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Sermon for Remembrance Sunday 2016 Micah 4:1-5

October 6, 2016

rs-2016neither shall they learn war any more  – words from our first lesson

In the name….

FIFA has made Remembrance controversial.

As well as remembering those who died in all wars, I use the two minutes silence on Remembrance Sunday to pray for peace. I suspect many others do too. So it comes as a surprise that there is an official line that urges otherwise.

The Royal British Legion is quite explicit that the purpose of the red poppy is to honour British military dead. Civilian dead don’t get a look in. What about stretcher bearers, killed as they rushed to save the lives of others?  Shouldn’t they be honoured on Remembrance Day?

No, says the Legion. From the “What we remember” link on the Royal British Legion’s website: “The Legion advocates a specific type of Remembrance connected to the British Armed Forces, those who were killed, those who fought with them and alongside them.” (It’s been removed after protests)

As the Legion would have it, the poppies they produce do not honour the innocent children killed in the bombing of (say) Coventry, let alone the equally innocent children killed in Dresden.

In 1926 it was suggested that the red poppies should have “no more war” inscribed in their centre.  The idea was rejected by the British Legion.  Instead, they in­scribed the words ‘Haig Fund’ . Douglas, the First Earl Haig, was the British military com­mander responsible for many of the tactics and military policies of the First World War.  By some he was dubbed ‘Butcher Haig’ as so many men died under his command.  He was also the com­mander who signed the death warrants of the many men exe­cuted by the Army for desertion or cowardice. Many of those men shot at dawn were suffering from shell shock, a condition known today as post-traumatic stress disorder

The slogan chosen by the Legion in 2011, its ninetieth year, was ‘shoulder to shoulder with all who serve’.  In choosing these words the organi­zation went beyond its prime remit, the welfare of ex-service personnel in need to support all in the military, irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the cause for which the politicians had sent them to fight.  Remembrance for them now is not just an act of dedication to peace but also a statement of support for the use of armed force.

Which may explain their links with the arms trade. In 2003 BAE Systems funded the Legion’s annual Remembrance events  but also sold weaponry to Saudi Arabia. Amnesty International has called Saudi Arabia “a major violator of human rights” . It lists  “no free speech”, discrimination against women, torture in police custody, and being “among the world’s top executions, many of them public beheadings”).  The Daily Telegraph noted, “a decision by British defence manufacturer BAE Systems to sponsor this year’s Poppy Day has been likened to ‘King Herod sponsoring a special day reserved to prevent child cruelty’”.

Last year, the British Legion’s annual ‘Poppy Rocks Ball’ was sponsored by Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest arms supplier.

Remembrance is big business.  On the main page of the Legion’s recently revamped website there are two main choices:  “donate” or “shop”.  There are thirty pages of “The Poppy Shop”, selling you everything from poppy ceramic stud earrings to poppy golfing umbrellas, poppy dog name tags, poppy iPhone covers, and “I Love Poppy” t-shirts.

Then there’s ‘Help for Heroes’. Sainsbury’s, Kleshna the Jewellers and Hovis sell sliced bread, chocolate and bling  in order to, in their words: “increase sales, build customer loyalty, retain or recruit customers, and differentiate their brand in a competitive marketplace”.

In 2013 it decided to use funds to subsidise expensive MOD buildings rather than for soldiers’ everyday care.

One veteran and former SAS soldier commented, “The use of the word ‘hero’ glorifies war and glosses over the ugly reality. War is nothing like a John Wayne movie. There is nothing heroic about being blown up in a vehicle, there is nothing heroic about being shot in an ambush and there is nothing heroic about the deaths of countless civilians.”

Words such as “hero” and “the fallen” effects our way of thinking about how soldiers do actually die, and why they die, and turns a possible revulsion and rejection of warfare into its mirror opposite: into a business that needs to be supported and glorified. Referring to all soldiers as “heroes” not only dramatically devalues the currency of actual bravery  (if everyone is a hero then effectively no one is), but also serves to conceal the reality of the nature of combat and death.

British veteran Henry Allingham recalled spending a night in a shell hole: “It stank. So did I when I fell into it. Arms and legs, dead rats, dead everything. Rotten flesh. Human guts. I couldn’t get a bath for three or four months afterwards.”

Harry Patch had lingering memories of the overpowering stench, a sickening mix of rotting corpses, latrines, unwashed bodies, and the creosote used to prevent infection. The only relief was in the sweeter smell of tobacco.

The stench of war is a dominant theme of many war memoirs. When the Germans marched west in 1914, a U.S. correspondent remarked: “the smell of a half-million unbathed men…..lay for days over every town through which the Germans passed.”

Then there was the eardrum-shattering noise of battle. At Passchendaele, Patch compared the artillery fire to “non-stop claps of thunder. It took your breath away. The noise was ferocious. You couldn’t hear the man next to you speaking.”

Repeated exposure to shellfire reduced strong men to quivering wrecks who would seek any means of escaping the situation, even if that meant risking charges of desertion and facing a firing squad. The Great and Holy War – Philip Jenkins

Another soldier: my scalp is covered in lice, and my armpits, too, and my crotch. Everywhere that they can nest and breed. It repulsed me once but now I think nothing of it. I am a charitable host and we live peacefully together, them feeding off my filthy skin, me occasionally plucking them away and ending them between the pincer-nails of thumb and forefinger……My body is not my own any more: the lice have offered joint tenancy to the rats and vermin, for whom I am a chew-toy. I console myself by thinking that this is their natural terrain, after all, and I am the intruder. When I wake now to find a parasite nibbling at my upper body, its nose and whiskers twitching as it considers an attack, I no longer jump about and shout but merely brush it away…

Also a vivid description of nearly missing being killed but of being next to someone who didn’t: He holds his cigarette in the air…, the red-flamed tip just visible above the parapet, and I gasp in horror.

‘Potter, your tab—’

He turns, notices what he’s doing, and I am im­mediately rendered blind by what feels like a bucket of hot mucus being chucked in my face. I spit and blink, retching against the side of the trench as I throw myself to the ground, wiping whatever filth this is away from my eyes, and look across to see Potter’s body lying at my feet, a great hole in his head from where the bullet entered, one eye com­pletely gone – somewhere on my person, The Absolutist – John Boyne


I still want to pray for peace; for all those working to support peacebuilding efforts in countries torn apart by conflict; those who work to rebuild communities, families and livelihoods. They are heroes too: heroes for today and tomorrow.  And to be thankful for those whose religious convictions provided some of the most powerful critiques of the war, for the stand of conscientious objectors.

As our first reading urged: may they beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; may nation not lift up sword against nation, nor learn war any more.


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