Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Thoughts on the Great War Commemoration

You smug faced crowd with kindling eye,
Who cheer as soldier lads go by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell, where youth and laughter go.

From Suicide in the Trenches, by Siegfried Sassoon

The Belgian City of Ypres was the scene of much conflict during the 20th Century’s two World Wars. In particular, by 1918, there was little of it left, and the medieval City Hall and Cathedral, amongst other buildings, were to be totally rebuilt in the 1920s and 30s. Every evening the Last Post and Reveille are sounded at the City’s Menin Gate, a memorial to the Fallen, by members of the City’s Fire Brigades, usually accompanied by Veterans’ representatives and many individual visitors. Along with St George’s Church, a thriving Chaplaincy of the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe, it is the living heart of commemoration of the World’s conflicts, and will play a key part this month as commemoration is made of 100 years since the beginning of the Great War of August 1914.

Yet, in the mid 1960s, all this very nearly came to an end. There were no visitors. There seemed to be an embarrassment about remembering past conflicts, and the City Council debated ending the daily ceremonies, while St George’s future was very uncertain. What saved the day was the beginning of educational visits, a few schools at first, to the point where today many young people from around the world are a part of an educational programme, that has helped us to remember how important it remember. The advent of electronic means of researching ancestors has meant that many families, including my own, have been able to trace forebears involved in the conflict.

Inevitably, much of the commemoration will focus on individual stories of pain, sacrifice and heroism, together with the profound bereavement suffered by families and whole communities. Yet in a world still marred by human hatred and the gun, as Christians we cannot ignore the wider implications. No serious historian nowadays will give any credence to the many myths still trotted out about the Great War; it was not the ‘war to end all wars’, nor was it fought ‘in defence of small nations’ or ‘in defence of civilisation.’  While causes were complex and unpredictable, perhaps the conflict was rather the inevitable outplay of 19th Century imperialism, combined with technological advances in ways of killing. Any meaningful commemoration has to be coupled with the radical demands of the Prince of Peace, and our own Century’s utter failure to learn any lessons from history. The prophet Isaiah gives us a radical vision of God’s Kingdom, where swords are beaten into ploughshares, and spears into pruning hooks, where

            Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
            Neither shall they learn war any more           (Isaiah 2.4)

A broken and bloodied world is in need of rebuilding. As we rightly teach our young people of the futilities and suffering of war, may we remember our mission as the Body of Christ, that all may know the prince of peace.

Lord of the nations,
Saviour and judge of all:
remove from human hearts all bitterness and hate,
grant to those who have died in war your mercy and forgiveness
and bring us all to the peace of your eternal Kingdom;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who suffered and died,
and now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, world without end. Amen.