Veterans Day, known in several other countries as Remembrance Day, previously named Armistice Day: as we have heard, this was originally a day set aside to celebrate the end of the War to End All Wars. As further wars and atrocities have rocked the world since 1918, we’ve broadened this date to commemorate all our veterans. It is a national holiday; part of the liturgy of the State, if you will. The Church, therefore, is free to observe it to whatever extent she sees fit. Normally it merits only the brief attentions of a special prayer and hymn in the Sunday Communion service – we have All Saints’ Day and various other saints days and commemorations to remember those who have gone before us. But this year is exceptional. Today is the centenary of the Armistice that ended the Great War, the 100th anniversary of the event that originated this national holiday. So this time it is not just a special song and an extra prayer; we’re committing this whole worship service to giving due consideration to this day of remembrance.
Perhaps the first thing we should consider, when looking at how to address a given State or political entity, is the nature of the only perfect state: the Kingdom of God. The Christian’s citizenship is in heaven, Saint Paul wrote, and that kingdom is already coming among us and within us, Jesus taught. This Kingdom is a mystical unity, a Body, the Bride of Christ. It demands our highest allegiance, even unto death. It redefines all earthly relationships, and sets all moral standards, and is founded on the foundational document of the Bible. Its heroes are those who have stood most prominently for the cause of the Gospel, no matter the danger, no matter the cost. The Kingdom of God reminds us that God is Lord of the whole world, not just our “religious” life. Although there is much in earthly kingdoms and states that is analogous to the Kingdom of God, earthly rulers and politics inevitably fail us both in times of prosperity and in trouble. So we are reminded that we need God to be present as Judge, to save the world from its evils. We are reminded that we need God to unite us as his nation, across all man-made divisions. This we will pray and sing at the end of the liturgy this morning.
But for right now, let us back especially at what happened 100 years ago that brought this commemoration into being, and gives us such pause for thought and contemplation. The Great War, World War 1, is a very strange and difficult war to understand. It was, in a way, the last gentlemanly war of Europe, and the first modern war of ruthless destruction. It was like a civil war, with soldiers on both sides being intimately familiar with one another’s homelands: thousands of Germans had left their jobs in England when hostilities began, and found themselves shooting at men and boys from their “home towns,” and a good many English nobles found themselves losing German titles. But it was also a war of great prejudices, of demonizing the enemy in relentless propaganda. It was less a war of ideals, like World War 2, and more a war of nationalism-gone-mad. In many ways it feels like one of the more pointless wars in European history: there was no good reason to start it, and it accomplished nothing of enduring value in the end. And from the Church’s perspective, it was especially thorny to deal with because both sides appealed to the name of Christ for their respective causes. Clearly the love of God and the love of Country was not properly synchronized; nationalism had become an idolatry on both sides, and the world would pay dearly for such poor doctrine.
With the Kingdom of God in mind, let us consider the Great War as a marvelous case study in the dynamic between good nationalism and bad nationalism, biblical patriotism and idolatry.
Let’s start with the good. Biblical patriotism is modeled in the Old Testament and taught in the New. King David, even after he was informed he was to be the next King of Israel, and was anointed by Samuel the Prophet, refused to kill King Saul. Saul was still the anointed King, and even though David knew and believed God’s promise to him, he refused to take matters into his own hands. And so he endured several years of bitter struggle as Saul alternately tolerated him and sought to kill him. In the New Testament, St. Paul wrote that earthly authority – even governors and kings – are to be respected. Much like how the Prophet Jeremiah instructed the Hebrew exiles to live patiently in Babylon and pray for the welfare of that city and the king who conquered them and destroyed Jerusalem, Paul also taught that the government does not “wield the sword in vain.” Even when the state is corrupt and immoral and hostile to God’s people, the Christian is to respect these earthly authorities as if from the Lord. Throughout history, God has worked through wicked rulers to work punishment and chastisement; if we find evil among our leadership today, our first question should not be why the world is so evil, but how we, the Church, have fallen short of our calling in Christ.
Of course, there is the question of extremes. We do not obey man such that we disobey God. When a ruler instructs us to sin, we refrain and prepare to receive the consequences, as Daniel the Prophet and his three friends demonstrated, as did countless martyrs of the Early Church. Dietrich Bonhoeffer too, in the Second World War, concluded that Christian silence under their Fuhrer’s sinful administration was tantamount to complicity, and it was time to take drastic action to end the Nazi menace for the sake of all the innocent sufferers at their hands. When a Christian opposes a government, it is out of love and obedience for Christ, and with full conviction and due respect.
One example of how this played out, in an unofficial manner, was the Christmas Day Armistice of 1914. It is a heart-warning tale, easily surrounded with rumor and legend, but nonetheless fascinating and wonderful. Several months into a slow and bloody war that everyone thought would be a very brief affair and easy victory, soldiers were getting tired of the trench warfare that the Western Front had stalemated into. The Germans, especially, were keen to celebrate Christmas. Setting aside the call of Kaiser, they set up their little tannenbaums on the fences over their trenches, hazarding even to light them in the dark of Christmas Eve. They started singing Christmas carols, and calling to the English soldiers across No Man’s Land in broken English “we no shoot, you no shoot!” Even the French and Belgian soldiers generally accepted this temporary truce. It wasn’t perfectly peaceful everywhere, but much of the Western Front enjoyed the exchange of singing, momentos, and foodstuffs. A spirit of Christian charity prevailed over the politics of the day. They allowed, even helped each other, to bury their dead – there were bodies in No Man’s Land that had lain there for as long as two months! The virtuous desire to honor the dead with burial, to respect their brothers in Christ, and to celebrate the birth of our Lord took hold. It’s kind of a magical tale, shining in what is probably the bleakest war of Western memory.
That respect for the dead also found its way into the artistic and religious psyche of the Western world. This is when simple prayers like “may they rest in peace” and “may God’s light perpetually shine on them” started to return to Protestant worship. Famous poems, also, commemorated the fallen, for example:
For the Fallen, by Laurence Binyon
With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.
Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres,
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn. *
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.
But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;
As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.
* These beautiful lines use imagery parallel with the description of the departed in Revelation 7.
And so today, we aim to honor both the departed and the survivors – the veterans – of war. And we seek to pay that honor both in word and deed. The Collect both for Memorial Day and Veterans Day remembers “with grateful hearts the men and women of our armed forces, who in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy” and prays “that we may not rest until all the people of this land share the benefits of true freedom and gladly accept its disciplines.” So it is not single-minded vision of the past that we conjure up today, but also a square look at ourselves in the present day. They fought for the future, they fought for us… so what are we doing today? How do we vindicate their efforts, so to speak? How do we make and maintain a society that is worth fighting for? This prayer, in particular, reminds us to consider the benefits of freedom, and if and how such is afforded to all. Biblical patriotism is no mere passive obedience to the state, but also an honest effort to make our world a better place.
The Great War also showed us some very terrible things. Its survivors formed what was termed “the Lost Generation.” The arts and philosophy were severely impacted by that long and bitter conflict. A culture that was very forward-looking, confident in the progress of man and the triumph of civilized society had its illusions shattered. The idea that the world is on an upward course of divinely-inspired triumph gave way to an image of futility. Theology, too, was affected by this: where many people had believed in an End Times view of increasing glory and virtue until Jesus returned to crown things off, popular vision swung around to a view of increasing wickedness and tribulation until Jesus returns to destroy the wicked and build his new and perfect kingdom.
For the idol of nationalism had taken hold of the Western world, and skewed their worldview accordingly. The myth of racial superiority, the arrogance of cultural superiority, the blind love of country that led to the hatred of all others had built a house that could not stand, and God, in his providence, used the Great War to begin to demolish that false belief. In the later years of the war, when the horrors of trench warfare and gas warfare had set in upon the psyche of millions of soldiers, poems like this emerged:
Dulce et Decorum est, by Wilfred Owen
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
The Latin quote at the end is from the Roman poet Horace: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori translates to “how sweet and fitting it is for one’s country to die.” The glorification of war “for king and country” was finally being dismantled. The truth of General Sherman’s words half a century earlier was made all the more clear in the 1910’s: “War is hell.”
WHERE IS GOD IN THE MIDST OF ALL THIS?
A very fair question at this juncture is “Where is God in the midst of all this?” Indeed, atheism skyrocketed after the Great War, as many churches, crippled in part by poor theology, were unable to cope with the reality of what had happened to “the civilized world.” Philosophies like Nietzsche’s “death of God” from the previous generation found new ground, and more and more people gave up on religion entirely. The Lost Generation was “lost” in more ways than one.
One of the quick and easy answers I’ve already mentioned is that God was present in judgment. A sort of decadence and false belief about equating human progress with divine initiative, and nationalism with divine will, and imperialism with divine imperative, had sickened many Western churches. Just as the Israelites demolished Canaanite altars, and early missionaries chopped down the pagans’ sacred trees in northern Europe, God was pulling the rug out from Europe’s self-perceived superior civilization. He was very present in the Great War, especially as Judge.
That isn’t very comforting, of course, and the process of repentance is seldom comfortable. But there is more than can be said about God’s presence in the midst of that, and indeed any, war. Jesus is also a “man of sorrows.” He is present with the suffering and the downtrodden, he identifies with the weak and lowly, he is served in our service of the ill and injured. And, as some of our Scripture readings today add, Jesus is present also with the dying and the departed.
Wisdom 3 assures us that God holds all souls in life, even though they die. The righteous, in God’s hands, are free from further torment and suffering; they have received great good; when it is time for the dead to rise at Christ’s return, they will be like the sparks lighting a great fire – welcoming the Light of Christ which will illuminate the world forever. Further, Revelation 7 describes the martyrs as alive and worshiping in heaven. In their many languages and nationalities, the dead in Christ are spiritually alive, at peace, and in joy. “They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat… and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” These are, at last, words comfort.
But it is the Gospel reading, from John 11, that really tackles the question of God’s presence in the midst of suffering and loss: “Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”. This is the real kicker – where was Jesus in the trenches of the Great War? Where was Jesus in the holocaust under the Third Reich 25 years later? Where was Jesus in the jungles of Vietnam or the deserts of Iraq? Martha of Bethany sees her hope of her brother’s resurrection at the end of the age, but Jesus brings it into sharper reality: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” He brings into most certain assured truth what Wisdom 3 only hoped for: that the souls of the righteous are eternally with the Lord, even in the midst of death. The challenge, then, as Jesus puts it, is “Do you believe this?” May we, with Martha of Bethany, have the faith to say “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
To wrap up, Let’s begin where we started. Let us “with grateful hearts [remember] the men and women of our armed forces, who in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy.” As we mourn the wickedness, the evils, and the suffering endured by soldier and civilian alike, we also look with hope to Jesus, who is the resurrection and the life, in whose hands God’s people will always remain. We look also to Jesus as our Great Physician, who alone can heal all wounds, if not in this life, but for the life to come.
And finally we look whence Christ and his Kingdom points us: to a unified people under the banner of the love of Jesus. A Kingdom where no sword will be drawn, but the sword of righteousness; where no tears are shed, but the tears of joy; where male and female, Greek or Jew, slave or free, Western or Eastern, one color or another, is no longer a dividing distinction; where all are one in Christ. The Roman Empire, even Christianized, could not achieve that. The Holy Roman Empire could not achieve that, neither could the British Empire, nor will the United State of America or any other kingdom or state. Let us, in honor of our earthly forebears, pray and work for the betterment of our earthly homes; yet keep our sights set on our heavenly home, where with all the saints we are invited to live and reign with Christ, for ever and ever. Amen.