Please listen to the talk here or read it below:
‘We will remember them. We will remember them’
As we honour those who have died defending our country, I think it is important that we remember what they died for….
Winston Churchill, in his Finest Hour speech delivered to the House of Commons on 18 June 1940 said: `Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation.’
During the course of the Summer I have been reading a book by Tom Holland called Dominion.
It traces the the whole of western thought from Antiquity to the modern day. It makes the point that the way that the Ancients behaved, particularly the Romans and Greeks was turned completely on its head by Christianity. The western world moved from a society in which the strong were idolised and the weak were held in contempt and used, to a society which aspired to be a place where minorities were protected, the weak given rights and every human being was seen to have dignity because Christianity asserts that they were made in the image of God.
For Tom Holland, the penny dropped as he went as a journalist to Sinjar in Iraq a few years ago, on the frontier with Islamic State and he viewed the fate of the Yazidis who used to occupy the town. Holland writes: ‘Their fate had been grim, precisely as the fate of those who resisted the Romans had been grim. Men had been crucified; women had been enslaved’. He continues,‘To stand among the ruins of Sinjar knowing that two miles away were ranged the very people who had committed such atrocities, was to appreciate how in antiquity the stench of heat and corpses would have served a conqueror as the marker of his possession. Crucifixion (Holland continues) was not merely a punishment. It was a means to achieving dominance and dominance felt as a dread in the guts of the subdued. Terror of power was the index of power. This is how it had always been…it was the way of the world’
But Tom Holland adds: ‘for two thousand years Christians have disputed this. Christians have always asserted that dominance of the weak by the strong should not be the way of the world.’
That God should come to earth and die the death of a slave on a cross and be raised again was, Holland asserts, like a depth charge in western thought which continues century after century to send out its ripples, as each generation grapples anew to work out what the astonishing fact of the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Son of God means in the world in which they live.
But so successful has Christianity been in setting the agenda, for not only Western thought, but (because the countries of christendom were victors of the Second World War) for international law, through the work of the United Nations and bodies such as the International Criminal Court in the Hague, that, like the water in which the goldfish swims, or the air which we breathe, we are barely aware of where these ideas have come from. We live and breathe in an environment of Christian values built up over 2000 years, regardless of whether we worship God or not. We can easily imagine, that protecting the weak is just normal human behaviour. But it is not just normal human behaviour….as the armies of antiquity and as Islamic state today show us..
The Nazi armies we faced in the Second World War were inspired by the teaching of Nietzsche who famously declared ‘God is dead’ and, given God’s death, the Nazis saw no reason why the weak should be protected from the strong; no reason not to crush and annihilate minorities, to murder those with disabilities. Why should not, in a world without God, the blond Aryan beasts of Nazism act like every other animal in its fight for evolutionary dominance?
Those we remember today put their lives on the line to save the world from this sort of barbarism. It is a debt we owe to them beyond measure. It is something we continue to call upon our servicemen and women to do for us today.
One of the lecturers at a theological course Lucy and I attended a few years ago had worked as an aid worker on the border between Albania and Kosovo in the 1990s. He was looking after refugees from the Serb militias who were crossing the border. He witnessed the terror of the refugees as the Serbs arrived driving pick up trucks mounted with machine gunsknown as ‘technicals’. As the Serbs arrived and the refugees ran screaming away, a British Army patrol arrived; calmly disarmed the Serbs, without bloodshed and restored peace….The lecturer said it was like civilisation reasserting itself. It had a profound impact on him.
So as we look at the history of conflict waged by Christian nations we should expect to see and we do see warfare being conducted within limits and, of course, the philosophy of war developed by St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas: the just war theory, teaches not only how we should decide whether or not we enter into conflict but also how we should behave when we are engaged in conflict: treating prisoners of war and refugees well, waging war proportionately, and seeking to protect civilians.
Of course we fail from time to time. We have done some awful things in warfare, but we seek to hold ourselves to these standards. It is of course a terrible scandal when we fail….this is why we were so shocked, for example, by the behaviour of the gaolers at Abu Ghraib.
But I think sometimes, in being rightly appalled when standards are not kept, we also have to recognise the enormous pressure that we are placing young soldiers under in making split second decisions which cannot always fairly be judged by later painstaking forensic analysis….and, most importantly, there is a danger that in (sometimes later discredited) press reports which focus on the failures, we forget the myriad small acts of decency and kindness that our troops so often show in conflict both to civilians and enemy combatants of which we should be so proud.
My friend Maj. Gen. Roddy Porter tells of a time during the Bosnian war when one of his platoons were building an outdoor playpark for Bosnian muslim children as respite from convoy protection and other military duties. In the middle of this work the Bosnian Serbs shelled the village. All five men of a Muslim family were killed. Imagine the devastation and pain for the remaining women of the family! They were inconsolable, but the soldiers, moved by their plight immediately sought to comfort them. They rallied round, spending time with them, providing food and doing all they could to mitigate their loss. Roddy says it was moving to see these bereft women crying with soldiers from another world who were on hand and were prepared to show them love and compassion. Roddy says soldiers understand tragedy and loss, many of them have experienced it first hand and they have an instinct to show compassion to those who have lost everything.
So far as looking after enemy combatants are concerned, I think of my friend Piers, as Intelligence Officer of the Welsh Guards during the Falklands War, who while on the side of a mountain in a blizzard at night had to take possession of two Argentine POWs, conscripts who were freezing and starving. He gave them his own rations and his own clothing to protect them, even though this was shortly after the terrible bombing of the Sir Galahad transport ship when the Welsh Guards had suffered so many casualties.
Peter Thacker speaks of his time in 1st Armoured Division in the Iraq War with young Iraqi boys surrendering in droves. The fear that he saw in their eyes, because of the propaganda that they had received about the Allied forces, they thought their lives were over, if they surrendered. But despite language barriers Peter’s comrades found ways to connect with them through human emotion and there was profound dignity in the way they were treated. Peter continues ‘Despite the overwhelming fire power at the British forces disposal I was humbled by the restraint that was exercised against an enemy that could not match us on the battlefield’.
James Young tells a story of when his team were under very effective fire from an Taliban sniper in Afghanistan. He says that he asked his own sniper to stop the firer. But his sniper turned to him and said he could not as the Taliban sniper was just a boy who looked like he was 12 and reminded him of his own son. So James gave the order to not return fire and the patrol hunkered down and let the boy keep shooting at them. It lasted for an hour; they were in cover so were okay, James then extracted his team away from the area. They didn’t come across the boy again.
Our duty of humanity to our enemies even extends to those who think completely differently to us.
There is the story of the surgeon in Afghanistan who had worked incredibly hard saving the life of a Taliban fighter, a POW. The doctor asked the Talib, after successfully completing the operation, what would have happened if their situations had been reversed, if the doctor had been the Talib’s prisoner. ‘I would have skinned you alive’ came the shocking reply….
We should be very proud of the bravery and decency of our troops in often very difficult situations. They encapsulate Jesus command to ‘love your enemies’ which we have just heard from Matthew 5:43.
And we, as civilians, as we remember them, must continue to be worthy of the example that they set us by responding with grace to our former enemies, by responding with forgiveness.
It is notable that on ANZAC day when Australians and New Zealanders remember their war dead of the Gallipoli Campaign, there is a large military parade in London at the Cenotaph followed by a memorial service at Westminster Abbey. The flags of all the nations engaged in the Gallipoli Campaign are marched down the Nave and laid at the High Altar. All the nations, including the Turkish flag, a powerful symbol of reconciliation between nations following bitter conflict and an affirmation that warring parties can make peace and remember together.
At the 100 anniversary of the end of the First World War, at our Remembrance Day service we in Itchen Valley invited German and French nationals to read the Lords Prayer in their native languages as part of our worship, to remind us of our common humanity before God. This year in recognition of the 75th anniversary of the end of the War in the Pacific, we have invited Duell san to read the Lord’s Prayer In Japanese.
Perhaps in time there will be an appropriate moment to read the Lords Prayer in Serbo-Croat, Arabic or Pashto as well.
All of the examples we have heard today are stories of great courage and humanity in an inhumane situation. They are like flowers in a bleak landscape; maybe like the poppies in the poem that James Young read. They remind us of who we are. They remind us of the Christian civilisation that we are blessed to enjoy, because of the great bravery and sacrifices of those that we remember today.
Donating to the Poppy Appeal
Contributing to the Poppy Appeal is a way in which we can recognise our Armed Forces personnel who put themselves in harm’s way so that we can rest peaceably at home. Donations help personnel of all ages that have been injured, fall upon hard times, and provides support to bereaved families. If you would like to donate you can do so from the following link: