War and Peace and Remembrance
Recently some students asked me why we still observe Remembrance Sunday? Isn’t it out-of-date? The answer I gave was simple – that it is right to stop in the middle of busy lives, to honour the memory of those who have given their lives in war. It helps us discover a sense of historical continuity, and provides a window through which we can look at our contemporary values, and reassess them. But it is not only the dead we remember today; it is just as important to remember that there are people who live day by day with debilitating war injuries - people who have been disfigured, lost limbs, or are suffering from nightmarish mental illness – post-traumatic stress disorder. This is particularly fresh in our minds because of the regular reports we get of suffering and atrocities in the Russian war against Ukraine. Including the torture, murder, and rape of civilians.
It seems to me that whatever your political or moral viewpoint, it is right to give thanks to God for those who have suffered in the course of doing their duty - in a very large number of cases a duty thrust upon them through conscription.
The Christian tradition has always held strong views about war, from basic retaliation – an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth – to Jesus’ pacifism of turning the other cheek and doing good to those who hate you, to Thomas Aquinas’ view of a just war way back in 13th century Italy. What is a just war? In a nutshell a just war must be authorised by government, it must be in a just cause, such as responding to violence or invasion, it must promote good and avoid evil. Military action is a last resort and must be proportionate: soldiers must avoid cruelty, and war should be between combatants and not involve civilians.
Broadly speaking that is the position taken today, although some argue that in an age of mechanical warfare, especially the use of drones, indiscriminate bombings of civilians with ballistic missiles, and certainly the reckless cruelties of chemical warfare or nuclear warfare, war can never be just.
As matter of fact the same conclusion was reached by some of the writers who fought in WWI. The poet, Siegfried Sassoon, threw his Military Cross into the sea off Margate pier in protest. In my view, he had had the courage to win it, and greater courage to throw it away.
At school I was introduced to the First World War poets by teachers who had themselves fought in the Second. The poet, Wilfred Owen, made a particular impression on me. He also had won the Military Cross. He protested not only against war but also questioned Christian belief. For example, he wrote a poem called, "Greater Love". The title is taken from Jesus' statement that greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for a friend.
It begins, ‘Red lips are not so red’ – it sounds as if it’s going to be a love poem about a sweetheart at home wearing her red lipstick. And that theme of a romantic love does run throughout the poem; but the love for a girlfriend’s red lips is contrasted with the lips of men in the trenches whose lips are red with blood.
In this hell where God seems not to care, the much-trumpeted love of God also comes into question. How can God allow all this suffering? In the first verse, ‘O Love, your eyes lose lure’, Love has a capital letter. Now you don’t use a capital letter when you write to your love, your sweetheart. No, this Love is God, who the NT says is love. But how can I believe that when I see eyes blinded in my stead. Indeed, how can a person believe in a loving God when faced with all this carnage? Even Jesus himself, when he hung on the cross, wondered where God was, when he cried out, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me’. One of the Ukrainian prisoners in Mariupol had scratched the Lord’s Prayer onto the wall of his torture cell. In extreme situations people still cry out for a God to save them. Strangely, the Church has a two-sided function today: on the one hand it must listen and try to absorb the anger of those who have experienced god-forsakenness and want to know why God allows such suffering in the world, and on the other it is called upon to dignify, in public ritual, our seriousness in honouring those who have sacrificed their life or their well-being in war and also to proclaim the value of peace, love, and the fundamental rights of human life.
What should our Christian response be? There’s a parable in the Falklands War memorial service. After victory, Mrs Thatcher wanted a victory parade in St Paul’s Cathedral and she didn’t want prayers for Argentina and its people. However, the church leaders felt they couldn't go along with that. There could be thanksgiving, but it should be accompanied by a sense of humility in victory, not triumphalism. Certainly, no suggestion that God had anything to do with the victory. Hundreds of Argentinians had lost their lives. Surely, therefore, there should be an element of penitence in this service, and since Jesus required us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, we should include prayers for Argentina and its people. It was a Church versus State argument which the Church eventually won.
What should Christian response be? Well, to remember that your opponent, your adversary, your enemy, is human like you.
Some wars are necessary; all wars are to be regretted. No war is ever totally just or honourable, or fairly fought, or an unmitigated success. On the whole war is not an improving experience for human beings. It is cruel and nasty. But we are right to give thanks to God for the courage and duty of men and women who have fought for King and country.