Dear Friends …
A few weeks back I read a story in the paper advising that the Royal British Legion, for the first time (as far as I can tell), wish to expand the significance of the red poppy to include not only the soldiers we have lost through the wars of the past century, but also the civilians who have died in war, and those who have died as a result of terrorism. This strikes me as not only the right thing to do, but a very sensible move, as well.
In the first instance, the means of warfare have changed greatly since at least the 1960s in Viet Nam and certainly since the attacks of 11th September 2001. Whilst civilians, of course, have always been at the mercy of warring armies — perhaps we should have thought to acknowledge them sooner? — it is only since the rise of modern guerrilla and terrorist warfare that the battlefield itself has been redefined less in terms of geographic markers and more in terms of damage to human population centres.
In the second instance, time marches on, and each year there will be fewer and fewer people left who remember the wars that gave rise to our annual Remembrance observance. The last known veteran of the Great War died in 2012 — seven years ago. Meanwhile, the children and, in many cases, even the grandchildren of World War II veterans are well into middle age. “Those who do not remember history,” says the saying, “are doomed to repeat it.” Yet those who were there to tell their story, and those of their lost companions, eventually go to dwell with their creator; and who among us can truly imagine what they must have gone through?
In the third instance, the change serves to remind us that, underneath all the political football and point-scoring about refugees and asylum seekers, there are the real stories of real human beings — alive today, some of them walking amongst us, and in fear for their lives and their children’s. It paints a human face upon a problem that we are too easily tempted to see and discuss in terms of budgetary constraints and local council statistics.
The point is that war is alive and well today. It may not look like the marching parades of returning, victorious soldiers after a hard-fought fight, nor even like the row-on-row battlefield cemeteries of Belgium and northern France. It may not recently have led to rationing in the nations of Europe, nor the conscription of young men. And, if we couch our Remembrance observance exclusively in those terms, we risk consigning our recognition of war to the realms of historical research — thus losing sight of the devastation it wreaks in the lives of our brothers and sisters and — but for the grace of God — ourselves.
Some 2700-odd years ago, the prophet Micah wrote that God “shall judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the LORD of hosts hath spoken it.”
We are not there yet; but Christians are called to hold out that promise as an alternative vision of the way the world can be and should be. We can only do so, however, if we take a cold hard look at the way the world is, and we are. The Royal British Legion this year has offered us a new opportunity to do so, and I pray that we shall take and use that opportunity well.