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Bitter and Sweet: 
Remembering the Case for and Against War

Dec 24, 2020

This sermon was written by Partera International’s Board Chair, Rev’d Brian McIntosh for Remembrance Day Sunday.  As Partera, we work across religions, bringing to bear each group’s faith as a critical tool in the peacemaker’s toolkit.  Our religion is not something to leave aside but for active deployment in the waging of peace.  For Christians, we believe that that means insistent work against war and the militarisation that furnishes the tools for violence, making war a constant threat.

It was the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, a survivor of both the Holocaust and Communist persecution, who, when asked by a journalist why he wrote so bitterly of his experiences, said: “A bitter truth is better than a sweet lie.”  There is an inevitable amount of chest beating and flag waving that happens on and around Remembrance Day each year, and the uplifting message conveyed is two-fold: all the country’s dead are heroes, and all the wars they fought were just and necessary.  But are these flag-wrapped claims, routinely combined in the sweeping saying, “they died so we may be free,” truths we forget at our peril, or lies we need to expose as followers of the Prince of Peace?

The Boer War is a good place to start, the conflict that gave the world the concentration camp, inspiration for the architects of the Nazi death-camp system.  Under the direction of Lord Kitchener, a scorched-earth policy of farm destruction and civilian internment in the Afrikaner (Dutch-settler) regions of South Africa resisting British rule led to the deaths, by starvation, abuse and neglect, of over 27,000 civilians, almost all women and children, out of a total population of under 100,000.  Over 10,000 black civilian internees also perished.  Yes, it was the Kaiser who started the war, though not against Britain, and his aim was not world domination but rather imperial emulation, the expansion of a racist Empire to rival those of Britain, France, Belgium, and others.

In few places, friends, had more Indigenous blood been spilt to build the British Empire than in her ‘white dominions’ of South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada; and few places let more of their young men’s blood be spilt in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere in defence not so much of freedom and democracy but those ill-gotten and evil colonial gains.  Sure enough, the vindictive so-called ‘peace’ of Versailles set the stage for the next, even greater war, though the heights of terror and torture scaled by the Nazis did constitute an unparalleled menace.  The Second World War was a different moral case than the First, and it, too, bred a new monster: the atomic bomb, rendering what the United Nations called “the scourge of war” not just a terrible option for the resolution of human territorial conflict, as it has always been, but seemingly insane as well by most moral standards.

The cost of that peace was also squandered, first by Cold War rivalry and a seemingly endless arms race that has now prepared the world for oblivion, in its wake generating a long-standing conflict in Korea, and then by the tragic decision not to demilitarize Europe after the end of the Soviet era, thanks to the glasnost and perestroika of Gorbachev, instead expanding NATO to the borders of Russia.  The response to the horrific shock of 9/11 was also, sadly, dictated and deformed by militarism’s road to hell in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, a road paved with bad intentions, war crimes and lies.

Wandering down a slightly different road for a moment, when we think of the weapons of war that have killed tens of millions of soldiers around the world, we most likely think of bombs, grenades, poison gas, and bullets.  Less likely to come to mind is the emotional trauma that has led soldiers to take their own lives after they have returned home.  For far too long we’ve paid far too little public attention to the mental illnesses, especially post-traumatic stress disorder, which soldiers and veterans suffer as a result of the inhuman training and actions that their nationalist leaders have asked them to undertake in the name of flags and the folly of waging death in the name of peace.  One wonders how long it can be maintained by pundits that war is a “natural” part of human history when we have to work so hard to train people to undertake murderous actions that don’t come to them “naturally,” part of that training basically de-humanizing the so-called enemy and therefore separating, in perhaps no small part, the soldiers so trained from their own humanity in the process?  War’s dehumanizing of all parties involved has mental and emotional consequences for both victors and victims alike, and it’s high time we understood that cost as both real and too high.

So much has changed in the 102 years since the Armistice brought the end of hostilities in the First War, yet it’s been a long, long time since Canadian civilians have even had to imagine being called upon to fight abroad.  As citizens of the most geographically fortunate country on the planet – protected by vast oceans on three sides and a superpower, however currently unstable, on the fourth – it is virtually inconceivable that we should ever have to bear arms in defence of our homeland.  As a result it is not surprising that for many decades, particularly prior to as Prime Minister, Remembrance Day had largely ceased to be an occasion of unbridled patriotism.  Since his time in power, though, Remembrance Day has been re-politicized in Canada, with the inevitable observances along the “highway of heroes” and the drum-beating and military budgeting, the weapons procurement and flag waving firmly re-establishing our place as a “strong ally” alongside the most powerful nation on earth.  This newly-minted allyship fails miserably, of course, to take into account the atrocities inflicted upon various foreign powers and peoples by that same nation, who wield their power willy-nilly in the foreign affairs of the world while mostly ignoring the great divides of poverty and race in their own backyard.  But the irony seems lost on the vast majority of the population here, especially at this time of year when the “sweet lie” of war seems to rule the day and demand nothing other than our silent compliance in public.

One can’t help but wonder, of course, what reaction to that silent compliance the prophet Amos would have shared.  What we do know is that as the faith of ancient Israel was distorted by their compliance with the gods of commodity and culture, idolatry and ideology, the poet-prophet from Tekoa chided his contemporaries for their zealous devotion to such false gods.  After railing against the self-indulgence of the powers that be of his time, the prophet Amos, early on in chapter 5, condemns those who exploit the poor, and issues a call to newly enact neighbour love: “They hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth.  Therefore … you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain … Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate.” (Amos 5: 10, 11, 15) 

Shortly after these words Amos delivers his most famous indictment, the one we heard earlier, moving from sinful worship to neighbourly summons:
               “I hate, I despise your festivals,
               and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
               Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
               I will not accept them;
               and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
               I will not look upon.
               Take away from me the noise of your songs;
               I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
               But let justice roll down like water,
               and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

In the end, the prophet is saying, if our worship is divorced from our work for the poor or for peace, it is worthless.  Even more, such a system of false or superficial priorities, in power structures that maintain such pyramid schemes, where the wealthy get to continually widen the gap between themselves and the rest, where 2/3 of those who work on the frontlines in our health care system, with little pay, security, benefits or protection, are racialized or foreign-born women, or where governments and leaders who are insulated from the death, terror, and heartbreak of war continue to make decisions which put the lives of the less educated, the poorer classes, etc. in harm’s way, cannot be sustained, even if supported by patriotic mantras from on high.

Having observed last Sunday, in separate spaces, our common communion meal, recalling once again Jesus’ words to “do this in remembrance of me,” we who are part of the Christian community are called to ponder the competing calls for our remembrance that impose themselves on us at this time of year, and ask: whose remembrance takes center stage in our hearts and homes?  Seen in light of this call, I dare say that the only proper function of Remembrance Day for us Christians is to mark the tragedy and squander of war, to grieve its victims on all sides, and to newly commit to telling much more of the bitter truths of war rather than the sweet lies which have prevented us from undertaking a sustained critical reflection about it from the perspective of history’s underside.  Our consumption of mainstream history about war is taken, frankly, mainly from the victors who get to write the presumably definitive versions, with the justification for it built in, rather than from the perspective of those who have suffered devastating losses as its victims.  What our remembrance is clearly not for, at least in light of the witness of the Bible and of Jesus, is to glorify war’s undertaking, exalt its agents, or indemnify its ongoing execution.

So, amid all the heartbreak that has resulted from war in history, what is there to celebrate?  The soldier-poet Wilfred Owen wrote that the men in the trenches sometimes “laughed,” albeit bitterly, at their atrocious plight, convinced “better men” would succeed them who were courageous enough to conquer War itself, never again to be fooled into fighting “for flags,” for the fickle vagaries of nationalism.  Viewed in this profound perspective, that’s how all exercises in sentimental remembrance and false glorification appear: as sweet lies that have overtaken and overshadowed the bitter truths of the ravages of war.  May we, who await the arrival of the full flowering of the peaceable reign of God’s governance in the shadowed strands of history’s sometimes horrific conflicts, be found to be among the wise rather than the foolish maidens of Jesus’ parable, who brought the full measure of their resources to sustain the long night’s search for his coming, in remembrance that he was not the god of war but the Prince of Peace.  Amen.