Sunday, 14 November 2010

Remembrance Sunday

Micah 4.1-4, Matthew 5.1-16

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Coventry. On the 14th November 1940 more than 600 people were killed in one night of bombing, thousands of homes were flattened, and the medieval cathedral was almost entirely destroyed. Wave after wave of bombers came over. For hours and hours there was no reprieve. There was no water to fight the fires, and very little that could be done for those in the worst hit parts of the city.
Many British cities suffered in the same way – Liverpool, Hull, Plymouth, London, Sheffield, Southampton and many others. Even my own home town of Exeter was bombed in what were called the Baedecker raids on towns identified in the Baedecker tourist guides as being particularly beautiful or historic.
The bombing wasn’t one sided, of course. British bombers carried out equally devastating raids on German cities – Berlin, Dresden, Cologne and many others – and I am sure that the people underneath the bombs felt the same terror no matter which side they were on.

Aerial warfare like this wasn’t absolutely new. There had been Zeppelin raids in the First World War, but not on anything like this scale, or with anything like the same destructive effect. In that earlier conflict people at home could still think of war as something which was fought by servicemen on battlefields “over there” on foreign territory. But in the Second World War anyone could be killed without going anywhere near the front line. In a sense war “came home“ to British civilians – literally and psychologically – in a new way.

I’ve been reading a book recently[i] which gathered together diary entries from the Mass Observation project, a project which invited volunteers to keep a record – a diary – of their everyday activities, their thoughts and conversations. It was one of the first attempts seriously to study the lives of ordinary people. It started in peacetime, but when war began, of course, these diaries took on a new importance. They were a window which revealed the way people experienced war on the home front. I am sure that those of you who lived through that time yourselves would recognise the experiences recorded there and be able to add your own stories too. What comes across most powerfully in the diary entries is the way in which war very quickly affected almost every aspect of people’s lives. There were the air raids of course, the terrifying nights spent in the shelters, not knowing what you would face when the all clear sounded. But there was everything that went with them too. The blackout, the fire-watching, being an evacuee or taking in evacuees, the exhaustion brought on by endless disturbed nights. Then there were the other day to day impacts of war, the sheer dreariness of rationing, the queues for everything, the hard work of having to make do and mend, inventing ways around the shortages of everyday items. And on top of all that the numbing anxiety about family members in the forces, and the uncertainty about how, when, whether it would all end. Of course there were bright moments – there were demonstrations of courage, a sense of community, and for some, especially women, new opportunities for work and independence which changed their lives, but none of that cancels out the misery, fear, grief and waste which many of the Mass Observation diarists clearly felt.

One of them had been listening on the radio to a broadcast of messages from separated families overseas and she commented to her diary “it made me realise that if only the heartache in every land could be piled into a visible heap war would stop at once”.

Perhaps that was an optimistic view – maybe it wouldn’t be that simple – but I think she was onto something. If we could truly see the scale of the pain which war produces – that great heap of individual, private sufferings – it would surely be much harder to contemplate adding to it. If we could feel the sorrow of others as keenly as we feel our own we would surely work far harder to bring it to an end. When war “came home” to that diarist, when she saw, in that moment, the extent of the sufferings it imposed – person by person, family by family - she could never think of it in the same way again.

Part of what we are doing on Remembrance Sunday is that we are letting war “come home” to us in the same way, holding silence, standing still in the midst of our busy lives so that we can see, for a few minutes at least, its reality. There are some, of course, for whom it is already far too real, who can’t get away from its impacts even if they try; those who are serving in the armed forces, or have family members who are serving, those who live with the physical and emotional scars of wars past or present, whom organisations like the British Legion exist to support, those who have been affected by terrorism, like the people currently testifying at the 7/7 inquest, and those who are refugees from war – there are 43 million displaced people in the world today, the majority of them are fleeing from conflict. For all these people, war is a constant presence, unforgettable.

But for many of the rest of us, most of the time, war is something that happens at a distance, which can seem to have nothing very directly to do with us. We see it on our TV screens. We read about it in the newspaper, but it is easy to change channels or turn the page. We have the luxury of being able to forget, which is why it is all the more important that we should very deliberately remember. We need to let war “come home” to us for the sake of all those for who can’t escape it, so that they can receive the help they need, but also because if war doesn’t “come home” to us, then peace is unlikely to “come home” to us either. If we can’t bear to look steadily at that heap of heartache, we will never be able to dismantle it. It is as we grieve with those who grieve that we really begin to ask ourselves where all this suffering starts from and how it can be brought to an end. We begin to see how our own lives, our own actions, our own words can stir up intolerance and hatred, or sow the seeds of peace.

Both the readings we heard today emphasize the importance of those small things, the seeds of peace, and war, sown through individual acts in real lives. Micah’s vision of peace, written after he and his people had been deported to Babylon, culminates not in a grand scene of conquest and glory, but in an almost ludicrously small scale image. What will it be like when all is set right? It will be a time when “they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.” True peace – peace that is real, that has “come home” - is about being able enjoy the fruits of your labours in your own backyard, without the fear that some invading army will take them away, or force you to abandon them, or wrench you away into exile. It may not sound very dramatic, but in the end this is the peace that really matters, the peace which affects the nitty gritty reality of life.

In our second reading, from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus talks to a crowd of people who also knew trouble first hand. They lived under Roman occupation, which was often brutally enforced. There was constant political upheaval. Revolution simmered under the surface. Jesus could have called this crowd to form an army, whipped them up against an enemy “out there”. But he doesn’t. Instead he focuses on what is going on in their own hearts and lives, what is going on “at home” in the centre of each one of them, because he knows that this is where wars begin and where peace can begin too, if we will let it.

The people he is talking to – ordinary people - may feel small - poor in spirit, battered down, mourning, worthless – that is the reality of living in troubled times. But their lives do matter in the grand scheme of things. If they can learn to live with compassion and integrity then God can work within them to build his kingdom.
They may look at themselves and think, “What difference can I make – I’m no more than a guttering candle in a very great darkness?” But Jesus tells them that the light they have within them is the light of the world, light that is vital, light that can change everything, if they will only let it shine where they are – in their homes, in their villages, in their daily, ordinary lives.

Of course, war is not simple. There is no easy solution to it. But that doesn’t mean that there is nothing we can do about it, that we should leave it to politicians, diplomats, generals, experts in international affairs, to sort out. The truth is that if ordinary people like us don’t think about war, care about its impact, and do what we can to counter the conditions which give rise to it, then the peace that we long for – ordinary peace, the kind that lets people sit under their vines and fig trees – will never be a reality. Right where we are, in our everyday, undramatic lives, we are called to play a part in building God’s kingdom of peace, through the words we speak to one another, the care we take of one another, our willingness to put aside suspicion and hatred and take the risk of loving those around us and working for their good.

Today we remember. We remember those who have been crushed under the heap of heartache that is war, and those who are being crushed under it still. We allow the reality of war to come home to us, so that peace can come home to us too and take root in our lives. And as we do that, the promise of God is that the tiny lights which our small acts represent become a great light that no darkness can put out.

[i] Our Longest Days by Sandra Koa Wing.

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