An old theology professor of mine used to tell us that one of his goals with our classes was to help us to learn to “think Christianly.” He wanted us to develop a habit of mind that would help us to see all of life through Christian eyes.
This task affects all of life. We need to be able to think Christianly about the way we raise our children, the way we interact in marriage, the way we live as neighbours, the way we go to work, and so on. But there are also moments, certain times in life when we do well to pause to consider how we see them as Christians.
Remembrance Day is one of the times when it’s useful for us to ask these questions. It’s a day of solemn ceremony and great cultural importance. We live in a land deeply affected by the memory of war and especially of the two World Wars. The question is whether we have allowed our thinking about this day to be as rounded and nuanced—as fully Christian—as it should be.
The Stories of Remembrance Day
Remembrance Day is not only a day of ceremony. It’s a day of storytelling. When people lay wreaths at a cenotaph service, and when names are read aloud, they are telling stories about their loved ones’ histories. When we stop for a time of silence at 11:00 am on November 11, we are telling a story about something that happened a hundred years ago. The stories may be abbreviated, or even unspoken, but they are there.
Two fairly simple stories are routinely told on Remembrance Day. The first story is that soldiers fought and died in service of our freedom and that whatever is good and free about our world is largely owing to their service. The second story is that we as Canadians have our freedom largely because of those who have served in our nation’s military.
Underlying these two stories is another story, a deeply affecting story, a story of ordinary people who were willing to set aside their ordinary lives in order to serve something bigger than their individual aims. As a result of that willingness many of them did not come back from the wars they fought.
This complex of simple but powerful stories weaves its way into our hearts and minds from an early age and it becomes a part of who we are as a people. It’s so much a part of our cultural heritage that it’s easy for Christians simply to accept the stories without asking any questions about their truthfulness or adequacy.
But if we are to “think Christianly” we have to ask these questions. This is a big part of what it means to be witnesses of Jesus, actually: we live with and listen to the world’s account of itself, and bear witness to a truth greater than the world alone and especially to a Person and a Kingdom greater than those we know in the world.
Questioning the Stories
When we hear the story of the world’s freedom, we must recognize a couple of things: first, that even if war might serve to hold back a negative thing, it has never been able to produce a positive thing. War, by definition, subtracts and diminishes. It doesn’t produce goods of its own. Second, and proof of the first, we must remember the tremendous amount of damage that has been done in war, unthinkably tragic things. So we need to tell a counter-story in response to this story of the world’s freedom: the work of giving us freedom, the work of producing peace, belongs to God alone and is the way of his Kingdom, which came to us in Jesus Christ. His death on the cross produced something hardly imaginable to those who witnessed it and still quite impossible for us to see apart from faith: reconciliation with God and the redemption of the world.
The second story, the story of our nation’s freedom, also calls for us to respond with another story: Christians belong to and participate in a Kingdom that is bigger than any nation. We proclaim a Gospel that reaches out to “every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9). God’s promise to Abraham was that “all the nations of the earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3). It’s not, then, so much about whether this second story is true or untrue (it is possible for a country’s military to guard its people to a certain extent, and this is a kind of freedom) as whether it is adequate for Christians to think in terms of their own countries, when God is concerned about all of the nations of the world. We may live with the blessing of a relatively safe and secure country, and we should be grateful for all that this means, but as Christians we must recognize that the Kingdom of God is primary.
The final story of Remembrance Day, the one that underlies the others, is in some ways the most powerful one of all. This is the story of the ordinary people who gave up their individual goals and plans to go to war. Some of these people lost their lives. Some of them kept their lives but suffered (or still suffer) greatly with physical or emotional wounds after their return.
This is not a story that needs to be suppressed but rather expanded so that it isn’t so simply referred to in the heroic terms often used at Remembrance Day. As time has gone on and wars have continued to be waged, we have only become more aware of the scars that war leaves with its participant-victims. We talk about PTSD a lot these days, but generations before us also knew of fathers and husbands who returned from battle keeping deep silence about their experience, waking with nightmares or sitting sleepless through long nights, further losing themselves to alcohol or drugs or other numbing but destructive forces. Some of this suffering among ordinary men and women who fought is what we might call innocent suffering, but some of it is tied as well to the guilt that inevitably accompanies living as fallen human beings in the battlefield setting. Christians must realize that Remembrance Day is also a reminder of human sin, without which there would be no war at all, and which itself is only amplified in a time of war.
Christian Commemoration of Remembrance Day
What might the Christian best do with Remembrance Day? In terms of those first two stories—of the world’s freedom and our nation’s freedom—we are called to bear witness to a larger and truer story, the past story of what happened in Jesus and the future story of its ultimate fulfillment, the day when God will turn “swords into plowshares” and “spears into pruning hooks” (Isaiah 2:4). These metaphors point to God’s promise to replace the instruments of subtraction and destruction with those of flourishing and wholeness.
How do we bear this witness on Remembrance Day? One crucial way is to take note that this day, November 11, is the anniversary of a wonderful thing: the end of a war. In our day, we live with the persistent background noise of the wars around the world—the war in Afghanistan has been going consistently for over seventeen years now, to name just one example—and we may have forgotten even to think a war could come to a decisive end. The armistice of November 11 was rightly celebrated, and rightly turned into a holiday by King George V on its first anniversary. War was over.
However, as we know all too well, the “war to end all wars” did not live up to people’s hopes. It became, to quote Margaret MacMillan’s book title, “the war that ended peace.” Our commemoration of “the end of war” on November 11, then, must look forward rather than backward. We must look to the true end of war that God has promised to bring one day, and to the peace that will be brought not by any war but only by the God who turns “swords into plowshares” and “spears into pruning hooks.”
The other thing we must do with Remembrance Day is to remember the ordinary people affected by war, both the soldiers who still suffer its injuries and the many people of all the world’s nations (whether on “our side” or not) who have suffered its effects. Our remembrance, though, must take on the form Jesus indicated when he said “Blessed are those who mourn.” Our remembrance is based on faith in God’s true intentions for the world he loves and therefore primarily takes the form of lament. We must lament war, no matter whether we believe that war is always contrary to God’s plans (as the Gospel pacifist believes) or that it is a regrettable necessity in a broken world (as the proponent of just war holds). We must lament war’s endlessness. We must lament the sin that produces war. We must lament the sin that combatants are involved in when they go to war and whose memory they bring home with them.
When Remembrance Day lands on a Sunday, we are especially able to do something with this lament. We turn it into corporate prayer, the prayer of the people who believe God’s promises. We pray about all of these things that we lament. We bear witness to a counter-story on Remembrance Day, the peace that God will bring and the life of the Kingdom in which we gladly, by the Spirit, already participate.