Saturday, 7 November 2009

The pity of war

My offering for Remembrance Sunday:

Readings: Micah 4 v 1-7
Luke 1 v 68-79

Remembrance Sunday always brings a stramash of emotions.
From grief to bewilderment, from pride to anger.For while the war that led to the instigation of this day of remembrance ended more than 90 years ago, conflict today is almost a matter of course.
Since the end of the Second World War, there hasn’t been a single day of peace: not a moment when someone, somewhere hasn’t been waging some kind of conflict.
Far from negating the sacrifice of those we remember today, this must stiffen our resolve. We must recognise that peace is a fragile, delicate butterfly, which can be blown about on the winds of history. As we enter further into conflict in Afghanistan, and against that shadowy, imprecise enemy in the “war on terrorism”, we should look both back with gratitude on the past, and look forward with the Christian hope written on our hearts.
The prophet Micah spoke of a time when disputes among nations would be settled. When people will live in peace.
A few years ago, I did some chaplaincy at Erskine hospital for disabled ex service men and women.
One of the concerns expressed then, in the early 90s was that, as time dragged on, as folk who could remember the first and second world wars grew fewer in number, that there would be little incentive to remember.
How wrong they were.
Our young folk are all too familiar with images of war.
They are a part of our everyday.
Even those too young to remember the gulf wars, have seen war in Iraq, in Afghanistan and countless other areas of conflict.
And while we might assert that war can never ever be justified, while we might want to cry – not in my name – every day our country sends young men and women to areas of conflict.
Every day, lives are lost and others are irrevocably scarred through engaging in war.
Every day public opinion is overridden and our nation makes an unholy alliance with other nations and might destroys right and more young lives become casualties of war.
So how can our remembering really make any difference when it seems we are hell bound to continue the sacrilege that is war.
And how can we ensure that remembering our own dead does not dehumanise the dead who were considered our enemies.
This week, I watched Sam Mendes film: Jarhead – a gruesome account of the gulf war of 1991.
The Jarheads are American marines doing a tour of duty in the desert.
They are young men trying to make sense of going to war ‘in a country they don't understand against an enemy they can't see for a cause they don't fully fathom'.
Watching the film, you feel the disorientating effects of the relentless heat and the vast lonely desert spaces.
You feel the boredom, the tension, the fear as the waiting goes on and on, then the sudden rush when the action finally erupts.
As one of the jarheads put it:This is our labour – we wait.
Jarhead seems an all too real depiction of a modern war.
What disturbed me, however was how close this depiction came to the description Robert Graves, a poet of the first world war gave at the end of 1916, after the battle of the Somme:
He said: ‘This is a dreary flat place... with the intolerable boredom of mess and not enough work to do, and people waiting their turn to go out again. No one is at his best here... The year is dying of atrophy... and the war is settling down on everyone - a hopeless, never-shifting burden. While newspapers and politicians yell and brandish their arms, the dead rot in their French graves, and the maimed hobble about the streets.'
90 years on, service men and women wait. They are unable to fathom the reasons for their being on foreign soil but they follow orders as they have always done.
Another war poet, Wilfred Owen spoke of “the pity of war”.
“What passing bells for those who die like cattle” he asked providing a pointed reminder that when slaughter is relentless and indiscriminate, we need to give even more value to each individual, recognise the humanity of each as someone's parent, someone's child, someone's brother or sister, colleague and friend. Men and women, individuals caught up in something over which they have no control. Each time we see one of these individuals brought home by plane , their coffin draped in their country’s flag, the question we must pursue is: what does it all mean?
And to know that the reality is that for each of those carried with such ceremony, there are countless others we never see, the innocent civilians wiped out trying to go about their daily lives in countries controlled by occupying forces.
And those occupying forces are ours.
Remembrance Sunday focuses very sharply this contrast between the terrible and merciless forces of armed conflict and the lives and destinies of the individual human beings who are caught up in them.
We are too aware, in a way that previous generations perhaps weren't, of the despair of so many of the world's peoples: innocent civilians whom the correct jargon callously calls the ‘collateral damage' of war; the poor who are always its forgotten casualties.
A once proud calling – to give ones life for one’s country has been desecrated by the pity of war, by the apparently pointless, avoidable suffering, by the tragedy of a broken world and the sense of helplessnes in the face of war mongering politicians who refuse to listen to the voice of reason and the pleading to find other ways to resolve issues.
So how do we restore some meaning to all those names on the war memorials around which we will gather today?
How can we ensure that all these folk and the countless others whose names are not recorded anywhere, did not die in vain?
The American poet George Santayana, once said
"Those who do not learn from history - are doomed to repeat it."
Our task this morning is to remember – to remember that each life is valuable.
The passage we read in Luke’s gospel was a celebration of John the Baptist. John’s father recognized that his son was going to be another step towards God fulfilling the promise to bring peace on earth. John the Baptist prepared the way for Christ, the son of God.
John was not the promised messiah, the one to set all people free but he had a part to play in that liberation.
You and I, today have a part to play in bringing peace.
And the first step to peace is restoring hope.
Hope that the world can be different.
Hope that, one day there will be peace.
So, as we remember those who have died, as we remember those who fought with pride, as we remember those who fought because they had no choice, as we remember those who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, caught up in the atrocity of war, we bring with our remembrance hope and resolve.
We could be the generation that learns from history.
We could be the generation that looks on the pity of war and seeks other ways to resolve conflict.
We could be the generation that makes a difference.
The God whom we worship today, who gathers with us round countless memorials is the God who knows those whose names are not there, the God who is present in every war zone and refugee camp and who wills peace for all nations.
May the God of hope and of peace help us in our remembering to learn the lessons of war and to find ever new ways to fight for peace.

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