In the church calendar November is a sombre time of the year. Although it starts with a celebration on All Saints Day, we quickly move to remembering the departed on All Souls and then to Remembrance Sunday.
Over the years Remembrance Sunday has evolved from its original remit to honour the British forces who died during the two world wars. The poppy recalls the tragic loss of lives in Flanders, an area of Belgium where over 12 000 soldiers are buried and poppy sales raise funds for servicemen and women who were wounded in war, or for their dependents. Over the years the emphasis has gradually shifted from thinking only about the loss of British lives, and towards the determination to learn from lessons of the past and to commit ourselves to working for peace. But this year, for the first time since the second world war, a European country has been invaded by a neighbour. We had hoped that that would never happen again, and we are appalled at the loss of life, and the threat of the deployment of nuclear weapons that hangs over us.
Christian attitudes to war vary. Some Christians are pacificists and believe that violence is always wrong. Most believe there are circumstances when it is necessary to fight – in self-defence, or to prevent injustice. All believe that war is inherently bad, and that all other avenues should be explored before violence is used. Troops are genuinely there for defence – defence of civilians, of freedom and of justice. Revenge, war to acquire territory or resources, imposing political systems or defending the honour of the nation are never legitimate reasons to fight. War has a brutalising effect on those who kill, and armies have to be very well-trained and well-disciplined to prevent the soldiers from killing from anger or greed. Once taking human life has become legitimate, it is hard to keep the necessary restraints in place.
We can all, on Remembrance Sunday acknowledge the horrors of war, and vow to work for peace, reconciliation and justice wherever possible. We can acknowledge the sadness in the loss of (usually young) lives in conflicts everywhere, and to recognise the acts of bravery and sacrifice which happen in times of war, especially the ones that avert further bloodshed. We can pledge to support the casualties of war, military and civilians both. But we can never glorify the killing of other human beings.
Our service on November 13th will reflect these themes of remembering, war and peace, loss and self-giving. I hope it will help us all to bring our complex feelings and prayers to God, and to find the peace that only God can give.