President George W. Bush, when American troops were first sent into Afghanistan, said: “This war is being fought in the defence of civilization itself”. That kind of language has been used since then by many a politician, as campaigns have been pursued against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and more recently Daesh or Isis.
And it would probably find an echo in the recruitment videos of Isis and its supporters. For these people “civilization” is exactly what they choose to fight against. They’ve no time for the excesses of personal freedom as practised in the west - they see it as a threat to the austere and puritan form of Islam that they claim is the only true faith. But in reality even fundamentalist Muslims have found themselves sickened and appalled by the depraved violence, mass murders even, meted out in the so-called Caliphate. None of this finds any justification in the Koran. These are sick and bad people.
But this sad admission has to be made: religion plays a significant role in the violence that scars our modern world. Indeed, religion has been a cause of war and conflict throughout recorded history. Today Muslim minorities face persecution and often violence in Myanmar, in some parts of India, in parts of the Philippines. In other places Christians are the minority and Muslims the oppressors. In Sri Lanka, Buddhists and Hindus fought for many long years. Within Islam immense atrocities are carried out by Shia against Sunni, Sunni against Shia. In Christian Northern Ireland Catholics fought Protestants, and in the former Yugoslavia the Orthodox Christian Serbians fought the Catholic Croats.
And yet for the most part all of those religions claim to be, and at their best strive to be, peaceable. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers: God will call them his children.” And great thinkers and teachers in other faiths would surely say the same.
The wars that continue to be mostly in our minds on this day, the Great War of a hundred years ago, and the Second World War that followed so soon after it, were not primarily religious wars; but even there religion played its part, as did the cult of personality which inspired a pseudo-religious fervour in those who came close to worshipping Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin. Most religions preach humility as something to be prized; how is it then that religion or something that looks and feels a lot like religion so often becomes a means of making one race or culture or nation over others superior over others?
Today we remember the victims of human violence and madness and greed, and of those who grab at power. And we honour the memory of those who have at crucial times in the history of our land and of the world stood firm in the cause of freedom against the cruelties of dictators and despots and against the false ideologies and religions that seek to exploit, to dominate, to imprison. We think of those who’re still suffering today, in the wars that continue, in terrorist attacks, in divided communities, and in the sort of act of mindless terror that we saw last Sunday in the United States.
Freedom is a key word in what we do today. Freedom that’s not just for me but for you as well, whoever and wherever you may be. In two world wars and at many times since the men and women of our armed services, support services, and in civilian life too, have campaigned and fought and striven and died in defence of freedom; sometimes the world around them was looking very dark and desperate indeed. We honour them all, and we honour too those who continue to serve today in the defence of freedom. And we have stood in silence to remember those who made the ‘final sacrifice’ in defence of their nation and of the free world.
Here is where I stand. War is always wrong in itself, as is any form of violence. But war is sometimes necessary. When we appease a warmonger, when we kowtow to those whose hearts are filled with violence, or turn a blind eye to those who seek to dominate and abuse others, we in the end conspire with them, in fact we support them. ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’, indeed, but peace can never be made by appeasing evil. To avoid war is a good and noble aim, but there comes a time in life when the line has to be crossed: when those who do evil must be confronted, at whatever cost, or our freedom is lost. That was true in 1939 and it continues to be true today.
We dwell in a free land; may we never take that freedom for granted. Today reminds us how much that freedom cost. And not just freedom for ourselves. To fight in defence of our own freedom without thinking of our neighbour is hard to defend from a Christian standpoint. If war can ever be described as ‘just’, then we fight not just for our own freedom but for our neighbour’s freedom too.
I began by quoting George W. Bush: he used the word civilization to define what that war was being fought to defend. Civilization: we need to think a bit about that word. It means more than just ‘our sophisticated and comfortable way of life’. It’s about more than technological gadgetry, it’s about more than our right to live how we choose. Much more. Civilization happens when we recognize one another as family, as sisters and brothers. Civilization is expressed in vision, caring and culture, in a sense of duty and purpose, in knowing we belong together. It’s expressed in the peace that in the Bible is called shalom: peace built on a foundation of justice and righteousness and truth, peace that gives honour to God. True religion teaches the ways of peace, True religion should be the spring of civilization.
Whereas false religion, religion misused, is not only hateful and hurtful but ultimately godless. We believe that God is love, and any religion that teaches and inspires hate denies the God it claims to serve. I want no part in that. True religion isn’t just the badge we wear but the life we live: life in relationship with God.
The life we live: we can’t defend peace or freedom or civilization by treating them as ideas static things, however important. We need truly to live the freedom we preach, and that may involve us in change and even sacrifice, so we make space for our neighbour too to share in the peace and freedom we enjoy. Those who came back from the trenches of the Great War or who celebrated VE or VJ Day in 1945 did so dreaming of a new and better world. Some of those dreams came true, but many were dashed or lost. Our modern world is an uncertain and often scary place; in it we need still to dream, to retain the vision of a better world, and more than that, to build and to work for and to defend a freedom that all may share.
As today we remember the sacrifice of comrades and fellows and forebears, may we also have in mind the sacrifice that lies at the heart of all we do in church: the sacrifice of our Lord Christ on the cross of Calvary. If it’s civilization we’re defending in this dark and uncertain hour, then may that civilization rest on the very firmest of foundations, on the divine love revealed to the world in the cross of Christ. Christ Jesus died that all might live; from the cross he forgave even those who nailed him there. True civilization requires of us that same self-giving love: love without limit, love from which springs a true and eternal peace. We and all the world stand within the sweep of that wondrous and eternal love, love that seeks to make its home in your heart and in mine. Amen.