It would be inappropriate to say that I enjoy this service, each year. How can one enjoy the necessity of remembering all those who have given their lives for us? But I do confess to gaining a certain satisfaction from our annual gathering.
Why? Because this is one time in the year when we lay aside our politics, our arguments about the Havant Regeneration Plan, or Brexit, or any number of other contentious issues – and we come together, as a community, to say ‘thank you’ to the Fallen.
It is a strange irony that War, and its effects, has a way of bringing communities together. United against a common foe, or united in grief and commemoration, something about war – its scale, its sheer horror, enables us to lay aside our petty differences, our political, theological and philosophical struggles – and to come together. It is sometimes only during war that the very worst – and the very best – of humanity gets seen. We all know about the very worst, of course. The awful machines of war – the tanks, and the machine guns which can mow down a whole platoon in seconds.
But the best of humanity can also be seen. Human ingenuity. The coming together of communities like the East End of London during the Blitz. Great art, poetry and music. Leaps in medical knowledge. The common endeavour of capitalists and socialists, monarchists and republicans, black and white, Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh (for all of them fought with the Allies in the Great War). And, perhaps above all, the best of humanity is shown by the willingness of human beings to lay down their lives for their families and communities.
When you think about it, that’s an extraordinary thing to do. In what other circumstance would you, or me, be prepared to give up our life for another? Let’s say, for example, that you learned today of a neighbour who was dying of a serious heart condition. But then you learn that this neighbour’s life could be saved, if you (or me) were willing to give them our own heart – but only by dying first. Which of us would be willing? Who would raise their hand and say ‘take my heart!’?
And yet War has a capacity to provoke that kind of reaction in us. There are of course countless stories of senseless slaughter, of troops sent ‘over the top’ by intimidation and the threat of the firing squad. That’s some of the worst of humanity at work – powerful people sending others to almost certain death. But there are similarly countless stories of men – and women – who have undertaken suicide missions…actions which they know will lead to their death, and which they do not shy away from. The best of humanity at work.
War, then, is the ultimate canvass on which to paint the very worst and very best of humanity. It is perhaps why war is so deeply embedded in the human condition, and reflected throughout all the great religious scriptures of the world. Our wars reflect the cosmic battle between good and evil. The battle between light and dark, fought out all around us in space. The battle between growth and decay – between the gravity that binds, and the entropy which destroys. The battle, if you will, between God and the Devil.
For Christians, this battle was supremely fought in the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. Demonstrating that greatest trait of humanity – the willingness to lay one’s life down for one’s friends - Jesus volunteered for the suicide mission of the Cross. He knew what the result of going to Jerusalem would be. He warned his followers, in advance, that he would be taken by the elite political powers of the day. And he knew what they would do to him. And yet, he stepped forward. He allowed the very worst that human beings can do to each other to overwhelm him…and then, and then, the power of his sacrifice over-came all that death and suffering. By rising from the dead, he demonstrated that the very best instincts of humanity CAN overcome the very worst.
Jesus announced the coming of a new kind of world – or as he called it, a new kind of ‘Kingdom’. It was a world in which the greatest traits of humanity would not just be shown in the crucible of War – but in everyday life. He called his followers to lives of sacrifice for others…not just on the battle-field any longer, but in everyday living. He called his followers to be prepared to pour out their lives for others, just as he had done.
And what was the result? The flowering of the best of humanity, flowing from the heart of God. The Christian church – like all the great religions, became the home of charity. Great universities of learning, advances in medical science, superlative art – music, poetry, drama. And the very principle of giving, sacrificially to others – all these flowed from the example of Jesus.
Of course, it was not always rosy. The cosmic battle between good and evil was fought, and continues to be fought, in the crucible of the church as much as in the rest of the world. Powerful men gained control of the levers of power, and corrupted the teachings of the Founder. Power was mis-used to dominate, to fight, to tear down – to even burn each other at the stake. Because that’s what we human beings do. We relish the battle. War is found at our core. Religion became not the anti-dote to war, but sometimes the cause of it.
Does that mean that we should have nothing to do with religion, anymore? Of course not. We do not judge a religion by the stupidity of its followers. We judge it by the teachings of its Founder. And in the case of Christianity, the Founder said this:
“Love God, and love your neighbour as yourself”
“No-man has greater love than to lay down his life for his friends”
“The Kingdom of heaven is among you”
So, today we give thanks for the sacrifices of the past, sometimes compelled by conscription and fears but often offered willingly. And we find that we too are called to demonstrate the very best traits of humanity. We too are called to lives of sacrifice for others. We too are called to be prepared to lay down our preferences, our prejudices, our wealth, our abilities and, yes, even our lives in the service of all humanity.
For that is the example set for us by the Fallen, and the call of the God who sacrificed everything for us.