I was recently invited to take services at another parish on Nov. 10. For those of you outside Canada, this is the Sunday right before Remembrance Day, Nov. 11. It’s a major secular observance, recognized differently in various parts of our country, but nonetheless a significant annual event. As it happens, I won’t be taking these services, but that doesn’t change my feelings about the day.
The date goes back 101 years, to the declaring of the Armistice that ended World War I. It was known as Armistice Day for some years. After WWII, the new name was necessary, because the Nov. 11, 1918 Armistice was no longer the date when peace came to the world. The second world war had put paid to that notion, in spades.
The day became particularly known for remembering the “ultimate sacrifice” paid by men (and women) who had given their lives in the two wars. I will never disparage what that may mean to anyone. As I will relate later, one war death touched my family very greatly. What I have long felt about the day is that it tends to look backward, mourning what was, rather than looking forward, seeking to build the peaceable society for which our war dead died.
Why do people wage war? It seems to me that warfare and the things that make for warfare are signs of our fallen nature. I believe that God intended that people would live in peace and harmony. War is a sign that humankind has failed to live up to God’s wishes for creation. We arm ourselves against enemies, not because God desires it, but because we and our enemies have failed to live as we ought. War may sometimes be necessary, because evil sometimes seems to get the upper hand. But war is only a way of stemming the tide of evil, not of building the peace which is God’s plan for all humankind.
My grandfather went to war in the early years of WWI, a medical officer attached to the Royal Leicester Regiment. He was known for his good humor and his ability to bring hope to every situation. About six weeks before the 1918 Armistice, he went forward to help rescue a wounded soldier. He and another man were pinned down by machine gun fire, and he died in the field. For his heroism he was posthumously awarded the Military Cross. My grandmother wore the ribbon proudly for the rest of her life, but what a life that was! She was left with three young children, and one more born posthumously. She never remarried (which was a rare thing in those days, given the number of men who had had died in the war), and her children grew up with no father, overseen by uncles who tried to manage their lives.
The toll taken on our family is incalculable. My mother grew up with a horror of war and things military. After my father graduated from medical school in 1941, he did his duty, and enlisted in the army, going overseas while my mother was pregnant with my older sister. My mother lived the the rest of the war years in terror of being left alone as her own mother had been. I didn’t understand much of this until the sixties, when I was at university and the Viet Nam war was underway. I had been aware as a child that Remembrance Day was difficult in our house, but I had never realized why.
During the Viet Nam war, many draft-age men came to Canada from the US, because they could not or would not agree to fighting in that conflict. I learned around that time that my father had considered taking a medical position in the US when we were planning on emigrating from the UK. My mother told my father that if we had ended up in that country, she would have expected my brother and me to come to Canada. My father’s position, quite consistent with why he went overseas in 1942, was that he would have expected us to do our duty. It was not a happy time for them — or for me, once I realized what the story was.
I was involved in the ’60’s student peace movement. I became used to being attacked for being a Communist, a pacifist weakling, an enemy of our people. I reject all of those: what I am and what I remain is a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, the Prince of Peace. In the ensuing half-century, I haven’t changed my position in any material way. I still believe that peace is what God intends for God’s people. I still believe that peace is built through people acting peaceably, not in anger. I still believe that war, however necessary it may seem at times, is not part of God’s wishes for us.
We rightly remember on November 11. Many sacrifices were made in the wars of the last century, and we have much for which to give thanks in that regard. Nonetheless, this giving of thanks is done is sadness, remembering the loss of so much human life, the disordering of so many families, and the waste laid to so much human accomplishment.
When we remember on November 11, let it be with a ever-new commitment to building a society in which God’s peace is real and visible in all things.
We remember best by working for peace.
Thanks be to God for those who died to make this world a better place. We owe a great debt to them.
Thanks be to God for those who continue to work to keep that hope alive. Our children will be in their debt.