a daily occupation which they probably never got a choice about; and a freedom we now take for granted: that of leaving home and becoming independent. It was a feeling not unlike that of a modern teenager going off to university. And yet the paradox was that it was leading them to a suffering that was beyond human imagining.
Even with hindsight, we can’t really imagine the suffering, so for Stephen Hayhurst or Fred Dent encountering it blind in the midst of their youthful blossoming, it must have been utterly beyond belief.
So you see where the paradox comes from. Acknowledge one truth about war and it pushes us towards pacifism. Acknowledge the other and it pushes us towards glorifying war. And yet I suspect that hardly any of us here aligns with either of those positions. We are, ourselves, part of that paradox.
Now, in one important sense, the answer to that paradox is to focus on remembrance and that is, rightly, our clear focus today: remembering the brave people who fought our wars. It takes on a different perspective when we remember loved ones, comrades and neighbours. And this year, in particular, the focus is saying ‘thank you’ to our First Wold War fallen and remembering them as real people, members of this community. They were one of us still. Their relatives are still among us and so is the gap that they left in our community. We will not let their memory fade. We will remember them.
But I want to suggest that we sit a little longer with the paradox, because perhaps it is trying to teach us something valuable in this centenary year. The fact is that there is a paradox at the heart of each of us. Why is it, for example, that the people we most love are also the people who most drive us up the wall? Why is it that we, who pride ourselves in our tolerance, so enjoy being judgmental towards others? And why is it that we get so angry and bellicose when we are arguing against war? We are all paradoxes.
Of course, we all want peace! But the reality of human history is that when we get peace, it’s not very long before we start finding new things to fight over. I love the phrase which has recently come into currency that says: “that is such a first world problem!” It’s a brilliant way of highlighting the silly ways we invent problems that are actually the result of our lives being a little too comfortable or easy.
But we also find new ways of fighting in the bigger issues of life. At the end of the 1980s there was a great sense of relief when both the Labour and Conservative parties moved towards the centre ground and a sensible political consensus was reached. As the Cold War ended, the great arguments of left and right were over. At last, we all basically agreed and the only question was who was most competent to govern.
Then very suddenly (and it was about 2 years ago) we started to rebel against the consensus. We became suspicious of having only one option and suddenly we wanted choice, we wanted political debate, we wanted principles worth fighting for. And now we’re happily fighting again.
In many ways, I think this is a good thing. But what is not helpful is that too often, instead of engaging in reasoned debate, we are simply tearing each other apart. From social media to Parliament, it is too easy to take up a self-righteous position and demonise our opponents. But surely, if we believe that we need debate, we should also believe in creating a culture of debating: of exploring the paradoxes of our common life together. But that is a long way from where we seem to be now.
And it seems to me that that is the direct result of the First World War. As has historians have observed, in many ways the First World War didn’t end in 1918. It carried on until at least the end of the Cold War in the 1990s. And that has affected our collective psyche. The end of the Cold War coincided with the rise of what sociologists call ‘post-modernism’, a world where we live with a huge diversity of opinion without any attempt to reconcile it or to iron out difference. And this seems to be a reaction to almost a century of war, the sense that we’re tired of fighting over things – better to live and let live. In many ways that has been good. Society is more fair minded and diverse and I’m glad of it, but the trouble is that we seem to have lost the ability to address the areas of difference where we can’t just live and let live. Indeed, there are some things we now can’t even talk about. Religion and politics, for example, are avoided at all costs, yet they are surely the most important subjects in human society.
And this has a cost. Our inability to discuss the key issues without anger spilling over is symptoms of a society that has lost the tools to resolve difference. So when we find our tolerance at breaking point, it erupts in conflict. The great paradox is that our well-meaning tolerance is now producing a society that is increasingly intolerant. So it seems to me that one of the most pressing issues of our times is the need to find healthy ways to resolve conflict.
So what might be a Christian response? Well as Christians, we are called to something greater and more challenging than tolerance. The Christian calling is to love, to love even our enemies. To tolerate means to accept our differences; to love means to seek to address our differences through a deeper understanding, whilst all the time remaining in committed relationship. We need the ability to address our big issues without condemnation.
Back in the summer, Archbishop Michael Curry told us that if we truly discovered the power of Christian love, it would be as significant a moment for humanity as the discovery of fire. Christian love is not sentimental. It is something forged in the depths of conflict that transforms us radically. And to do something so radical requires us to begin with humility – the fundamental Christian attitude that recognises that we are not right, that we are not good, that only God is good; that only God is right; and therefore none of us has any right to judge our neighbour. Instead, we all need mercy. We have a common quest to resolve our differences and to provide for one another’s needs. Our opponents are not, in fact, our enemies. We need them so that we can explore the truth together. We need them to remove the plank from our eye so that we can see clearly to remove the speck from theirs. That kind of humility is the only attitude in which love can take root.
But paradoxically, love also requires us to be dissatisfied with division. The great German theologian, Jurgen Moltman, worked in the ecumenical movement, trying to heal divisions in the Church and he said this: “reconciled diversity is the sleeping pill of the ecumenical movement.” It sounds quite shocking, but what he’s saying is that when we become content with merely accepting our differences, it sends our peace-making instincts to sleep. It’s too easy just to live and let live, but it ignores the important tensions of our existence and, far from making us more loving, it in fact makes us more indifferent, far from making us more tolerant, it in fact makes us more angry and indignant.
And as we commemorate the centenary of the First World War, right now, as we stand at this crossroads in the hour and a half’s gap between the ceasefire and the Armistice, it strikes me that there are certain things we must never forget. But there are also certain things we must now move on from. And perhaps one thing we need to move on from is our conflict adversity. Whilst that was an entirely understandable reaction to a century of brutal conflict, there are some things worth fighting for. And now we urgently need to find healthy ways to engage in conflict and peaceful ways to resolve it. It is, after all, possible to have difficult conversations in a civilised and courteous way!
And we Christians can take the lead. For one thing, Jesus showed us, on the Cross, exactly what it is to address our biggest issues without condemnation. And we can embody that in a very practical way. Whether it is down the pub, or in our homes, or at the cafe or in Church, we can encourage a respectful spirit of debate in our community. Next time an argument starts getting heated, we can actively try to change the tone of the discussion, addressing the issues without making them personal.
We can cultivate ways to encourage people to express their views (even if we don’t like them). We can seek less to be understood than to understand, and express our own views with courtesy and humility, as part of a quest for a deeper truth that we all need and which we can only find together. Above all, we can cultivate humility in ourselves, by acknowledging the anger within us and turning it, not against our neighbour in hate, but back to our God in repentance, so that we can face both God and neighbour in love.
And that is why one of the things we must never move on from is the memory of those who gave their lives for us in war. It doesn’t help to descend into fruitless arguments over the rights and wrongs of the wars they fought because the reality is that those wars were both right and wrong. And John Regan and John Threlkeld, and our other neighbours, gave their lives to give this community the freedom we enjoy today. I’m sure they never expected it to be utopia, but they did have the right to expect us to be grateful and to do something worthwhile with our freedom.
They fought the war that was supposed to end all wars. And it still could, belatedly, if we can commit to being a community that engages with our paradoxes, that encourages honest, respectful debate, a community that is capable of living with both war and peace, a community that is able to address the great issues of our common life whilst being committed to loving deeply, loving God, loving our neighbour – and even loving our enemies. Because, as Archbishop Curry said, “when we discover the redemptive power of love, we will make of this old world, a new world.”
Preached: – Morland 11 November 2018