Remembrance Sunday - Honouring those who have died

When I was a small boy in the 1930s the First World War was never far from my mind. I knew that my father, a gunner in the Canadian Horse artillery, had been gassed, and then lost most of his leg in a shell burst when he was only 18.

So Armistice Day, November 11 th, was solemnly observed.  All of busy London came to a standstill at 11am.  People stood in silence. The guns boomed far away in Hyde Park.  Some people cried.  We were honouring those who had died.

The Second World War produced its own frightening memories.  Hiding in a ditch on Hampstead Heath after the engine of a flying bomb cut out.  Waiting and waiting for it to explode… somewhere else.  Please God, not on me.

A brief spell in the middle of the Nigerian civil war in 1969 gave me my most life- changing wartime experience.  I saw then what an indiscriminate weapon starvation is:  it killed over a million people.  It was an international war, and almost certainly an oil war as well.  The bombers overhead were Soviet.  The armoured cars and machine guns that made the  blockade possible came from Britain.  The French and the South Africans provided such few weapons as the Biafran secessionists had.

I was so proud of my Church.  When the Red Cross would no longer fly food missions when one of their planes was shot down, the Joint Church airlift carried on.  Human need took priority over national sovereignty.  Often since, I have wondered why nationality is so important to us as Christians.   We are above all one people under God-  equal members of his family.

Pope after Pope, from John XXIII onwards, has told us that war is no answer to conflict.  It creates rather than solves problems.  Wars are not inevitable despite a culture that makes them seem so.  Our challenge is to build a world in which war has no place because there are other ways of resolving disputes.

That is what the world tried to do in 1945 when the United Nations Charter was signed. The first purpose of the UN is to ‘save succeeding generations from the scourge of war’.  The Charter is not a pacifist document.  It accepts that there may be rare cases where united military action may be needed.  But before military action can ever be legitimate every nonviolent way of resolving issues has to have been tried and found wanting.

Unhappily some of the major powers, ours amongst them, have turned the UN into a machinery for making war legitimate instead of a scourge to be avoided.

We do not settle our parking differences by shooting the neighbour who pinches our space.  We wouldn’t threaten to blow up the houses of muggers even if we knew who they were.  We would be thought mad if we spent so much of the family income on locks and lights and alarms that we could not feed our children.  But that is exactly what we do globally.

The bill for world military expenditure is now about one and a half trillion dollars.  A trillion is a thousand billion and a billion is a thousand million.  We could meet all the Millennium Development Goals – reducing poverty, ending hunger, provision of education, maternal health care and environmental sustainability -five times over if we redirected  a large chunk of this military expenditure to  meet real human needs.

That is why Remembrance Sunday is a time both to honour those who have died in war and to respond to the call that must come from every military grave.  ‘If you want to honour us, build a world in which war belongs to the past, not the present or future.’

It can be done. Germany, France and Britain will never fight again thanks to the European Union. Peace ,at least in Europe, is the EUs greatest success story. The United States and Canada, will never fight again.  Nor will Sweden and Norway.  Nor will England and Scotland. Costa Rica and ten other states no longer even have an army.

In practical terms where to start?  Perhaps , by  working with Pax Christi and the Campaign against the Arms Trade, to stop the sale of weapons to other countries.  This clearly is a major moral issue.  Perhaps by understanding other people’s sense of injustice.   Perhaps we could start also with a bit of honesty.  We tell other countries that they can’t have nuclear weapons while we are on the edge of spending anything up to £100 billion on new ones for ourselves.  Perhaps by challenging a war-fixated media entertainment industry. There is lots to do.

The end of war: an impossible dream?  That’s what they said about ending slavery and getting the vote for women.  Let’s honour the dead of war by working to end it.

10 Oct 2011

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