I took my first Remembrance Sunday service yesterday at All Saints, Whiterashes. I was very conscious that I was departing from what had become normative in this church. A great deal of work before had gone into sourcing readings, poetry and testimony and they had been carefully chosen. I reflected on this for a long time and decided that I would do things differently. In my research I came across a statement made by an English army chaplain, during the First World War, who said, “War is kinder than a Godless peace.” To me, this paradoxical statement sums up what many Christians feel about war. The war poet Wilfred Owen initially welcomed World War 1, but three years spent on the front line changed his mind. And at the age of 25 he was killed just one week before the Armistice.
The tragic reality of modern war is that human beings have killed more of their own kind in the 20th Century than in all the previous centuries put together. Innocent civilians suffer most. Nine out ten of those who die in war are civilians, and half of them will be children. It is difficult to reconcile this horrendous fact with trying to remember and hold dear memory of the heroes who fell in battle. Heroic resistance does not fit with the mass destruction of civilians from the air, whether by nuclear or conventional means. We cannot airbrush away the slaughter of unarmed civilians by taking a moral stance on unintended consequences.
Yesterday we remembered those men and women who died doing a job we asked them to do. We rightly honoured them for their conduct and bravery and their sacrifice. There has been a great deal of debate recently about the symbolic significance of the poppy. Some would like the red poppy replaced by the white, as a sign of peace. I am confused by this. It seems to be a mistaken idea. Remembrance does not glorify war. And is not blind to the loss of life or the ultimate futility of war and we pray for peace as well as remembering those who served, and died, in conflicts, past and present.
Remembrance is important because in times of peace it is easy to forget the reality of war and continue to make the mistakes of the past. It’s important to tell the story of bravery because this provides dignity for those whose lives have been lost because of war. But those we honour deserve more than simply recalling their glorious moments of courage in battle. We interpret the present, fed by the roots nourished in their history. Through remembrance we learn from the deaths of the fallen and from the lasting injuries, both mental and physical, of the survivors. Remembrance carries with it the hope that we will not remake the mistakes of the past. The church had been beautifully decorated yesterday with a scattering of red poppies. And rightly so.