There will be 4 years of this. Centenary after centenary. I’m not proposing that we’ll have service after service like this, but I’m sure we’ll mark the centenary of the end of the War, and perhaps the centenary of the battle of the Somme as well. But we’re looking at four years of centenaries of individual deaths and injuries. But this is not all just historical. Though the living memory of the First World War is by and large gone, the ripples are still with us. “Never such innocence again.” Philip Larkin reflected, 50 years on from the start of what was known as the Great War. How positive and free thinking, how optimistic people were before 1914 – new technologies seemed to be opening up new possibilities – new ideas in science, theology, literature abounded, new historical and archaeological discoveries – the optimism of that society is lost to us who are so cynical. Our ways of thinking have been scarred and shaped by the First World War in ways we are unlikely to recognize. My own grandfather on my father’s side was shell-shocked, and though I never knew him, his damage shaped my father, and my father shaped me – most of you older than me will feel that sort of thing more keenly.
We can take, from reflecting on the history, a lesson in how fast things can change, even when you feel society is stable. The War redrew the map of Europe and the world. By the sheer scale of its mechanised slaughter it set war and society’s view of the fighting man in a new light. Because of World War One our attitude to War has changed for the better. We no longer have the romantic idealism and ideas of the glory of chivalry that we once did. Rather war is at best a tragic necessity and always a disaster. The Duke of Wellington once said, after a victory, “There is only one thing sadder than winning a battle…” But though war is always a disaster, and the Great War a Great Disaster, we can still think of human bravery and sacrifice.
The War changed everything – economically it consumed vast amounts of resources and left Europe impoverished for at least a generation, it precipitated social change, not least for women. The end of it led to new efforts at international co-operation – the League of Nations that became the United Nations – though these organisations have often seemed powerless, the world would be far worse without them. Also it’s worth reflecting on how the impoverishment and punitive crushing of Germany after the first War led to the tragedy of the rise of the Third Reich.
Actually I struggle with what sort of note to strike on this the Centenary of the start of the War. It’s not a celebration, or even the centenary of a celebration. It’s sort of a remembrance of a disaster, but much more than that. There was heroism and bravery, sacrifice and love that ought to be celebrated, or at least remembered. As with any Remembrance Day service it is about the lessons of history – if we don’t remember our history we are condemned to repeat it – but the history itself is far from straightforward. The Great War has been coloured by subsequent writings and events – not least the war poets, many of whom focussed on the horror and the carnage and what they saw as the futility of it all, and the war poets are entitled to their voice – they were there – but there’s was not the only view.
As we gather in church to remember today I would like us to reflect, not just on history, but to look at this centenary through the eyes of faith. We bring the enormity of those 4 years of War and what they meant for so many ordinary people, and we hold them before God 100 years on.
But what of God? Suffering and disaster are seen by many as evidence against the existence of a loving God. Many lost faith in the trenches – faith in God, faith in humanity – but many did not. In fact the Christian faith was quite a backdrop for a great many of the population. Every member of the British Armed Forces received a New Testament as a standard part of his kit, along with uniform, gun and boots. I read just a couple of days ago about a George Vinall, saved when a shrapnel bullet lodged in his Bible in his breast pocket. He must have had the Old Testament as well, as the verse where the bullet stopped, lodged in the page, was Isaiah 49:8, “I will preserve thee.” George went on to survive the War and became a Bible Translator in Japan. But so many were not preserved, and that challenged the faith of many.
I’d like to read to you about three different experiences of the War and of faith in relation to it. From Friday’s Church Times… William Gooderham – we forget the poverty of many in our own nation at that time – how wide the gap between the rich and poor was. The War threw classes that had been rigidly separated together in common humanity and shared suffering. Martin Neimoller & Howard Cruttenden Martin.
The War was a harsh environment for faith to exist in and it destroyed the faith of many, but was like a crucible, fashioning the faith of others. Mostly it became an occasion where love for God and love for neighbour could be lived out in life and death situations where that love mattered more than ever it did before.
But what lessons should take today? Well to think a bit about our Bible readings, I believe we must keep hold of the vision on Micah – of swords beaten into ploughshares – a vision of all the resources once used for destruction, used for human flourishing. It struck me recently hearing of Wars in Ukraine and Central Africa and Syria and Palestine and Iraq and so on and so on, where do all these militias – not professional national armies – get all their weapons from? Guns, bombs, rockets, tanks – they are costly – who makes them, who sells them? The answer is often, ‘We do.’ Somebody somewhere is getting wealthy off the backs of these wars. Isn’t there a way to cut off the supply of weapons? Yes, I know, they are certainly capable of committing atrocities with knives and clubs, but at least we’d cut down on the scale of the violence.
The God of the Bible hates war, even in the Old Testament. Psalm 46 says ‘the Lord makes wars to cease’ and he is pictured destroying the weapons of war of the psalmist’s day, a bit like a protester breaking into an airbase to vandalise a bomber. The words ‘Be still and know that I am God’ are usually thought of as being about prayer, and there is that element to them, but the words ‘be still’ are probably better translated, ‘stop fighting!’ It’s more like a yell to squabbling children. Stop fighting! And know that I am God. How the conflict in Israel and Palestine needs to hear that. Each side simply cries out, “They started it! It’s their fault!” like stupid children. ‘Stop fighting’, God says, and look at yourselves! Most of all look at me! If you look to God you will see that war is not glorious, but it is the consequence and occasion of sin – or the human tendency to muck things up because of our self-centredness and insistence on getting our own way, whatever the cost to others.
Our New Testament reading from 1 John 3 could also be taken as a plea to stop hating and fighting and love. It is that. Though there is also that element of, if we love, we ought to be willing to lay down our lives for our brothers. On that definition, there was a lot of love in the First World War – those who laid down their lives for their country, for the freedom of Europe, as they saw it, for their way of life, for their comrades in arms. It’s hard for us to imagine now, after the Great War changed everything, but faith was often not just a backdrop but a positive motivation for those who went to the War 100 years ago. Some, like the conscientious objectors disagreed, but I also read about Thomas Winter, who was a Sunday School teacher, who couldn’t bear to see the youngsters he had taught go to War alone, so he joined the YMCA aged 59 and he spent the War serving meals to soldiers and building huts, and used his Christian faith to comfort and strengthen the soldiers.
How do we today, 100 years on, bring our faith to bear on the lessons of history, and on the stories of real people, some of whom were known to us here? How do we make our faith as real today as they did then? How are we willing to work for the betterment of our world? What price would we pay? Are we willing to do something about the conflict in Gaza, the Christians in Iraq being driven from their homes, the arms being sold to those full of hatred? What could we do? Let’s seek to bring love to bear on this world. And pray that we too don’t fall into such a disaster as they did.