November 11 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Remembrance Sunday
Texts: Micah 4:1-5; Romans 8:31-39; John 15:9-17. [Note: The Lectionary gives 4 options for each reading for this remembrance: these are the readings that have been chosen for St Barnabas, Warrington so I will stick with these.]
Theme: I'm going with "Lest We Forget"; an alternative might be "What Should We Remember?"
Introduction. The fact that the authors of the Lectionary have been unable to decide on an official line and given us the equivalent of a free vote in itself illustrates the difficulty we have in reconciling our faith with anything relating to war, particularly war involving our own people and nation. Hence the suggestion above that what we might do today is ask ourselves what exactly we are supposed to be remembering and why. Whether any of the possible readings help us to address that question any better than any of the others is a moot point. [I quite like Sirach 51:1-12 and 1 Timothy 2:1-7.] Micah looks to a time when war will be no more, when the Lord God himself will judge between the nations, and justice will prevail throughout the world. It's a wonderful vision to which neither the Church nor the State of Israel has shown any real commitment to date. Our other two readings have clearly been wrenched out of their proper context in an attempt to appear relevant to this remembrance, with the unfortunate result that, in the case of the epistle, it borders on the blasphemous, and in the case of the gospel it sanitises the reality of war in an attempt to make it seem noble and heroic if not actually holy.
Background. What a week it has been – the Report of the Royal Commission on the Pike River Mine Disaster, the Melbourne Cup, and the American Presidential Election. I wonder which of those evoked the greatest amount of prayer. And as we are marking Remembrance Sunday, here's a question to ponder: which of those should we remember the longest, and why?
I must confess the one that dominated my thoughts and prayers this week was the Presidential election; and yet, with that behind us, I find the thing that is buzzing loudest in my mind is a question John Campbell raised in his coverage of the Royal Commission Report. Commenting on the fact that warning after warning about dangerous levels of methane gas in the mine were raised and ignored in the days leading up to the disastrous explosions, Campbell asked, "Where were the whistleblowers?" It's a good question but is it a fair one? The Safety Officer at the mine, who has so far escaped any criticism (presumably on the ground that one of his sons died in the disaster), has stated that he constantly raised his concerns with his boss, who took no notice. Should he not have picked up the biggest whistle he could find and blow it as loudly as he could? Should he not have at least alerted the authorities, or even gone to the media?
Well, maybe, but think of the circumstances at the time. Would any of us have wanted to be the one whose whistle-blowing caused the mine to close with a loss of all those jobs? Knowing what has happened, of course we might say yes, but if someone had taken that course of action and avoided those deaths would Greymouth have acclaimed him a hero or run him out of town? Listen to the mayor and you'll know the answer to that: "This is a mining town...it's in our blood...it's our history...it's all we know...all we want to do...."
It would have taken a very brave person to blow that particular whistle, wouldn't it? Or, perhaps, a person of faith? A person who answers to the One who tells his followers to lay down their lives for others, and assures them that the truth will set them free. Whistleblowers are in the business of telling the truth, often at very high personal cost. Another name for them, particularly if driven by the Spirit, is "prophets". Today, on this Remembrance Sunday, perhaps yet another name for them would be appropriate: let's call them Conscientious Objectors. New Zealand has a terrible record in dealing with them; so, sadly, does the Church.
From the very beginning Christianity and the State clashed over the competing claims of the teaching of Christ and the prevailing view of patriotic duty. The Roman authorities were not much interested in theology and biblical studies. Christians would have been left alone to believe and practice whatever took their fancy if they had only accepted two basic principles: first, that the Emperor was divine in the sense that everyone owed ultimate allegiance to him; and secondly, that sacrifices were to be offered to the Roman gods who protected the State from its enemies. Christians, believing in the one true God and in the lordship of Jesus Christ could do neither. They were tried (usually for treason) and executed in large number. Early Christian documents from this period show a list of proscribed occupations that Christians should not undertake as being incompatible with being a follower of Christ. Bearing arms was one such proscribed occupation.
All this changed when the Empire became officially Christian in the 4th century, when it was thought that there was no longer any conflict between Church and State. The enemies of the Empire were pagans attacking a Christian empire; of course, Christians should bear arms in defence of the empire. In such an atmosphere St Augustine and others developed the doctrine of the Just War, which has plagued Christian theology ever since. To that great saint and theologian, and to all other proponents of such sophistry, Jesus has one simple answer: "But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." Who said that? The One who, faced with arrest, torture and death, commanded one of his own disciples, "Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword shall die by the sword."
No wonder the Lectionary authors couldn't pick a winner. It isn't that it's too close to call; there are no contestants able to run the course the Church has chosen to run.
Micah. A messianic prophecy of the end of the age. It looks to a time when all the gentile nations are drawn to Jerusalem (the dwelling-place of God), who will adjudicate on any disputes. The image is of some international court of law, but presided over by God. When such an order is established, there will be no more war or preparation for war; and all the hardware used for war will be converted to agricultural use. Verse 4 brings this lofty vision down to earth; peace and security on a global level necessarily implies peace and security for the individual, too. I've seen it suggested that verse 5 is a vote for religious pluralism, which seems a little unlikely as the nations of the world have gathered around Jerusalem to be taught God's ways and to learn to walk in his paths! More likely, it is a dismissive remark aimed at the poor benighted fools who follow lesser "gods" who couldn't possibly bring about such a glorious state of affairs.
Taking It Personally.
· Spend some time with this vision. Contrast it with the present state of the world. Then pray, slowly and earnestly, "Your kingdom come on earth as in heaven."
· What can you do, either alone or with others, that might be one small step towards making that vision a reality? If you can't think of anything, ask God to suggest something (but only if you are prepared to accept the suggestion).
· Have you ever been in a situation where the urging of your faith was in conflict with the expectations imposed on you by others? How did you resolve it?
· What does Remembrance Sunday mean to you? What are you most "remembering" on this day?
Romans. The most dangerous of all the passages for use on this day. Every nation in war is inclined to assume that God is on its side. "If God is for us, who can be against us?" makes perfect sense in the context in which St Paul wrote it: but in times of war it would so easily slip off the tongue of some political leader seeking to boost the country's cause. Verse 35 is also a little worrying: "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?" (Before you go any further, have a good look at John 15:9-10.) And even the wonderful verse 37 has dangerous overtones in the context of war.
Taking It Personally.
· Do you feel that God is for you? Has there been a time when you didn't feel that God was for you?
· Generally, is this passage a nice bit of encouraging rhetoric, or does it (or any of it) describe your own experience of God?
· What does it mean to you that Christ is interceding for you? When you pray for yourself, do you feel that you are joining in Christ's prayer on your behalf, or that he is praying with you as well as for you?
· Have you ever felt separated from Christ's love, or from the love of God? By what?
John. Here, surely, is the classic example of using Scripture out of context. There has long been a reluctance in the RSA to become too "religious" in its services and on its memorials, but it seems to have accepted the "imposition" of this verse 13". One year in Kawhia I was asked to take an Anzac Day service in the village, and took this passage as my text. I asked the question, "Did those who enlisted intend to lay down their lives for their friends; or was their dearest hope to return home fit and well?" I then answered my own question and suggested that the RSA should give back the "present of religious language" because it did not accurately describe the reality of war. About one third of those who died in the trenches in the First World War died of dysentery and other diseases, rather than by enemy fire. Had they laid down their lives for their friends? In fact, the vast majority of deaths by enemy fire were the result of sheer bad luck – being in the wrong ship, plane or ground position at the wrong time: in what sense could that be described as a willing laying down of one's life? Isn't the real truth of the matter that virtually every casualty of was an unwilling victim? Many of the elderly veterans present that day made a point of shaking my hand and thanking me for that message. No one took issue with me. Those who had been there remembered the truth – and one or two told me of their resentment at the role of the Church in pretending it was something else. That is one thing I shall always remember on Remembrance Sunday. Look again at this verse 13: is it not clear that Christ is talking about the quality of our relationships within the Church?
Taking It Personally.
· How might the Church offer pastoral support, empathy and love to the victims of war and their families without betraying Christ's pacifist teaching?
· How might we reconcile verses 10 and 14 with our belief that Christ's love for us is unconditional?
· As you "remember" today, what is it that you are remembering? What are you thankful for? What do you regret? Make these thoughts the centre of your prayers this week.
· Ponder Matthew 5:9 (Blessed be the peacemakers): are you a peacemaker? How might you exercise that ministry in your family, workplace, local church, or other social grouping in the next week or so?
· Pray for Syria or another war-torn country this week, perhaps using the petition, "Your will be done in Syria as in heaven".
· Pray for the UN, the International Court of Justice, and other organisations and people working for peace.