Editors Note: "Each year, Remembrance Sunday calls for balanced acts of worship and remembrance – recalling the bravery and sacrifice of ordinary people alongside the horror and waste of war, and trying to represent the variety of positions towards war and pacifism held by the Christian faith. This year marks the 70th anniversary of WW2 and the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain and with that brings the question: "What are we remembering?"
So to stimulate debate and discussion – not least as an aid to preparations for services on November 14th, we publish a sermon by Tim Dean, preached on Remembrance Sunday last year for the civic service in the parish of Godalming."
Why Do We Remember?
Remembrance Sunday Sermon
November 8th, 2009
by Tim Dean
It’s Remembrance Sunday, and of course we gather to remember. But what do we remember? Who do we remember? Why do we remember?
Each year at Remembrance ceremonies, the country marks out an event from our past for particular attention. This year our attention has been drawn to World War 2 and D-Day, the Allied invasion of France, and the Battle for Normandy.
It was a truly extraordinary event. The largest ever seaborne invasion in human history, with hundreds of thousands of service personnel engaged in the multinational campaign to liberate Europe from one of the most appalling and horrendous tyrannies the world has ever known. That was 65 years ago.
Today, our country is still engaged in military action in Iraq and Afghanistan. And sadly we still count our dead, and count them one by one. Bodies are recovered from the field and flown back home to the UK. They are named in News bulletins and in national newspapers, the people of Wooton Bassett line up along the streets as a mark of respect as the hearses go by, one by one. I am grateful we can acknowledge them individually. All their pictures appear in the national newspapers, and periodically a newspaper will publish in one edition the photos of all who have died in the present conflict.
How things have changed. In World War One, in the four and half months of the Battle of the Somme, around 420,000 British & Commonwealth soldiers died – and that’s before you count the hundreds of thousands of French and Germans who died. You couldn’t even start to put their names in a single newspaper, and just to read out their names in a radio or TV news bulletin would mean the bulletin would have to last day, after day, after day. The sheer overwhelming volume of dead – beggar’s belief. We remember them. But what a waste.
World War 1 Was supposed to be the ‘war to end all wars’, but twenty years later humanity was involved in another horrific conflagration – the Second World War, and even a new concept in warfare: Total War. In WW1, warfare was largely confined to the front lines of opposing armies, by the Second World War anywhere could be the ‘front line’ with the wholesale devastation from the air of towns and cities and their civilian populations – people in their homes, in the workplace, people at rest and play. Women and children joined the war dead en masse, on all sides of the conflict. We remember them.
D-Day in June 1944 reminds us of all the contradictions and confusions that war inevitably involves.
So let’s remember one particular group who took part in the battle for Normandy:
John Hayesof the 6th Airborne Division involved in the glider assault on Pegasus Bridge. Ken Adam an RAF fighter pilot involved in ground support operations
And two Commandos: George MacFranklynkilled on D-Day; and Ian Harriswho fought at the River Orne and awarded the Military Medal.
They all have one thing in common. Perhaps an incident in the life of William Howardwill give you a clue. He was in Naval Intelligence and assigned to a Cruiser for the D-Day invasion. He was summoned to see the ship’s Captain, who asked Howard
‘What do your duties consist of?’
‘Intercepting enemy radio transmissions in combat zones, Sir.’
‘So you are fluent in German?’
‘Aye, Aye, Sir.’
‘Where did you learn the language?’
‘At school, Sir’
‘Where was that?’
‘In Germany, Sir.’
‘But you are British?’
Perhaps I ought to read those six names again:
Wolfgang Wachsman, Airborne Division;the Commandos Eugen Kagerer-Steinand Hans HajosMM; Klaus AdamRAF and Horst Adolf Herzbergof Royal Naval Intelligence. And I could add to that list, ten thousand times – German and Austrian citizens who fought, not just for this country, but both for and against their own. They were known collectively as ‘His Majesty’s Loyal Enemy Aliens’.
I was born just after the War’s end – but the war cast its long shadow over my early childhood. My understanding was very simple. We British were the good guys, Germans were evil. But as you see, there are at least ten thousand reasons why my childlike understanding doesn’t quite fit.
And I have learnt to remember with gratitude, all those died and fought – not just those citizens of these British Isles, but the Herzbergs, the Cohens and Goldbergs, the Patels, the Singhs, the Husseins and Khans, and people of many nations. And not just the Christians, but Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, and people of many faiths and none.
Who do we remember? They all fought to bring liberation to a subjugated people: and did so at very great cost.
On D-Day itself, on the bloodiest landing beach – Omaha – 1,500 US troops were killed. And as we remember them there is another group who we must remember too. Twice that number of French civilians died on D-Day as the result of Allied actions. Such is the appalling nature of war, so great its cost, that with perverse and tragic irony, bringing liberation to the people of France involved the deaths of the very people we sought to liberate.
Almost 20,000 French civilians died through allied actions in the Battle for Normandy. No wonder the French say that ‘Normandy paid the price for the Liberation of France’. We remember them. At times, war may be necessary, it may be right to fight – but it is never good.
So why do we remember?
Well, Christians are well used to remembering. Every week in churches such as this, we remember the one person who died for us all. We remember Jesus, not just to dwell in the past, not just in sorrow – though certainly grief and sorrow is part of it: but more importantly we remember that our response to love God shows us in the death of Christ, is to be reinvigorated for the future, for the tasks of changing our lives, our community and our world, by transforming it for the better.
In our Bible reading we heard the vision of God’s ancient prophet Micah1, when he gave us one of God’s pictures of hope for the future: that we should learn the ways of God, and when we do, then nations will turn weapons of war into agricultural tools – a picture the tools of destruction being transformed – to produce life-giving abundance. A place where justice reigns for all people, where no-one will need to learn the arts and sciences of war, where all will live in peace and no-one will fear anyone else.
The Christian understanding of ‘peace’ is more than the avoidance or war, more than the absence of conflict. It is about building relations between people, between communities, between nations, which positively and constructively creates a love and care for others founded on justice for all. Just as the people of Coventry did after World War 2, when led by its Cathedral it acknowledged the devastation our country brought to cities like Dresden, and worked to build a new relationship of peace.2
For as we remember the sacrifice of the many who died on D-Day and in the battle for Normandy, let not the enduring tragedy of lost lives, and the experiences and traumas of those who survived, be in vain. We need to build relationships of peace and justice in our world, starting right here in our community.
And for that we will always needs God’s help – to change each and every one of us, into people who have a passion for peace and justice, and a care and love for everyone. To follow Jesus’ example: to love God and love our neighbour as ourselves.
1] Micah 4.1-4
2] Coventry Cathedral’s ‘Litany of Reconciliation’ had been used earlier in the service.
Tim Dean is the continuing Ministerial Development Officer for Norwich diocese, and Director of the World Media Trust. In a voluntary capacity Tim is Executive Secretary of First Step Forum (an international network of Members of Parliaments; former Prime Ministers, Foreign Affairs Ministers, and Ambassadors; and others engaged in private, independent diplomacy for religious freedom and human rights). He is also a senior associate of the Washington based Institute for Global Engagement – a ‘think-tank with legs’, created to develop sustainable environments for religious freedom worldwide. He was formerly a Commissioning Editor for the BBC World Service’s English network, and before that editor of Third Way.