I went to church in my home congregation this morning. I didn’t have to preach anywhere else so I took the opportunity to remind everyone in Maynooth I’m still alive. My old friend Wylie led worship and that giant of an Afrikaner, Dewald, spoke about finances and Dr. Patrick managed to get through a whole sermon without mentioning consumerism. He also missed a chance to wax lyrical about Barth’s Dogmatics but we’ll forgive him for that.
I was grateful for many things. But when I got home from lunch and opened Twitter I was reminded of something else I should be grateful for. On November 11th, my Presbyterian congregation didn’t mention war once. What they remembered was that Jesus is a priest in the order of Melchizedek and on the basis of his indestructible life we have union with God. What they remembered was the grief of the family recently bereaved by cancer, a battle that we never describe as glorious, because death isn’t glorious. What they remembered was that it is better to give than receive. I was grateful for the reminders.
Wife-unit went to mass this morning. She had a phenomenal experience of being chastised/consoled by God (his chastisement is always a consolation, isn’t it?). What was she reminded of? She was reminded that where her heart is, there too her treasure can be found. No one mentioned war, poppies or fallen soldiers.
Such experiences of a calm focus on the Gospel is unlikely to be repeated when we have to move to Belfast. Our friend Richie has warned us this week that in Northern Ireland, this weekend, simple reflection would be rendered impossible for us because we’d be forced into the difficult job of “remembering”. I know I may be preaching to a choir that is really a soloist and the soloist is me and I can’t sing so this may be very untuneful, but I have some more arguments against this practice of conflating church with remembering the war-dead that I have to unfurl. Five new arguments to be precise.
1. The difficulty of remembering British soliders
I am an Irishman. Over the years that identity has evolved. When I say I am an Irishman, I now mean that I am from a particular place, an island off the coast of Europe. I largely couldn’t give two craps about nationhood or sovereignty or any of that nonsense. But I am from this island. The people of this island, regardless of what abstract political jurisdiction they may live under, are my people. And the fact is that the island I call home has been marred by extensive, cruel and pointless violence committed by British soldiers. The acts that I am thinking of are so numerous that all the books in the world couldn’t contain them. But from shooting innocent people dead in Derry in 1972 back to endless small humiliations on the country lanes of Kerry or Roscommon back to genocide committed under Cromwell, the British army has sanctioned actions of terrifying violence against people on this island. And I am not even discussing the barbarity that wasn’t sanctioned.
If we’re going to remember things, let us remember this.
How am I to be welcomed into communities that insist that the deaths of British soldiers in wars is a thing so worthy it should be part of worship? How am I to share the Gospel with my father and his generation, who were raised by men who risked their lives and lost them in battles against British soldiers if the church that embodies that Gospel tells a story of the past that doesn’t include them?
It is bad politics, bad theology and bad history to think you can isolate one strand of people and remember them without remembering their Others. And what that works out as is that it makes us bad neighbours.
In other words: letting the poppy into church violates the Jesus Creed.
2: The difficulty of Paul’s teaching.
Paul has a consistent thread to his teaching about refraining from that which would distract or confuse our “weaker brothers”. I am thinking specifically here of the food sacrificed to idols section of 1 Corinthians 8 and the more famous passage of Romans 14. In both cases Paul suggests that there are plenty of things in this world that Christians are welcome to participate in but we should be considerate in the use of our liberty lest we cause younger or less mature Christians to stumble.
I have no idea how these passages are usually preached in Irish churches. I suspect our application points are about drinking or playing poker or what have you. But a much more cutting application of this text is around nationalism. I have my doubts that I could argue that patriotism is actually wrong. As such, I suspect that we are at liberty to be patriotic as long as it doesn’t spill over into xenophobia. But I have no doubts whatsoever that the use of that liberty must be balanced by our concern for how it impacts our brothers and sisters.
So, If you are British and live in a place with many Irish people, and those Irish people are in your midst, then you should let go of the freedom to be a flag-waver because your common identity and unity in Christ is ontologically more substantial and emotionally more satisfying and fundamentally more real than your allegiance to a nation state.
Paul’s teaching applies directly. No one needs to accuse you of wrongdoing for feeling an attachment to Britain. But you do fall into wrongdoing if you let that attachment be a cause of detachment from your brothers and sisters in Christ.
So point 2: our liberty to be patriotic in any form is bounded by our concern for our weaker brothers and sisters.
3. The engagement in Remembrance Sunday implies an outmoded assumed homogeneity.
If you transplanted my congregation into the North, we still couldn’t have Remembrance Sunday. Sitting around me today there were Germans, Americans, Israelis, Congoloese, Kenyan, Dutch, South African, Scottish, English, French and El Salvadorean people. There is a racial diversity in Dublin that isn’t replicated anywhere in Northern Ireland. The idea of marking Remembrance Sunday in a church service seems to assume something that should no longer be assumed – that we are all from here (wherever here is).
21st Century Christianity in Ireland has already been strengthened hugely by immigrants. Their participation has made a contribution in all parts of our corporate life. And while there may only be 10% of the countries in the world Britain hasn’t invaded, the narrative of fallen British soldiers doesn’t play a significant role in the minds, life or shared stories of Dutch people or Chinese or Nigerians. As we welcome our brothers and sisters from all over the world, one of the lovely gifts God will give us is an appropriate distance from our native culture. The fact is: immigration means that our native culture is no longer the native culture of our church. That has now been alloyed to the cultures of the people who make up our fellowships. This a good thing, all the way down.
It doesn’t mean that we have to pretend we’re from nowhere. But it does mean that we have to stop pretending we’re all from here. And the stories we tell of ourselves can no longer be the narrow stories we grew up with.
So my third point is that practising Remembrance Sunday slows down our participation in the new and lovely thing of global inclusion that God is doing in our churches.
4. Remembrance Sunday gives a priority to war that is inappropriate.
Christians believe that death is a damnable evil. It is for this reason that Jesus came – to put death to death.
It really doesn’t matter how you die. This is an important point that we as Christians must hold on to more firmly than ever in the coming decades. The social mood is shifting strongly towards a pagan concept of the good death. Euthanasia is cast as a compassionate move. Soon, we will rediscover Schopenhauer and people will be arguing that suicide can be noble. The culture we live in is willing to do anything to get out of this life alive. When polled, people want to die quietly, quickly, painlessly and without causing a fuss. That is what we think it means to die well.
In such a culture it is easy to think that if we remember and celebrate the death of soldiers which is often the opposite: loud, slow, painful and with a great deal of inconvenience, then we will successfully oppose the superficial shallowness of the wider world.
But that is a massive mistake. In the face of the fear of death, what is needed is not a thanatos-celebrating glorification of certain kinds of dying. In the face of the fear of death, what is needed is the Gospel.
The Gospel says that everyone is going to die. Between now and then, we are called to live. And we live knowing that death doesn’t have the last word.
So it doesn’t matter if you die fighting bravely against Germans or if you die fighting bravely against cancer or if you die on a wet Tuesday morning in an accident that happens so suddenly you don’t even have a chance to be brave. What matters is that if we live the life we’re given, we won’t be scared to die.
War is a sin. Christians have historically agreed on this. And sin is not real, it has no ontological reality. It is almost literally an absence of being. Christians have historically agreed on this. So there is no theological or liturgical reason to elevate death in war as a special kind of death. It confuses our witness on one of the most crucial things we have to speak about – death and how we live on after it.
The only reasons I can find for letting this happen are political. So just admit you want to make a special space for the particular politics you embrace in the communal worship of fellow Christians who have no obligation to think like you.
Making a deal of the poppy in our worship services, with its celebration of people who die in war, dulls our ability to proclaim the truth about the deaths we all face.
5. Remembrance Sunday is actually parasitical on ancient Biblical practice.
You’ll sometimes find written, in a certain kind of journalism, the claim that the Hebrews invented history. There is some merit in the suggestion. For thousands of years now, Jewish people have been remembering the events that brought them into existence. Their calendar is in fact structured as a commemorative memory device. Their year is centered around the Pesach meal where they gather in families to remember. What do they remember on this Remembrance day?
They remember the deliverance of God from the slavery inflicted by Pharaoh.
It is a small leap from there to the secularised narrative of passover that you see re-enacted in the plot of every war movie where the hero just manages to achieve his mission in the last gasp, against insane odds, thus freeing us from the Kaiser, or the Nazis, or the Soviets, or the Taliban…
Anamnesis, meaning recollection, is the word that the early Christians used to describe the particular act of remembrance that they gathered for each and every week. At their Thanksgiving, which they called Eucharist, they broke bread and drank wine in remembrance of their Lord. We don’t need to get into a deep discussion of whether these early Christians believed in transubstantiation or consubstantiation or just loved to eat meals together. What matters is that this is what remembrance meant: that a sacrifice was made to end all sacrifice.
From that, I hope it is a small leap to see the travesty that we have before us because the Nation state and its armed forces occupy this sacred language of anamnesis and manipulate it to their own ends. When they speak of how men who die because pieces of disintegrating metal are fired at great speeds into their stomachs or because of the explosive force of unstable chemical materials unleashed in their vicinity or because the jeep they were driving in crashes one day after a tyre blow-out, when they speak of that as a sacrifice they are piggy-backing on the church’s language.
What is a travesty becomes a farce when we let them bring that language into our worship.
The Bible commands us to remember in a specific way that reminds us that no sacrifice is needed because sacrifice is finished. Remembrance Sunday being celebrated in church approaches heresy in the way it occludes this.
I have many more arguments. I want to win you all to peace, not for the sake of having made a good argument but for the sake of remembering rightly who we are. We are not men and women who fight wars. We are not men and women who start wars. We have forgotten that we are sons and daughters of God and therefore are peacemakers. If the Prince of Peace is our Lord, may we ever be distant from war.
Your Correspondent, A poet said that poppies are like a yawn of fire; so too is war.