A Far Cry from Christmas
Cover: Black-browed albatross flying over south Atlantic Photograph: Daniel Cox/Photolibrary
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War medals pinned to the chest of a World War I veteran. Photograph: Piotr Malecki/Panos
It is time to move from a service of remembrance to a service for peace.
THIS NOVEMBER, as every year, cathedrals, churches and chapels around Britain will hold their Services of Remembrance. Yet I, as a Christian minister, feel an increasing sense of unease at participating in these celebrations.
One reason is the way in which they confuse patriotic fervour with religion: as a Nonconformist minister I stand in a tradition which rejects formal connections between the State and the Christian faith, yet Remembrance services are an expression of the civic religion which we decry.
A second reason for my disquiet is that these services so often seem to emphasise past conflicts while barely acknowledging today’s violence. World War II finished sixty years ago and there has hardly been a day since where people have not been dying or killing others somewhere in the world, yet these tragedies are hardly mentioned. Instead of invoking a sense of horror and shame, the slaughter of the past is bathed in a rose-tinted glow of nostalgia, with the fighting men and women who died depicted almost as saints. The many civilians who died seem to get largely forgotten in these celebrations – although they were equally the victims of war.
But, above all, these services may give the impression that the churches tacitly bless warfare as a way of resolving disputes. I am aware, of course, that there are glorious exceptions to this rule at places such as Coventry Cathedral, where the craving for peaceful ways of solving differences is virtually built into its fabric. The Christian faith is one which highlights reconciliation, believing that Christ wrought peace between heaven and Earth so that his followers might, in turn, beget peace across the world. To me, the militaristic rattlings of some Christian communities – especially the most conservative – appear little short of blasphemous.
The Church has long contained ambivalent attitudes to war, as Christians, individually peace-loving, are also members of nations with the right of self-defence. Until about 170 CE, Christians refused to serve in the Roman army. In the 5th century, St Augustine was concerned to defend the Roman Empire, which he regarded as the bulwark of civilisation, from Germanic threats. He conjugated the notion of a ‘just war’, proportional in scope, confined to combatants and dedicated to the establishment of justice and peace. This concept was sadly used to legitimise the medieval Crusaders who sought to ‘liberate’ the Middle East from the rule of Islam; the repercussions of their actions are still being felt today. More recently, many British Christians who took up a pacifist position in the 1930s felt compelled to reconsider their views in the face of Nazi aggression. Today, all the major denominations have Peace Fellowships, but these rarely lie at the centre of church life.
I am well aware that many Christians from a generation older than mine see Remembrance Sunday very differently. Every year one or other of these people says to me, “Be thankful for those who fought in the War. If they hadn’t, you wouldn’t be able to speak freely today.” I recognise the truth in this argument, and I do not wish to belittle the heroism of those who fought for what they saw as a just cause. Nevertheless, it seems self-evident to me that followers of Christ the Peacemaker ought to fly in the face of the prevailing culture by affirming peace rather than war, and by challenging a worldview in which fighting for one’s corner, rather than compromise and reconciliation, is seen as the way to live.
ONE SMALL WAY in which I have tried to raise the profile of peace in churches is by promoting the sale of white poppies. These were first produced in 1933, by the Women’s Co-operative Guild, as a reminder of the horrors of war at a time when memories of the First World War were beginning to fade. Today, the small profits made from their sale fund resources for educating children in the evils of violence and the possibilities of peaceful ways of achieving justice. Those who wear these poppies demonstrate both their grief for people who are harmed by war, and their determination to see war abolished for good.
I am amazed that so many people in the churches never seem to question the annual Remembrance ritual which has become a regular, even anticipated, part of the religious calendar. Personally I would far prefer to organise alternative peace services focusing on repentance, prayer and recognition of the terrors of today’s world rather than on recollecting the past. That might be difficult; but the Remembrance services that are held should surely evoke a sense of despair at the continuing reality of war, should surely incorporate confession of our own part in the sinful world systems that lead to war, and conclude with our earnest prayers for peace to finally triumph.
White poppies are available from Peace Pledge Union, 1 Peace Passage,
London N7 0BT.
Andrew Kleissner is an ordained Baptist Church minister in Ipswich, England