I am a Christian who is committed to non-violence. This is not unusual, historically speaking. After all, the first few centuries of Christians were notable for their staunch refusal to kill people, even for the best possible reasons.
I am also a Christian who is training to be a church leader in a context where my denomination is almost entirely committed to supporting the military. What I mean by that is that the Presbyterian Church in Ireland appoints military chaplains to both front-line and reserve forces and it wholeheartedly endorses the martial acts of remembrance that are conducted in the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland every November. Here’s the current cover of our denomination’s magazine:
Now as these things go, this is pretty reserved. It’s not pinning a poppy on a freaking puppet. But I could draw on countless sources to show, conclusively, that uncritical engagements with military imagery contributes towards willingness to engage in military conflict. Examples: Here and here and failing everything else, if that is too academic, consider the films we watch and the games we play and the books we read.
If and when any church decides to call me to be their minister, if they want to acknowledge the tragic and horrendous loss of life involved in war, I will suggest a repentance service is more appropriate than a remembrance service. But I will also suggest that we agree that I go on holiday on the 2nd weekend of November. That’s what I currently do, living in Britain. Tomorrow morning my wife and I will eat breakfast and drink coffee and instead of going to church to sing God Save the Queen and uncritically allow Mars into the community of the Prince of Peace, we will read Isaiah 11 and pray that Barack Obama, Donald Drumpf, Vladimir Putin or Theresa May never decide to kill anyone (else again).
I can’t partake in Remembrance. Not because I don’t value the lives of the young men that died in Britain’s wars, but because I do. I cannot reconcile the uncritical embrace of our ability to end life with the voices of the men who died in the trenches. They warned us of the hollow hell that hides behind noble words. Dulce et decorum est and all that. More than that, the engagement in sombre remembrance choreographed by the state that sent those men to die for no good reason stops us from seriously considering how the recent wars were fought for no good reason. The sepia tinted nostalgia for the Somme and the heroic stand against fascism in the 2nd World War obscures how Britain has recently engaged in two horrendous, unlawful, unnecessary, utterly pointless wars and that they are currently supporting a secret war in Yemen. Presbyterians don’t gamble, but I would make a killing if I could bet that Yemen won’t be mentioned in any Presbyterian church on the island of Ireland tomorrow.
The church is called to remember. We remember the passover and we remember the most remarkable account of non-violence in all the cosmos. When we confuse those instructions with the things that the nation state wants us to remember, we listen to an imposter. If we remember what official Britain wants us to remember, we forget the Mau Mau, we forget Dresden, we forget Abu Ghraib.
So I hope that my commitments to non-violence – which means I preach unambiguously against abortion and the death penalty, against direct provision and against torture, but also against all collusion with the martial power of the nation state – will not hinder a church from calling me as a minister in the future. After all, if I can cite Tertullian and Ireneaus, Hippolytus and Cyprian, Menno and George Fox, Dorothy Day and Jacques Ellul as my allies, surely I can still be considered a safe, orthodox pair of hands? Yet I fear that the time is coming where my refusal to do Remembrance services would mean that congregations would refuse me as their minister. It is becoming part of the Gospel.
If I was forced, I would be able to preach on Remembrance Sunday. I would do it in the following way. I would set my text as Romans 13, which is the definitive text in the New Testament that argues that we must respect the state. But I would focus on verse 8:
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
And then I would describe the Predator UAV. Each one costs just over $4 million. It is a remote controlled drone. It can fly 400 miles to a target and then hang in the air for 14 hours. It carries 2 hellfire missiles. It is almost 50 feet wide, but its camera is precise enough to identify human faces.
I would emphasise: this is how we fight war today. We see without being seen. We fire missiles from hundreds of miles away or we send flying robots to kill. Let us remember this. We say the men who died on the Somme died to make our freedom possible? This is what we do with our freedom. The Americans use the Predator. The Brits use Reapers. The names reveal much. But the particular models don’t matter. What we do is what matters. We are in debt, because we cause death. We are in debt because we have not loved one another.
Then I would step out of the pulpit and pray that come Monday, I’d still have a job.
That such a concern is increasingly real reveals the Babylonian captivity of the church to the age in which we live.
I am not bolshy. I am convinced that our failure to stand at a distance from our culture on issues like the poppy and Remembrance is directly connected to the failure of Christian witness on these islands. “Gay cakes” aren’t the obstacle hindering the Gospel. Hollow Christian religiosity is. The church has been deaf to the threat posed by neoliberal capitalism’s unending desire, it has been blind to the God-denying rape of the created world and it has ignored the refugee. But at least it doesn’t give over a Sunday every year to celebrate the 1 percent “job creators”, or to thank God for fracking, or to engage in xenophobic harassment. Yet in an age when we literally hand a nuclear arsenal capable of wiping out all life on earth to a reality tv celebrity, we gather on Sundays and bow our head and let Mars pretend to be YHWH.
I have a friend we will call H. H hated reading growing up but is now almost at the end of a PhD in the sciences. And she told me during the week that I needed to read Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath because it was so heart-warming and illuminating. I take H seriously in everything she says and so I read the book yesterday. The book is classic Gladwell. A lot of important nuance gets brushed over by his wonderful, easy prose. But it closes with the story of the Presbyterian village of Le Chambon, where hundreds of Jewish people found refuge during the NAZI occupation of France. This is an amazing story, with increasingly terrifying relevance, considering the decisions that electorates are making across the Western world. Gladwell tells the story of how the teenagers of the village, summonsed to a Vichy event where a French version of Hitler Youth would be established, instead delivered a letter that began, “We have learned of the frightening scenes which took place three weeks ago in Paris, where the French police, on orders of the occupying power, arrested in their homes all the Jewish families in Paris,” and then continued to build to a conclusion that you should learn off by heart:
We have Jews.
You’re not getting them.
But there is a little detail, much less dramatic and heroic, in the story that explains why I think you should refuse to participate in Remembrance services. At one point, the Vichy government issued an edict that required all French churches should ring their bells on August 1st to mark the one-year anniversary of the NAZI arrival. The Presbyterian minister, André Trocmé, did not need to deliberate. He informed the church caretaker, a woman called Amélie, to ignore the rule. Two people summering in the village noticed the little disobedience and complained. Amélie knew how to respond:
The bell does not belong to the marshal, but to God. It is rung for God – otherwise it is not rung.
The ringing of the bell is not a hill to die on, surely. The townspeople were running a high-stakes game, offering sanctuary to Jews before shepherding them over the mountains to Switzerland. The less attention they attracted, the better. Strategically, this ringing refusal was an awful choice.
But they weren’t being strategic. They were being faithful. It is not always clear that those two domains overlap.
The disciplined, uncompromising witness of the Christians of Le Chambon did not fall like Manna. It was cultivated by regular, small acts of obedience to God which took the form of disobedience to common sense, to common decency, to common respectability.
I am not being needlessly bolshy. Our church is not discipled. Our church does not know how to worship its Lord. We are compromised by our love of technique and relevance. We are seduced by Mammon. We are intimidated by Mars. The poppy might, in a parallel universe, be an innocuous symbol of cultural heritage, but that is not where we live. There may be a world where it is just a good charity initiative, but that is not where we live. Where we live, in this, the real world, Remembrance Sunday is a missed opportunity for the church to recall its first love.
Ring your bells for God, otherwise ring them not at all.
Your Correspondent, There’s no kill switch on awesome.