A reflection for Remembrance Sunday
8 November 2020
Drawing on Micah 4.1-4.
A while ago there was a discussion as to whether the time had come to end the annual Remembrance Sunday. The generation which fought the First World War has now passed and those who remember the Second World War are only those who remember it as children, with a few exceptions.
The Americans entered the First World War on the understanding that it was to be ‘the war to end all wars.’ Sadly, that was not to be.
Another suggestion was to rename the day as Peace Sunday.
What has happened since, is that this day has become part of the language of narrow nationalism. In the popular view it is less of a memorial to a national tragedy than a fortification of a limited view of national pride.
In my view this is a mistake.
War is a constant reality. Whilst we may not remember the world wars the day was established to recall, the United Kingdom has been engaged in other wars notably Korea, the Falklands, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran. And the world has seen so many conflicts, the former Yugoslavia, Ukraine, the wars for liberation in Africa and the struggle against apartheid, the so-called ‘dirty wars’ of the 1980s in Latin America and the Philippines.
We recall the deadly conflicts of Rwanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo and the killing fields of Cambodia. And as we speak there are continuing conflicts in Syria and Yemen, Mexico and Colombia have drug wars, Kashmir, Eritrea, Mali.
We might also recall the continuing ‘terror’ which we tragically are witnessing in Europe even now. And we should not forget the conflict in the north of Ireland.
None of this is disconnected from the presence of refugees making dangerous crossings over the Mediterranean and the English Channel. There are some who reserve their ethical outrage for desperate people fleeing war and yet preserve the industries and political relationships which perpetuate the real moral evil.
So today is no time to pause in our remembrance. We remember people who have died, people who were bereaved, people whose memories are haunted by the violence they experienced, those who are shamed by the violence they perpetrated.
It is not a day to indulge in any localised national pride. It is a day to pray for reconciliation. To pray especially for Germany, Japan, Argentina, Ireland, Korea, Iran, Iraq for the victims of the holocaust.
It is a day to pray for forgiveness.
For we are together on this Remembrance Day as followers of Jesus Christ and people committed to his moral code. That code requires us to pray for our enemies, and to do good to those who persecute us. It is a requirement to make peace.
Jesus was not naïve. He lived in a violent world as do we. We cannot escape the violence, and neither could he. He could not escape the brutality of the Empire to which his people were subjected just as we cannot make ourselves immune from the impact of violent forces on our lives.
For some it is living with the violence of racism or homophobia or gender-based violence. We are increasingly living under the possibility of violence which arises from environmental degradation. This week we have seen in the United States how much violence is bubbling beneath the surface.
Now we are also living through a time of privation. Unlike the Second World War we do not have bombs dropping on our houses, but we must stay in our homes for our own protection and the safeguarding of others. Whilst it is not war it is certainly a time of national crisis.
Jesus lived in a country occupied by cohorts of soldiers. They were extortionate and violent. He lived in a part of the world where there was internal conflict between factions and tribes. He lived where bitter religious disputes gave space for false prophets and apocalyptic visions. He lived where dissent was dealt with swiftly.
Not for nothing did Jesus die a violent death.
We must not put cotton wool around the message of Jesus.
The words ‘Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing’ were spoken through pain, and in response to an act of unimaginable torture and cruelty.
A few weeks ago, in church I said that the Bible is a book which should be read outdoors because it so wonderfully reflects the natural world in which we live and our relationship as human beings to it.
The Bible can also be read in the context of the political environment which leads us with horrifying monotony toward conflict and war.
There are acts of cruelty and war perpetuated in the Bible. But the thrust of the prophecy of scripture describes a movement of humanity toward God’s desire for us all.
The prophet Micah has a vision of God judging the nations. He imagines hoards of people flocking to Jerusalem with the precise intention of learning the way of the God of the Hebrews.
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;
The way of God is the direct contradiction of the way of war. Instead of making bullets we make tools to cultivate the land. Instead of the art of war, we work for much more demanding discipline of keeping and maintaining peace.
And we will all sit under our own vine and fig tree.
Vines and Fig trees belong to the Garden of Eden. We know there were figs there because their leaves were especially useful at an embarrassing moment.
The Vine is associated with the Tree of Life.
So to sit beneath the vine and fig tree is to live in God’s presence. It is to live as a restored humanity.
The vine and fig tree became a symbol of prosperity and peace.
When the prophet says each shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, he is talking of the peasant farmers who would have strived so that others could profit from their labour.
For me, the most poignant part of the passage is when the prophet says: ‘and none shall make them afraid’.
No longer are the people to be exploited or abused. Their labour is for their own reward. Just as the hope of the people of Yemen, Syria, Eritrea, Colombia and in all those trouble spots is to live without fear of their neighbour.
We are given an expansive vision which is highly relevant for us today. The ending of the arms trade, the relentless perpetuation of violence will not come from self-interest. Each nation protecting its own regardless of the impact on others. Each ruler preserving their status and power, regardless of how that impacts on others. Each landowner, manufacturer producing for their own profit regardless of those who do the work is to fuel the machinery of war.
Learning the way of God, flocking to a metaphorical Jerusalem, the City of Peace, is different. It begins with reconciliation. It begins with love and with justice, which is love in the public realm. It begins with righteousness which is the living out of justice in our daily lives – our relationships, our life choices, our use of our resources and our politics. It begins with a desire to learn and to know who our neighbours are rather than building a wall to exclude them. Then we must transcend desire and make community real, concrete, actual in our churches, our workplaces, our neighbourhoods, our city, our country and our world.
I said earlier that Jesus was not naïve. Neither should we be.
Facing up to the violence of the world is the steppingstone to liberation. We are suffering now because of COVID-19. Many more are suffering because of the realities of war and conflict, whether that be in their bodies or in their minds.
We are not called as Christians to grin and bear it. We are not called to shake our heads and say there is nothing we can do. Remember at the crucifixion of Christ the bystanders wagged their heads saying that Jesus would save others but could not save himself.
Peace is not the absence of war. It is not something which only a few diplomats at the UN can negotiate. Nor is it wise to leave it to the hand of politicians.
Peace does not flow from political machines, it flows from the love and grace of God. It flows from the Saviour who taught us the way of forgiveness, reconciliation, justice and righteousness.
The suffering of our world is not something for contemplative reflection. It is a spur to resistance. We cannot socially distance from the pain of the world.
Neither do we need to wait for the end of time to sit beneath our own vine and fig tree. This is our task, our responsibility, our role.
We are to create relationships which refuse to define another as the other. We are to refuse to turn a blind eye to the need of the one who flees war and torture. We are to be proactive in our church life in discerning, informing ourselves, looking beneath the falsehoods and ask what the truth of Christ in this ungodly mess is.
This is neither thankless nor joyless. Vines produce juicy grapes and figs make fig rolls – my favourite! The alternative to buying into a politics of violence, an economics of war and relationships of abuse is not to turn ourselves into miserable people. Rather it is to join a feast and invite others to the table.
The word remember means to bring to mind.
So today when we remember, we bring to mind all who have suffered and who are suffering. But above all we bring to mind Jesus Christ, who also suffered from the violence of the machinery of Empire.
But Jesus did not ask us to remember by attacking the perpetrators. Rather he asked us to remember him by breaking bread with each other and sharing the fruit of the vine.
Let this mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus who humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
The many crucifixions of war in our world call for us to empty ourselves of any sense of superiority and to a humble ourselves so we can forgive, reconcile, build bridges across the walls of hatred.
Only then can we sit together at the table of brotherhood and sisterhood and share the resources of this earth together in peace. Each of us with vines and figs to spare.‹ back