Thursday, 10 November 2011

Faith & Remembering

Every year around this time there's a debate in some church circles about how - and to what extent - congregations should enact Remembrance Observances. Personally, I think it's a good conversation to have, because it pushes us to think about why we do what we do. And I worry more about our untested assumptions than I do about offending someone who doesn't want to have the conversation. There are several factors that come into such a decision - in no particular order.

First, unless we have consciously chosen to separate ourselves from society - like the historic peace churches - most Christian denominations in Canada participate in and benefit from the institutional existence of the country. That doesn't mean we can't criticize. It does mean that we aren't free to "cherry-pick" what we share in. So, for instance, in the United Church's guidelines for ethical behaviour and practice for ministry personnel, there are considerations to be undertaken when a minister engages in acts which may lead to arrest. The guidelines don't say "don't do it"; nor do they say "you can ignore the law." They clearly set out that, as a part of a particular nation, those who choose to engage in civil disobedience need to ponder certain realities. So too with Remembrance. We are part of a nation that has benefited from actions undertaken in the past. That doesn't mean we have to glorify war or refrain from critical engagement with government when it commits us to war. It is part of our national reality that we cannot - and should not - avoid.

Second, when we look at the history of Christian attitudes to war and peace we find that the motivations of the early church in avoiding military service and action do not entirely apply to us today. While there certainly was concern for Jesus' commands about violence, much of the early Christian writing focuses on the army's policing role (suppressing minority Christian communities) and the danger of idolatry. Members of the legions were required to participate in the "cult of the Divine Emperor" (declaring, religiously, "Caesar is Lord") on regular occasions. Furthermore, the legion standards were treated as idols, objects of religious veneration. Neither of those concerns applies to military service today. As well, there are centuries of Christian wrestling with the matter of "just war" and how "Christian" nations and their leaders can, as much as possible, balance the competing claims impacting upon them. Those debates are not always satisfying in their results. At the same time, outside the historic peace churches we cannot, accurately, maintain that the Christian tradition has always been contrary to war.

Third, I hope that when a Christian community participates in Remembrance observances, we keep clear the lines between gratitude and glorification. We can - and I think ought to - be grateful to those who make huge sacrifices on our behalf. As many autobiographies make clear, the motivations for action and enlistment were as varied as the individuals involved. They were not all natural born heroes and, in some communities, the social pressures were tremendous. Similar forces apply today which is one reason why the economically challenged areas of the country are disproportionately represented in the ranks of the Armed Forces. That is all part of the human reality and does not detract, for a moment, from examples of courage, sacrifice and service. In several decades of conducting Remembrance observances I have never had anyone - veteran or not - object to the distinction I always draw between the individuals we remember and war itself. I have been privileged to know many veterans. While they often revel in their memories of comradeship and a sense of being fully alive (remember, most of them were barely out of adolescence) I've never encountered any who thought the actual fighting was glorious or who would wish it for their grandchildren. Veterans, perhaps better than anyone, understand the distinction between honouring the sacrifices made while deploring the need for those sacrifices.

Would that government could make that distinction: then we would be subjected to stupid observations that those who object to national military policies are "not supporting the troops"! One can be entirely critical of a national policy - such as involvement in Afghanistan - while simultaneously insisting that the women and men who are acting on our behalf (this is a national policy after all) have the tools they need to undertake that action as effectively and safely as possible. Those are not contradictions in terms, despite government attempts to make it so.

Finally (amongst many thoughts) it is crucial that the church continue to engage with the hard realities of life. War - and our often conflicted feelings about war - is one of those realities. We simply do not have the freedom to walk away from that engagement nor leave the field to those who would abuse it.

Here is the prayer I have used in Remembrance observances for so many years that I can't even recall if I wrote it or borrowed it:

The God of peace and love be with you. And also with you.

We come before you God, not to glorify war, but to honour and celebrate those who walked into the chaos and evil that is war: those who were civilians and those who were military; those who braved the censure of society and those who gave of themselves for that society; those who survived and those who did not; those who were friends and those who were enemies. None who have waded through evil, death and sorrow are untouched in body, mind or spirit; they are beloved of God. We all were affected and changed by conflicts past and present, and all are in need of reflection, renewal, comfort and healing. Amen.

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