Remembrance Sunday – 11 November 2012

sermon preached at St Margaret’s Newlands, Glasgow

Job 19: 21-27
1 Corinthians 15: 51-57
John 6: 37-40

A couple of years ago, just around the time of Remembrance Sunday, someone came up to me before Church and took me over to the war memorial. “Look,” she said, “my brother and my sister are both on this memorial.”

I must have looked surprised, because she went on: “Yes, my sister was killed in the war as well. It was her wedding day, and they were getting things ready for the reception. When the sirens went the rest of the family went into the air raid shelter. But she and her fiancé said they would just go down to their own cellar, so they could go on getting things ready. And there was a direct hit on the house.”

She paused. “We didn’t know what had happened to her for two years. And when we found out where she was buried and I went there, they weren’t in a grave together, not even next to one another. They are on opposite sides of a path.”

Anna believes, and I am sure she is right, that her sister and her fiancé are united in heaven – that they abide in God’s love, as today’s Gospel commands us to. But part of the poignancy of her story is its reminder of the way in which war breaks that commandment: the failure to love our neighbour, that leads to such terrible waste of life, the deep scars that deaths in war-time leave in the lives of those who survive. The loss of all that those lives, cut off, might have meant to their families, their society. War brings with it death, loss, often on a huge scale, and each individual death is a personal loss and bereavement to all those connected with that person.

There was an additional poignancy to that encounter with Anna. Because Anna was a member of my congregation in Offenbach in Germany. Anna’s sister was killed in Düsseldorf, not by some abstract enemy that she and I could somehow know ourselves to be united against, but by bombs that were dropped most likely from British planes by British bombers.

For me, that brief encounter with Anna pointed to the depth of what we are doing on Remembrance Sunday.

It is ninety-four years today since the end of the First World War, at 11 o’clock on the eleventh day of the eleventh month. For ninety-three years, since 1919, people have stood silently – at that time, or on the nearest Sunday – to remember the dead of that War that was to end all wars, of the world war that followed it, and the wars that have followed those. There has been a shift in the last century. In 1919, those who had died were almost all – even then not all – servicemen, those who had gone to the front to serve their country and fallen. And a big part of it is still about that: remembering those who joined – and join – armies and navies and air forces and are sent to fight, and who have given up their lives in that cause. We remember those who died, for their sacrifice, but also all those who fought, for the terrible cost to them personally because of the things that society requires them to do in its name in war. But because in war society requires of its servicemen and -women that they do these terrible things, and because through the twentieth century the consequences of those expectations have increasingly been experienced also by those who are not members of the armed forces, it seems to me fitting that we remember today also all those others who died in war: in bombing raids, those civilians who lost their lives simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It seems right to me that Anna’s sister’s name is on the war memorial in the church in Offenbach. And not only her brother’s, not only the soldier’s.

Remembering those who died, those who were killed – those who killed and were killed – points us beyond Remembrance Sunday as an act of national pride and reminds us that war brings human beings into terrible conflict. One of the most terrifying things about war is how it brutalises and dehumanises. Some time ago, I read Antony Beevor’s, Berlin: The Downfall 1945. Beevor writes of the horrifying and brutal events of the last weeks of the second world war. Underlying them, especially on the Eastern front, was the appalling and brutalising propaganda used by the Russians against the Germans and the Germans against the Russians. Beevor comments:

One of the most unintentionally revealing remarks was made by … General Maslov. [Maslov] described German children crying as they searched desperately for their parents in a blazing town. ‘What was surprising,’ wrote Maslov, ‘was that they were crying in exactly the way that our children cry.’ After Nazi propaganda had dehumanised the Slavs into Untermenschen [comments Beevor], Soviet revenge propaganda had convinced its citizens that all Germans were ravening beasts.[1]

Such attitudes may be common to all wars. Accounts of the ritual humiliation and torture of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan remind us that the dehumanisation of the enemy is not confined to other times and other peoples. On a different level, to be sure, but also disturbing is the constant and continuing portrayal of Germans as Nazis in the British media and the obsession with undifferentiated portrayals of the Second World War. Or the uninformed, undifferentiated accounts of Islam in much of Western media or of the Jews and Israel in much Arabic media. Caricatures are disturbing because it can be a very small step from parody and ignorance to persecution.

Reflecting on the brutality and inhumanity of Auschwitz, Thomas Merton wrote that in order something like Auschwitz to happen,

It is enough to affirm one basic principle: anyone belonging to class x or nation y or race z is to be regarded as subhuman and worthless, and consequently has no right to exist. All the rest will follow without difficulty.

Merton went on:

As long as this principle is easily available, as long as it is taken for granted, as long as it can be spread out on the front pages at a moment’s notice and accepted by all, we have no need of monsters: ordinary policemen and good citizens will take care of everything.[2]

That is, accepting caricatures of inhumanity can too easily turn ordinary people inhuman. Surely Remembrance must be at least in part about reminding ourselves that other people whoever they are, are not caricatures, not beasts, but other human beings. These are children, who cry like our own. This is a member of the same congregation, who lost her sister. These are women and men, who may be strangers but also could be our friends.

I have lived at least partly in Germany for nearly twenty-five years now, and am still moved and horrified by the photographs of post-war devastation caused by the Allied bombing of nearly every city in Germany – including just about every place I have lived or worked there. Living in Germany has made think hard about how to mark Remembrance Sunday – and also about how Remembrance Sunday and Volkstrauertag, the German day of mourning, fit together.

Encounters with people like Anna are part of that. So too is talking to my own contemporaries about how our families were affected by the war. Part of my own realisation of the complex inter-relatedness of both histories was watching an evening in a museum in Bochum, where I used to work. They were showing ciné film taken illegally in the Ruhr valley below Bochum after the dam-busters’ raids. The film showed utter destruction – of farms, buildings, villages, farm animals, people, by the water in 1943. One of my father’s cousins was a dam-buster. As it happens (although I only discovered this later) he was not involved that raid, but in others that caused similar destruction. And in 1944 he did not come back.

Finding out where God is in all of this is very difficult. During the First World War, theologians on both sides wanted to claim that God had been on their side. But in 1916, in the midst of the First World War, the theologian P. T. Forsyth gave a series of lectures called The Justification of God. His work is a theodicy, a response to the question “Where is God in all of this?” Forsyth warned against any simple attempt at finding God in the events of war. “An event like the war at least aids God’s purpose in this,” he writes, “that it shocks and rouses us into some due sense of what evil is, and what a Saviour’s task with it is.”[3] In the war he suggested, “We are having a revelation of the awful and desperate nature of evil.”[4]

For Forsyth, the horror of the War pointed to the Redemption, and not to a partisan God who could be claimed by one side or the other. The war pointed, in fact, to that utter conviction that lies in the words of Job:

“For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then in my flesh I shall see God.” [Job 19.25-26]

So many who have lost their lives in war, and we remember them today. If their death can awake in us an understanding of our need to break down barriers of hate and the call to all of humankind to discover in each other their common, God-given humanity, then we are remembering them as they should be remembered. And remembering what they gave for us. That we might build a better world.

[1]    Antony Beevor, Berlin: The Downfall 1945, p. 199.

[2]  Thomas Merton, On Peace (Mowbrays: London 1976), p. 81.

[3] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 25.

[4]    Ibid., p. 23.