Over the course of the last few months, we’ve all had to deal with the many challenges that have arisen from the Covid-19 pandemic – at least, as best as we are able. There can be such a paradox in our humanity can’t there? We can be so fragile and delicate and somehow at the same time so strong and glorious. We often find moments of peace in the chaos. Moments of hope in despair. Even moments of our common humanity in war.
These past few months have given us space for reflection. We’ve all had to do that as we’ve learned to change and adapt to our circumstances. Despite the challenges, life somehow goes on.
This morning we’ve heard some testimony from a D-Day Veteran called Ted Owens (who was aged 94 in 2019) as he travelled through Europe sharing some of his memories and experiences. Ted went off to war when he was aged about 18. He was only 19 when he landed on Sword Beach on June 6, 1944. Sword Beach, was the code name given to one of the five main landing areas along the Normandy coast during the initial assault phase, Operation Neptune, of Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of German-occupied France.
You can watch some interviews with Ted here:
It’s good I think to hear such testimony. The expression we hear a lot around Remembrance Sunday is “Lest we forget!” These stories need to be told and retold, afresh to a new generation. We need to constantly be reminded of our common humanity and explore where God is in the midst of that.
There is a very famous war story that you are probably familiar with. I wanted to share it with you now. The story is called “Christmas Spirit doesn’t last”:
Christmas Spirit Doesn’t Last
There’s a problem with the Christmas spirit. Have you noticed how it passes?
One of the most striking illustrations of this comes from a story told to me many years ago by an old German man. He fought with the German forces in the First World War. For our benefit let me remind you that in those days warfare was not high tech but hand-to-hand trench warfare. Soldiers lived, fought, and died in trenches full of mud and blood and vermin. In those trenches, dug in the fields of France, enemies could actually hear each other talking. They didn’t need satellites to locate the enemy. The enemy was just over there.
This old gentleman told me how on one cold, moonlit Christmas Eve, he huddled in the bottom of the trench. Because of the annual Christmas truce, the fighting had stopped. Suddenly, from the British trenches a loud, sweet tenor voice began to sing “The Lord Is My Shepherd,” and the sound floated up into the clear, moonlit air.
Then he said something surprising: from the German trenches, a rich baritone voice tuned in, singing “Der Herr Ist Mein Hirte.” For a few moments, everybody in both trenches concentrated on the sound of these two invisible singers and the beautiful music and the harmony. The British soldier and the German soldier sang praise to the Lord who was their shepherd. The singing stopped, and the sound slowly died away.
“We huddled in the bottom of our trenches and tried to keep warm until Christmas Day dawned,” he said. “Early on Christmas morning, some of the British soldiers climbed out of their trenches into the no man’s land, carrying a football. A football!!”
One soldier carried a round football (a real football where the foot is applied to the ball!). (You need to understand that whenever the British go anywhere, they always take two things with them: their teapots and their footballs.) These English soldiers started kicking around a football, in a pickup game in no man’s land, between the trenches.
Then the old man said, “Some of the German soldiers climbed out, and England played Germany at football in no man’s land on Christmas Day in the middle of the battlefield in France in the first World War.” (England won.)
Then he said, “The next morning, the carnage began again, with machine guns and bayonet fighting. Everything was back to normal.”
—Stuart Briscoe, “Christmas 365 Days a Year,” Preaching Today, Tape No. 135.
The ethical arguments in support of war are extraordinarily complex. Not surprisingly the Geneva Conventions (which are four separate treaties, and three additional protocols) were developed to establish the standards of international law for humanitarian treatment in war. In addition, you may have heard of Just War theory which has been around for centuries. Just war theory (Latin: jus bellum justum) is a doctrine, also referred to as a tradition, of military ethics studied by military leaders, theologians, ethicists and policy makers. The purpose of the doctrine is to ensure war is morally justifiable through a series of criteria, all of which must be met for a war to be considered just. The criteria are split into two groups: “right to go to war” (jus ad bellum) and “right conduct in war” (jus in bello). The first concerns the morality of going to war, and the second the moral conduct within war. Recently there have been calls for the inclusion of a third category of just war theory—jus post bellum—dealing with the morality of post-war settlement and reconstruction.
Just war theory postulates that war, while terrible (but less so with the right conduct), is not always the worst option. Important responsibilities, undesirable outcomes, or preventable atrocities may justify war. Or as one commentator said “War can only be a desperate remedy in a desperate situation, used in order to spare humanity a still greater evil when all essentially reasonable and peaceful means have proved ineffective.”
William Temple said “We (Christians at war) are called to the hardest of all tasks; to fight without hatred, to resist without bitterness, and in the end, if God grant it so, to triumph without vindictiveness.”
Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) said “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the houses of its children. This is not a way of life…. Under the cloud of war, it is humanity hanging itself on a cross of iron.”
Charles Sumner (1811-1874) said “Give me the money that has been spent in war, and I will clothe every man, woman, and child in an attire of which kings and queens would be proud. I will build a schoolhouse in every valley over the whole earth. I will crown every hillside with a place of worship consecrated to the gospel of peace. I will support in every pulpit an able teacher of righteousness so that on every Sabbath morning the chime on one hill should answer to the chime on another round the earth’s wide circumference; and the voice of prayer and the song of praise should ascend like an universal holocaust to heaven…”
It seems to me that in a broken world, war is almost inevitable. But the Bible also says blessed are the peacemakers. As Christians, we are reminded that God is indeed our refuge and strength, and an ever-present help in trouble. God is in control, even when Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts. God can make wars cease to the ends of the earth. He can break the bow and shatters the spear; he can burn the shields with fire. The Church as the Body of Christ has a role in that. Through our witness, our prayers and our action we can hope to show people a better way, God’s way. We can pray that nations will indeed beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, that nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. That is only possible if we allow God to speak into our common humanity and choose to walk in the light of the LORD.
In our remembering, let us not forget the covenants God has made with his people. A covenant in which bow and sword and battle will be abolished from the land, so that all may lie down in safety. Let’s pray that God will show his love to the one he called ‘Not my loved one.’ That he will say to those called ‘Not my people, ’ ‘You are my people’; and in the last they will say, ‘You are my God.’” Amen