When Remembrance Day comes around every year, I feel uneasy. There’s something about this national ritual that doesn’t sit well with me.
How we commemorate wars and the fallen can be misused. Especially when my Christian faith leads me to question why we go to war at all. Because for me it’s personal.
Back in New Zealand, when I was very small, a very old man lived next door. His name was Mr. Carter. I remember him well; quietly spoken and always holding his pipe. But within him, he carried a heavy burden.
Mr. Carter, I later learned was a Gallipoli veteran, and he fought that battle all his life. The odd habits my Mum would recall now made sense; how he always left his bedroom light on at night, no doubt because the memories of his experience would return as nightmares when asleep. Better a little light than total dark.
Today we call it post-traumatic stress disorder. He would’ve just known it as his own personal hell.
War is obscene. It’s consequences incalculable. It is organised, state-approved violence serving a political end. It grieves me deeply and as a Christian, I can only name it for what it is; sin.
Given its manifest evil today and yesterday, Christians should ask what the root cause is and how we can take realistic steps to avoid it from happening again and again.
War, is the collective failure of nations, and of us all.
As we continue to commemorate 100 years since the First World War, we should recall it was meant to be the ‘war to end all wars’.
And the more I discover about that conflict, the more I understand the colossal impact it had on future generations. It influenced the 20th Century immeasurably. The Second World War would never have happened, nor the Cold War. The destructive, overtly anti-Christian political ideologies that dominated last century arose from the ashes of the First. Communism and Fascism all fed off the national traumas of 1914-1918.
But there’s something else we should be aware of, and this may come as a surprise. Some historians argue and I agree, that the Great War ended Christendom in Europe. Christianity took a fateful turn early last century and we have pertinent lessons to learn from it today. (see The Great and Holy War: How World War I Changed Religion For Ever, by Philip Jenkins.)
Nationalism and empire
We must realise that religious motivation became tragically mixed with nationalism and empire. And this was something all sides were guilty of. They had appropriated God and their own Christian traditions in the service of imperial ambition.
The scandal is that all the state churches approved and encouraged the war. After all, who could question ’God’s will’ and the monarch?
And this is where it also gets personal.
My Grandfather, Thomas O’Hare, fought in the First World War in the Royal Navy as a mine-sweeper and later signalman. He served the mighty sea power that allowed Britain to rule the waves (and the world).
His experience of conflict impacted him greatly. The jingoism of dying for King and country sickened him. He emigrated to New Zealand and became a committed socialist, of the George Bernard Shaw kind (whom he later met).
Grandad also left the church and lived his political convictions in small but poignant ways. When the national anthem was played at public events, he refused to stand.
Knowing of the massacres that occurred in the name of Empire, ‘God save the King’ was emptied of any just cause. And that’s why I find services of Remembrance, as they are, so difficult.
Because national identities, flags, and anthems were what caused the whole damn thing in the first place. An innocent affection of one’s country can easily be exploited to become nationalism, that turns to an idolatry of the war-making kind.
So in memory of my Grandfather and the stance he took, I will not be attending a formal service of remembrance.
But I will remember them. In a way that still honours their sacrifice.
I will pray. Pray for reconciliation.
Europe is fragile once more and the cracks are showing. Nationalism is on the rise yet again. As Christians, we have a moral duty to resist and speak against this evil in whatever form it takes. But I also continue to hold the great Christian hope, that the day of renewal will one day come.
That the ‘glorious dead’ really will become glorious. Those who gave their lives in a struggle so misguided will be risen and united. Brothers and sisters in Christ as his body and his bride. Just as it was always meant to be, on earth as it is in heaven:
‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’ Revelation 21:4.
So in the pain of remembrance, to make any sense of it, there must be born renewal.
God, let your Kingdom come, not ours.
Jeremy O’Hare is a blogger for Not Only Sundays and finalist for “Up and Coming Blogger” at this year’s Premier Digital Awards. You can read more of his blogs about bible wisdom for every day, @notonlysundays or facebook.com/notonlysundays