remembrance

The Consequence of Violence

A reflection by the Rev. Alisdair Smith for Remembrance Sunday

Between the words that are spoken and the words that are heard, may there be peace.

The world outside of these walls has been very busy thinking about violence, acting on violence and even remembering violence this week. There is a sadness for me today that we remember those who died for our “freedom”, and yet so many are still not “free.” And I know there are many who wonder why would we “remember” war in church?

I also know deep in my soul that there are people here for whom Remembrance Day is a moving and profound way of recalling friends and family who died for what they believed. It is a time of recalling bravery, of doing what’s right, for laying down one’s life for a friend. This is especially true for the men and women in Canada’s military who served in Afghanistan, in Bosnia, Lebanon, Somalia and Cyprus, just to name a few of the conflicts in my generation.

We all have different ways of viewing Remembrance Day, and each one of them contains some truth. I choose to wear a red poppy. I respect and honour those who wear a white poppy, and those who choose not to wear either.

And so 100 years after Paschendale, what is it that we want to “remember” here as Christians. If we are called to love neighbour as self, if we are called to forgiveness, if we are called to peace, how then to do we best move forward on a weekend that “remembers” war?

I’d like to bring two thoughts together as a way through the sometimes tangled issues of Remembrance Day. To do that, I invite you first to just sit for a moment and hear these words:

“Does anyone know

where the love of God goes,

when the waves turn the minutes to hours.”[1]

You see, at some level, we all get that line. Now I may never have been on a sinking ship, nor in a fire fight, but I have been beside people I loved as they died. I have survived heartbreak. I have felt abandoned. I have been terrified. I have wondered where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours. And I’m fairly sure that each and every one of us here today/tonight have been there too. And there is a special terror, a special pain that comes out of experiencing first hand, war, whether you served and survived, or whether you have lived through the ominous sound of air raid sirens, yours is a terrible experience, known only by others with similar experience. It’s why organizations like the Veterans’ Transition Network, whose early sessions were here at CCC are so important.

We often measure violence in terms of physical wounds; something like 600,000 men were killed or wounded in both the German and Allied trenches in the 4.5 months of the battle of Paschendale. And we know now that to the brain, social pain is treated largely the same was as physical pain. To the brain, a broken heart is as painful and may be remembered long after the pain of a broken bone.[2]  There is great pain and suffering in the world, of many shapes and sizes, including state sanctioned violence like war. We have our own experiences of watching violent acts like terror in Sutherland Springs and Las Vegs play out on our screens. And there is also suffering and pain experienced when families ostracize children for being gay or trans. There is pain and suffering when people betray us, when people laugh at us, not with us, when the waves turn the minutes to hours. And no one, no one knows exactly what pain of any sort was like for you. Especially in those deep physical or psychic or spiritual wounds, no one can really know what it was like for you.

While we highlight the terrible experiences of the people who fought through war, there is a place in this space to which we can all relate. So as we reflect on Remembrance Day, I’d like you to keep this image in mind, and in your heart “does anyone know where the love of God goes, when the waves turn the minutes to hours.”

Here’s the second thought in moving through the tangled issues of Remembrance Day in church. You see, I think we’ve been misleading our selves with all this talk of “remembering.” The key is actually Remembrance, and that is different from remembering. There is a Greek word, that folks with collars learn in the first year of seminary. It is anamnesis. And the closest English word is “remembrance.” We hear a version of it every Sunday, in the Eucharistic Prayer, “do this in remembrance of me.” It is often linked with the ancient Hebrew word, zrk, a way of remembering that gives us insight into the present and the future, by making the past present.[3]

Zrk is a way of thinking about our reading from Micah this morning, where a beleaguered nation is very aware of the destruction and exile of their neighbours by the Assyrian Empire a few decades prior. The idea of zrk brings that terrible past forward to the present imagination for them and describes a hopeful future:

‘For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; [read the Assyrians] they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid…. (Micah 4:2-4)

In the Eucharistic Prayer, this powerful experience continues. We are called each Sunday to an act of Remembrance. We are called to remember, to bring forward the past into the present. We bring forward The Last Supper, and acts that recall a betrayal, acts that recall terror,  acts that recall injustice. We recall an act that calls out, “does anyone know where the love of God goes, when the waves turn the minutes to hours?” “ In Jesus’s words from the cross, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?!” (Matt 27:46 quoting Ps 22:1)

Each Sunday, we experience an act of anamnesis, an act of remembrance. We are called to remember that through those waves of terror, those waves of betrayal, of pain and suffering there is hope, there is resurrection, there is a way forward. We are called to remember that the love of God, in the midst of the waves, points to compassion, forgiveness, gratitude and love for and with each other. Amidst the waves of pain we are called to remember: 12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12.)

And it is this sense of zrk, this sense of anamnesis, that I believe Remembrance Day is really all about. We are to not simply remember, not simply give platitudes. We are not simply to stand silently and offer prayers, or think about what someone did to you at work yesterday, or whatever it is we do in those two minutes of silence.  We are to learn and make a better future. Pay attention to the guns as they fire each Remembrance Day, they are bringing the past forward, they are bringing the terror into our cities and towns. And those guns and the silence is calling you and I to learn from those mistakes. Those guns and the silence are calling us to bring the past present so that we might learn the consequence of violence, the consequence of retribution and revenge, the consequence of betrayal and fear.

And so in the places that God has given you responsibility what control do we have to prevent violence, prevent bullying, prevent fear from becoming the cultural norm? We have the power of modelling, of being people who care, who stand up for the victim, who are compassionate, and who hold each other accountable for not only results, but how we get those results. We have the power of instilling cultures of kindness and mutual respect in our families and workplaces. And in doing so, we are building communities of kindness and mutual respect, provinces and even countries where one day we might just be able to…

beat [our] swords into ploughshares,
and [our] spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall [we] learn war any more;
4 but [we] shall all sit under [our] own vines and under [our] own fig trees,
and no one shall make [us]  afraid; (Micah 4:3)

Amen


[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hgI8bta-7aw Gordon Lightfoot

[2] https://www.forbes.com/sites/nicolefisher/2015/12/25/rejection-and-physical-pain-are-the-same-to-your-brain/#64440a4c4f87 See also Matt Lieberman, Social, Broadway Books 2013, p. 39ff

[3] https://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionaries/bakers-evangelical-dictionary/remember-remembrance.html