Sunday 11th November 2001
Isaiah 25:6-9; Romans 8:31-end; John 15:9-17
Many of you will, I’m sure, have been watching the powerful drama ‘The Band of Brothers’ over the past weeks. It is powerful and compelling despite the fact that it is extremely graphic in its depiction of the physical results of war. Indeed, it is both a timely and unexpectedly relevant reminder of what actually happens when people bomb, shell and shoot one another.
Some, of course, need no such reminder. The experiences that they had in Europe or Africa or the Far East will live on in their hearts and minds until the day they die. Many others however, in this country, in America, and in other parts of the world have had no first-hand encounter with such violence, and rely on film stars like Alec Guinness, David Niven, George C Scott, and worse still, Arnold Schwarzenneger to feed and form their imagination of what war is like. Of course, you will rightly say no-one really believes that it is all stiff upper lip or gung-ho heroics; but to an extent the reality that those whom we remember and those who remember went through, the reality that so many today are going through, is deadened and distanced from us by the romance and the glory of celluloid.
‘The Band of Brothers’ makes no attempt to enter into debate about the rights and wrongs of the Second World War or of war in general. It makes no judgements about the German nation, nor even really portrays German soldiers, except as prisoners, in which guise they apparently become victims, or ‘players off-stage’ in the distance. Although it is primarily the story of one American unit, following its progress through the Normandy landings and beyond, it makes none of the claims that so many lesser films appear to make, that America the land of heroes saved the world. It is simply the story of a company of all-too-human men struggling to survive horrific battles and appalling weather, and carrying out the orders they are given. There are good men and not so good, there is courage and there is cowardice, there is strong leadership and weak, heroism, humour, and endless dirt and destruction, destruction of buildings of nature and of human life, both physical and psychological; and there is love. We might be used to other words like brotherhood or comradeship or team spirit, because the word love has become so devalued, but what is portrayed in this drama is a profound and totally binding love between men.
When we remember, as we do today and I trust we always will, let our memories be in the first place informed about the truth of war, and the truth of what those who died in the course of war really went through. Unless we believe in the utter destructiveness of war, and the essential pointlessness of such destruction, we will never move forward. War of itself is never right, it is never good and it is never just. There may be right and just reasons for deciding to go to war, and we may be able to justify those decisions on the basis that it is the lesser of two evils. But to suggest that war is an acceptable condition of human relationships is to undermine any concept of God that I know of; and it is utterly disrespectful to those who have lost their lives in the course of the great conflicts of the last century.
I have been in an arena of war, albeit some months after it had come to an end. I have seen sights I would rather not have, and I hope I will never see again. I have spoken with men and women whose lives have been torn apart by the death of loved ones, by maiming, by the loss of homes and villages and communities, and infected, it seems for ever, by fear and suspicion and hatred. I have stood with children, many of them orphaned, abandoned, lost. I have watched as a nation has tried to pick itself up again, to repair, restore, reconcile, desperate for the rest of the world to show some compassion and concern. The history books rarely tell these stories. But others do, and we have inherited a wealth of personal, first-hand comment in the form of poetry and art and music. It is far from objective. Indeed it would be of little value if it were. For through these media we hear emotion, the human responses, from feet and hearts that are well and truly immersed in the dirt and destruction.
The great First World War poets whose names we know so well - Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden, Robert Graves, Edward Thomas and others - they were not pacifists, they were not appeasers or traitors. Far from it. Most of them came from distinctly establishment backgrounds, with public school educations. They went to war readily, and many distinguished themselves - Sassoon and Owen were both awarded the Military Cross for bravery - and many lost their lives in action - including Owen, Thomas, C H Sorley and Isaac Rosenberg. Robert Graves, who perhaps had the nearest to pacifist leanings, was still quite phlegmatic in volunteering for military service in 1914, accepting that ‘France is the only place for a gentleman now’. Their poetry of the war however, grew out of the intensity of their experience and, whilst they differed in degree in their understanding of the justness of what was happening, the suffering and death, the folly of war was all they could see and describe. And they were angered by the attitude of those who sat at home praising the war. A particularly poignant, satirical poem by Siegfried Sassoon hit hard at bishops of the Church of England:
A cautionary tale there for us today, surely.
What tragic perversity afflicts the human race that no matter what degree of sacrifice, of suffering and desolation we impose upon the world, we seem unable to find another way of resolving our grievances. The “war to end all wars” was followed twenty years later by another. For most of the second half of the twentieth century we claimed that the nuclear arsenal maintained peace in Europe, whilst Korea and Vietnam and the Middle East and Nigeria and Mozambique and so many other so-called ‘little wars’ raged. But then the Balkans gave the lie to that; and now the bombers fly again and the most powerful, most sophisticated, most technologically advanced nations in the world have found no other way of dealing with international criminals and a poverty-stricken nation that lives in little better than medieval conditions. And we do it in the name of civilisation.
What then can we say? “God so loved the world that he gave his only son that all who believe in him might be saved.” If we want to ask ourselves what it is that we remember and how we should remember, then there it is - in God we have the supreme model for all sacrifice. In the greatest act of love the world can imagine, God gives his very self for the salvation of the world, for the reconciliation of all things. And when we remember that sacrifice, as Jesus, in another place commands us to do, we do not simply look back in some sort of nostalgic thanksgiving for that act. The true import of breaking the bread of life and sharing the cup of salvation as we are doing today, as the church does every day, we are entering into that very world-shattering event, we are recalling into the present the cross of Christ and planting it afresh in our hearts and in the life of our community. And the fact that we do so in a ritualistic and ordered way should not blind us to the essence, the truth of that fact, for it is in that knowledge, that belief that we are given the opportunity of knowing the God who loves us to death, and being transformed with the power of that life-giving love.
We have become used to finding biblical and theological language adopted by secular society - even the word theology itself is now used in business-speak, as something which goes to the root of the matter, and such things as mission statements are the everyday language of all sorts of agencies. So it is in the language of war. The British Legion have this year chosen the text ‘Greater love hath no man’, the heart of our Gospel this morning, as the epithet for their campaign. I have no great quarrel with that, although it is interesting, as Lavinia Byrne commented on Radio 4 yesterday, that there is no naming of the source. Nor of course is it a complete quotation, or a contextualised quotation. From that great passage of Jesus’ teaching before his Passion, one might just as well pick out ‘Peace I give you, my peace I leave with you’ or ‘If ye love me, keep my commandments’ or ‘My command to you is love one another’ each of which, on their own, give a different flavour.
Equally, we will all have heard a misquotation of those famous words of St Paul: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” used first by President Bush, and latterly by the Government Chief Whip. It is so easy to take words and misuse them. It is especially easy to take words and images from Scripture and reuse them to suit our own purposes. It is so easy for us to take holy things and debase them. To be true to the concept of Remembrance, to be true to the memory of those who lost their lives in warfare, to be true to the God who gave himself that we might be saved, we must make real and present the truth of what was suffered for us as ‘The Band of Brothers’ sets out to do. For in that truth lies the possibility that we can be changed, that the world can be changed and that we will not allow soldiers and airmen and sailors and patients in hospitals and shop keepers and poor people and farmers and refugees and Christians in their churches and Muslims in their mosques, and trees and houses and fields and animals to suffer the consequences of war any more.