“FOR THE DEAD AND FOR THE LIVING, WE MUST BEAR WITNESS.”
Homily for Remembrance Day 2012
Remembrance Day is an important time, and encourages us to use the precious gift of memory, and presents us with the task, the responsibility, the challenge, of remembering the path that has brought us to where we are. Painful as it may be, I want to remember. One Remembrance Day, I hear bagpipes and bugles; I have mental images of tough men with tears pouring down their cheeks; I am humbled by the sound of silence.
Georges Santayana said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” yet one of the sad things we reflect on today is the fact that human beings repeat their folly over and over again – it wears different uniforms and comes chanting different slogans and shouting different justifications, but the end result is always the same.
In the aftermath of any conflict we can look at it from both sides and recognize the way the actions of the perpetrator are reflected in the wounds of the victim – the typical model is that one expands and another is diminished. We see images of the strutting victors, and we see images of the devastated vanquished – children recovering from shell shock, or being herded out of their homes to safer places in the countryside, or dead; distraught mothers; refugees escaping the carnage. And we can ask, is the world ever any further ahead after all this?
Albert Einstein said: ““I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
Thanks to the Second World War, a whole generation grew up with a diminished sense of safety and security – without being able to believe in the promises of civilization or the rewards of civilized behavior, and tending to avoid trust and vulnerability of any kind. “Be like children,” Jesus said to adults in his day, and yet we live in a world where many children don’t know how to be children, due to war, violence, poverty, bad health, lack of resources, etc
“The horror . . . the horror.” War generates so much energy toward destruction and death, it becomes hard to stop. I think of the horror that gradually began to dawn on the rest of the world about what Hitler was up to regarding the Jewish people. One of the sub-texts of the Second World War was the Holocaust – the intentional and systematic effort to kill all Jewish people. If we are accountable to God for every word we utter and every gesture we make, then some of us are going to be in serious trouble indeed.
Whether they believe in a “higher authority” or not, what demented sense of rights allows people to ignore the most honoured and universal human principles – principles considered by many to be sacred, given by God — and to kill and destroy without regret? Is it the authority of hatred? The authority of lies? The authority of power? The authority of insanity? The authority of evil?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and theologian, who himself died in a Nazi prison, said: “Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power, and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christian should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.” Sermon on II Cor. 12:9
Since the Holocaust, people since have asked: How did we get to that point? How could we let this happen?
Martin Niemoller offered an explanation of sorts. Niemoller was a prominent Protestant pastor who emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler and himself spent seven years in Nazi concentration camps.
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics, but I did not speak out, because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.
In addition to Jews, the Nazis also persecuted people with mental and physical disabilities, homosexuals, gypsies, clergy and religious, university professors, artists and writers. Virtually anyone who dared to speak out against them became a target for violence and incarceration.
The world wars, and the Holocaust, caused many people, especially Jews, to abandon their faith in an all-powerful, just and merciful God. Christians and people of all faiths were obliged to re-think the meaning of their faith. The “death of God” was contemplated as part of that larger response – another casualty of war, in a sense.
On Remembrance Day, I try to bring to mind all the young men, many of them still high school kids – boys, really, who were obliged to grow up in a hurry – who signed up for the cause in good faith and were confronted by horrors no human being ever wants to know. Many thousands of whom never came back from the far-off places we sent them: Vimy Ridge; Dieppe; Ortona; Korea; Viet Nam; Afghanistan. As little boys, playing make-believe battles, they could never have even dreamed that they would spend their final moments and find their final resting places, in such strange and faraway places.
I tend to think of war mostly as a phenomenon of the male ego. But modern war co-opts everyone – women were recruited for the Second World War in record numbers; civilians are bombed, even children become pawns. “Win at all costs” means “anything goes,” and the world wars demonstrated what happens when something gets so big that individuals begin to count for nothing, except statistics: life becomes cheap, and a cold indifference to life begins to appear.
Had the Western world adopted a “turn the other cheek” approach – what some call “Doormat theology” – and just rolled over and whimpered as Hitler went storming across Europe, we would be living in a very different world now. Christians have always believed that there is such a thing as a just cause and the idea of “Just War” stems from that. At Remembrance Day I am grateful for those who found it within themselves to stand against the threat – the oppression. We celebrate those, like Winston Churchill, whose personalities and voices rallied the people and helped them find their courage, their reason to carry on.
It has been said that war brings out in some people the very worst that humanity is capable of, and in others, the very best. Churchill characterized Britain as a lion even as the people gave him the same compliment. Even the simpering King George found his voice and urged Britons to take heart. A passion for justice is a strong part of our tradition, which means we stand up for the oppressed, and we stand up in the face of terrorism and oppression and bullying of all sorts. As long as the world produces people like Hitler, I hope to God it will produce people like Winston Churchill.
We pray in thankful remembrance today for the many millions who have given the most precious thing they have to offer – their lives — in the cause of justice and freedom. I am inspired and deeply humbled by the loyalty, the discipline, the courage, of those who have been asked over the years to face into the darkness on our behalf – into that inexplicable void — and still go on being human when it’s over. We ask our combatants to come back from hell and be “normal,” to carry on as though nothing had happened, without the possibility of adequate support or understanding.
Let us never forget how those lives, all those lives, mattered – to their fellow soldiers, to parents, to siblings, to fiancés, and to children waiting at home for mommies and daddies that never returned – or if they did, returned damaged and distant. Let us be worthy of the sacrifices they made.
There is an indomitable spirit in us – something deep within us that knows we are not meant for abuse or slavery or death, and will not abide it for long; something that speaks life and hope in our hearts even when all the external evidence seems to prove how hopeless things are.
I see that in people like Fr Jacques de Jesus, a French Roman Catholic priest who saved a number of Jewish students and was himself imprisoned in a concentration camp. When liberated by the Allies, he weighed 75 pounds and died several weeks later; or Joop Westerweel, a Dutch school teacher who became head of a resistance group and saved several hundred Jews – he was arrested and executed by the Germans in 1944; or Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish architect and diplomat, who saved many thousands of Jewish people at huge personal risk. He was later arrested by the Soviets and never seen again.
Many of us will remember the story of Anne Frank. The risk for protecting or aiding or advocating for Jews was huge, as people harbouring Jews were committing a “crime” punishable by death. The story of Oskar Schindler has been honoured in a great movie called Schindler’s List. Schindler managed to save 1,000 Jewish people from the Holocaust in Poland by employing them in his factory and tricking the Nazi authorities about their papers and identities. Initially there to make money, Schindler became more and more committed to the humanitarian aspect of his factory, and “by the end of the war, Schindler had spent his entire fortune on bribes and black-market purchases of supplies for his workers, and was virtually destitute” (according to Wikipedia).
Irena Sendler a Catholic social worker who served in the Polish Underground during World War II, and smuggled 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and then provided them with false identity documents and housing outside the Ghetto, thereby saving those children from certain death, said: “I was brought up to believe that a person must be rescued when drowning, regardless of religion and nationality.” This is the issue in a nutshell: the way she was brought up – with a sense of duty and obligation toward those in need, combined with a sense of the value of all people, not just a select few. It was Jesus, after all, who said, “If you love only those who are like you, what value is there in that?”
The Jewish Yad Vashem society has awarded 20,000 “righteous among the nations” awards to non-Jews, for saving the lives of Jews who would otherwise have perished in the Holocaust. That fact alone gives me reason to hope, that, even in the darkest situations, even when virtually everyone is silent or complacent in the face of evil, there will always be people who choose bear the light, regardless of the risk and the cost.
The artist Pablo Picasso said: “We artists are indestructible; even in a prison, or in a concentration camp, I would be almighty in my own world of art, even if I had to paint my pictures with my wet tongue on the dusty floor of my cell.”
Scratched on the wall of a prison cell in Cologne during the Second World War was this prayer:
“I believe in the sun,
even when it does not shine.
I believe in love,
even when I cannot feel it.
I believe in God,
even when he is silent.”
The Rev. Grant Rodgers+
Micah 4: 1—4 In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it, 2 and many nations shall come and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.3 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;4 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.
Ephesians 2: 13—22 now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace,16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body* through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.*17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near;18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God,20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.*21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord;22in whom you also are built together spiritually* into a dwelling-place for God.
John 20: 19—23 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.21Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’