Give this poem a rest?

What I am about to write will be seen by some as a “secular heresy.” I will no doubt outrage some of my readers, but please know that I am not trying to hurt anyone, simply to express my conflicted feelings, which I started to deal with in my previous post.

As a Christian with a theological training, I am well acquainted with the concept of heresy, which for most people means something akin to believing an untruth. The word comes from the Greek root meaning “to choose,” telling us that a heretic is someone who has chosen a different path from the so-called orthodox one.

The heresy I am proposing here is that we should give “In Flanders Fields” a decent funeral (or least an extended rest), and find another poem to read on November 11. John McCrae’s poem has been read at every Remembrance Day event I have ever attended. I have become used to hearing it read, often by a young person who has little connection to its roots, and even less understanding of the flow of the words. In particular, there should be no break between “we throw” and “the torch,” but because these usually lie on separate lines, the young readers break at the line change. If you’re going to read a poem in public, you could at least take pains to make sure that the language makes sense.

But that’s not my real point, and that’s not the heresy. My heresy (if you’ll allow the word in this context) is that I believe it’s time to stop reading this poem on this day. It has had its time. It has run its course. Its message is no longer appropriate for our times.

There are three verses in the poem. I have no argument with the first two, which are an elegy for those who have died in the course of war. As my previous post (I hope!) made clear, I have good reason to resonate with that sentiment. But then comes the third verse…

The elegiac tone gives way to the call to those who remain to “take up our quarrel with the foe.” The words were written in 1915, in the relatively early years of WWI, and the war may have seemed a good thing to pursue. The years to come would see the massive slaughters in the Somme, at Passchendaele, at many other places where so many people would die. For what? Who were the villains in this battle? WWI was fought for little reason, but it indelibly changed the face of Europe and much of the rest of the world. The armistice on 1918 ended the fighting, but the following years were times of huge upheaval and suffering in many places. It is safe to say that WWII, when civilians died in unprecedented numbers, was a direct consequence of the unresolved issues created by the first great war.

Back to the poem. Is it appropriate to reiterate a call to arms 114 years after it was written? To be sure, it reminds us of the reason for the deaths of the soldiers it recalls. But now we are in a different age, with a different set of issues, and a different sense of what must be done. The foes of 1915 have not been our foes for the past seventy or more years. They are our allies, co-creators of a future far different from what Col. McCrae could have imagined when he put pen to paper.

If we are going to remember the dead of past wars, as indeed we should, I would hope it would not be to remember in anger, and to continue the quarrel with the foes of yesteryear. I would rather hope that we could remember the dead both with sorrow and with the hope that the world of the future will be a world of peace.

Peace? I hold firm to the hope for peace on earth. But I struggle with the knowledge that the years since V-J Day in 1945 have rarely been blessed with peace. If anything, things seem to be getting worse.

When we gather on November 11 to remember those who gave their lives in the wars of the past century, I hope and pray that we may do so in the spirit of helping God to build that peace which is God’s desire for all people.

Can we still sound a call to arms? Or should we give “In Flanders Fields” a rest? What might we use instead? What poem expresses a call to build peace? The searing poetry of Wilfred Owen might be a place to start. Here is one of his most powerful poems, “The Parable of the Young Man and the Old,” a modern re-imagining of the story found in Genesis 22:1-14.

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned, both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake, and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets the trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

I read this poem once in a church service on the Sunday before Remembrance Day. I can still hear the collective gasp from the congregation as I read the last two lines. I have no regrets, but rather I continue to believe we should gasp at the horror of the inhumanity of war.


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.

William Boyd Jack, M.C.

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.

From 1965 to today

Think back to 1965 if you can. I suspect some readers of this post weren’t even born then. But in that year I was seventeen, a first-year student at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. I had skipped one year of school, so I was a year younger than most of my fellow frosh. I had also graduated at the top of my high school class, and was headed into the first year of an Honors program in Mathematics. I loved music, and was devoted to my church.

U of A logoSome of my high school colleagues were “rushed” by fraternities at U. of A. Not wanting to be left out, I went with them to a couple of rush parties, and experienced something close to outright disdain, as in “Who the heck are you, and what are you doing here?” It wasn’t a lot of fun. Some of my friends ended up as frat members, and for a while I was deeply envious. Until…

I started hearing stories about how they behaved at their parties, and how women were treated there. Do you know what a “Purple Jesus” is? Neither did I, but apparently it was a standard ruse to get young women drunk and take advantage of them. (It’s a mixture of port wine and vodka, BTW).

As I started to get into U. life, I found friends and like-minded people in choral, religious, and political circles. I sang, I prayed with people, and I was drawn into the peace movement of the late ’60’s. I lost touch with my high school friends who had joined fraternities, most of them with the avowed aim of making connections to get ahead in the future.

Clearly, I wasn’t welcome at those rush parties, and I couldn’t figure out why at the time. It seems I was a bit too much of a nerd, although that word wasn’t current at the time. I suspect also that my family didn’t have the “right” connections. My father was well-respected in medical circles, but we had no real roots in Alberta, having only arrived in Canada from the U.K. in 1952.

And now…
I have come to see the culture of those fraternities as part of the disease infecting our society. It’s a culture of entitlement: male, white, and connected. It is full of misogyny, racism, and “good-ol’-boy” thinking. I went my own way in University days and afterward, and ceased to have any real connection with that part of life. I have no regrets, as I have worked to build a life based on respect for ALL people, which eventually led me into the vocation I followed for most of my adult life.

I retired as a priest of the Anglican Church of Canada in 2013, having held a number of responsible positions in that church, but all the while refusing the attitude of entitlement that I found in many of my co-religionists.

brett-kavanaugh-1026586Which brings me to this past couple of weeks, watching the spectacle of the confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, now sworn in as a Justice of the Supreme Court of the USA. The process made me glad that I live in Canada, where the judiciary is far less politicized than in the U.S. The way the process worked out both astonished and appalled me: the duplicity evinced by partisans on both sides was almost beyond belief. But what struck me more than anything else was the attitude displayed by the nominee. He’s a frat boy, I realized. And in some ways that says it all. He is there because he’s entitled to be there, whether or not he has abused other people on the way to where he has arrived. For the record, I believe Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony to the Senate committee.

These events took me back to the humiliation I experienced at those rush parties, where the people in charge looked at me as less than them, and derided me for who I was.

Does Brett Kavanaugh deserve to be where he is now? Many people seem to think so. But for me, his elevation to such a high office is further testimony to how warped our society has become. I know I’m writing from Canada, where we do not have such a process, but it is clear to me that we are not immune to this kind of entitlement thinking.

I look for the day when our courts are visibly representative of, and speak to, all segments of our society, especially those who have been seen as underclasses in the past and still today. I think particularly of women, Indigenous people, the poor, the LBGTQB2+ community, religious minorities, racial minorities, immigrants of all origins, and all who have felt the sting of not being entitled.

I follow the way of Jesus, the one who came to invite all people into the Kingdom of the God whom he called “Abba.” No-one should be excluded, just as no-one should believe themselves entitled to inclusion.

We are all here and beloved by the Grace of God. May our courts and our legislatures live by that truth.

To respond to violence


Many people dead…
Massive terror…
The borders of France closed…
Strong responses promised…

And how are we to respond?

I am a Christian, a person who attempts to follow the way Jesus of Nazareth taught and demonstrated in his life, death, and resurrection. That said, I recognize that the term “Christian” has taken on a number of loaded meanings in this highly politicized world, this world beset by civil, religious, and inter-ethnic strife. Far too many people who claim the name of Jesus Christ are espousing violence, and violent responses to others’ violence.

Events of a few years ago taught me the huge value in Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount,  particularly his teachings about response to violence. Note that I understand violence to include not just physical violence, but any assault on one’s person, including professional and personal insults.

Jesus said:
‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.’ (Matthew 5:38-41)

Turning the other cheek has often been interpreted to suggest that Christians should be wusses: lie down and let your attacker beat you again. Nothing could be further from the truth. Without going into a detailed exposition of the text, suffice it to say that this is better interpreted as standing up and requiring that you be treated as an equal. We expose the attacker for who he or she is by countering their hate with our selves: sons and daughters of the Most High, equally deserving of respect as those who present as enemies.

I had long believed this, but some events in my ministry a few years ago taught me its truth in a way that I could never have imagined before. It’s a long story, but let’s just say that I found myself under attack from some quite unexpected quarters. I had various people counselling me through this. Some urged me to fight back in kind. Others said I should go away for a while, and let things die down. Fight or flight, the classic responses to aggression.

I chose to do neither. Instead, I held my head high, and continued on in my ministry, doing my work in the best way I knew how. A year later, the parish had changed, as my co-worker observed. She had gone on a year’s leave just before the stuff blew up, and when she returned, she encountered a radically different atmosphere. Another friend told me later that my example had helped the parish turn the corner. I turned the other cheek, standing up and saying (by example) that you can’t treat people with disrespect as had been done to me.

That’s my story. Now on the world stage we find ourselves once again faced with appalling acts of violence against innocent people. The standard response — fighting back — has not worked. Read about it HERE. I believe with all my heart that we need to find a new way, one in keeping with the Gospel of Christ. A collective turning the other cheek and loving our neighbours. And yet, the words coming out of France can best be summed up as “REVENGE!”

There has to be a better way. Seeking revenge, even the limited revenge demanded by the Old Testament (“eye for eye, tooth for tooth…” cf. Exodus 21:23-25), perpetuates the cycle of violence. Revenge proves the attacker right, sucking us into an inescapable vortex. The last 14 years have proved this beyond any doubt. Revenge does not work; it does not stop violence.

What is the better way? It won’t be popular. Seeking with Jesus to halt the cycle of violence will inevitably lead to cries of betrayal and cowardice. My admittedly limited personal experience proved to me that loving our enemies is costly, but is ultimately of immeasurable value.

Let us seek to find that better way in our lives, our communities, and between nations. Let’s leave the last word to the prophet Micah:

For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
   and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between many peoples,
   and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
   and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
   neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
   and no one shall make them afraid;
   for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken. (Micah 4:2b-4)

Post-script: Bishop Pierre Whalon has written eloquently on the same topic. Read his comments HERE.