To begin with I`d like us to think about names and stories. This is how it works, you see. It`s the combination of the names and the stories that bring war home to us.
So, I think of the very old lady whose name was Ethel. When I first called on her I noticed a faded photograph of a handsome young man in uniform on her mantelpiece. She told me, “He was my sweetheart”. He had gone to the war in France and he didn`t come back. And that fact changed Ethel`s story…. Like so many women of her generation she never married… because so many had gone to the war in France… there were simply no longer any men around to marry even if she`d wanted to.
And then I think of Jack and Enid. They married just as world war two was declared. They had two weeks together…. The he went off to the war…. Fortunately, he eventually came back but they didn`t see one another again for over five years. I still marvel at their faithfulness to one another.
The names and the stories remind us that war is not a theory… and there are no spectators. The names and the stories remind us of how we`re all caught up in it. It`s not just something that happened in the past… it shapes who we are now.
So in a sense there are two parts to this act of worship this morning. The first is where we recall the names and we hold them before God. And in remembering we don`t stand in judgement on them. We have simply stood in silence before the futility of it all. This is our best prayer because we know that words are not enough.
But secondly the names bring war home to us.. The names and the stories behind them force us to face the challenge of honestly accepting how far the spirit that leads to war remains alive and well within us. This is difficult stuff but as Jesus points out in our second reading this morning its roots are right there in the human heart. (Matthew 15.10-20)
But it`s our first reading which caught my attention. (Isaiah 2.1-4) The Prophet Isaiah tells us that the Lord`s will is an end to conflict between nations… Now there`s nothing remarkable in that we might think… but Isaiah uses that interesting phrase. He says that in God`s Kingdom they will not “learn war” anymore. (v4)
Again, what this does is to put before us the very sobering truth that such is the state of our hearts that we remain a people who are given to violence….. We know only too well what it`s like to be a people who “learn war”. How does this happen?
Well, (forgive me stating the obvious)…. firstly I think we `learn war` when we are people who are content to live uncritically on a diet of violence in our media, television, movies and computer games. If it wasn`t so serious we would laugh at the fact that we call it `entertainment`…. But all the while, right there in our homes we receive a daily diet of images which de-sensitise us to the true nature and consequences of violence.
So, let me ruin the next action movie you watch. Why don`t you take a pen and write down the number of deaths you witness? They call it the `body count`. Then notice how casually those deaths are passed over. The script writers have no time to give any account of what happens next to for instance the family or friends who would grieve those deaths….. The point is that there is never any acknowledgement that there are real consequences to violent acts.
So, I occasionally irritate my family by saying…. “I wouldn`t want to have to take the funeral of that person who died a death as horrible as that!” Because occasionally I have had to and having been with families who have lost loved ones in violent circumstances… let me tell you it`s not `entertainment`.
Secondly, we `learn war` when we accept uncritically an unwarranted degree of violence in our language. Like the person who yelled at me from their car the other day… because I was keeping to the speed limit! I mean, we often complain about the combative nature of political debate…. (Prime Minister`s Questions and all the rest)…. But we`re all at it. And Jesus warns us that when we use dismissive and diminishing language about or to other people …..this has a corrosive effect on our regard for them. Once we remove their dignity… it`s not long before they become disposable.
Thirdly, we `learn war` when we lose the capacity to look beyond our own national boundaries and interests. When I have no higher loyalty than the state or my tribe or my economic interest then I have succumbed to what Christians call idolatry…. This is what lies behind the rise of Nationalism and tribalism in our own day. Again, it`s idolatry- we have made these things into a God.
But most of all I think we learn war when we give in to the lie that we have no choice. When politicians and others tell you “There`s no alternative”; that`s when red lights should be going on all over the place. Again, it all boils down to the way in which we manage to suspend our critical faculties; we shrug our shoulders and we just accept a `culture of death`…..
So, for example, most of us just accept that we will kill thousands of unborn children each year because their birth would be inconvenient. There HAS to be an alternative. And we currently, as we like to put it, “protect our way of life” by threatening others with nuclear weapons. There HAS to be an alternative.
So much rests on what kind of person you wish to become and the kind of society we wish to live in. Our remembering today invites us to ask whether we will in the future simply go along with the `culture of death` or will we be those who challenge it? I mean, will you pray in such a way that you allow the Lord to rid you of the roots of violence in your own heart? Will you look more closely at your language and how you speak of others? Or will you try to pretend it`s everyone else`s problem?
Let me tell you about another man. His name was Neil. When the second World War began he was called up into the army. But Neil was a Christian…. Since he couldn`t imagine any circumstances in which Jesus would kill (and because he wanted to be like Jesus) he decided that he was not prepared to kill.
I asked Neil about this very difficult decision and he told me that he couldn`t just opt out … Yes, there was a war… there was death all around but he wanted to challenge that culture of death by doing something that stood for peace. He received permission to join the bomb disposal unit and so throughout the war, far from opting out his life was daily in danger. That was his choice. That is where he believed Jesus was leading him. But what about us? Amidst a culture of death how will we be like Jesus? … How will we make it clear that we refuse to learn war anymore?
As we remember and honour the names of those we have read out today… we remember that war has our name on it as well. The names and stories bring war home to us….
Firstly, in a sense of grief and loss. But secondly as we are reminded of how far we are surrounded by a culture in which the roots of war in our own hearts are daily cultivated and reinforced.
If our Act of Commitment at the end of our service is not to be an empty exercise we need to think more deliberately about asking Christ to cleanse our hearts and show us how to be those who live for peace rather than those who learn war.