Kohima in Reverse

Sunday 11th November 2018
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Remembrance Sunday Choral Eucharist
1 Samuel 31.1-6
1 John 2.7-11
John 15.25-27

100 years ago today the guns fell silent on all fronts but the front that remains in our culture, dictated more by Wilfred Owen’s poems than military historians, is the Western front. The end came more in revulsion than celebration which explains the sombre nature of this weekend's remembrance, for the scars of the Great War are still visible, not only in Memorials but in the edginess of the inter War years, the Second World War which many believe resulted from the vengeful Treaty of Versailles and, at the most mundane level, it was only during the Chancellorship of George Osborne that we finally paid off our First World War debt. This was the outcome of a war which was supposed to be over "by Christmas", a war into which we almost sleep-walked.

I spent an almost fruitless year at Harvard studying the causes of the First World War and the only point on which there is consensus is that, no matter what the trigger point may have been, the fundamental cause was increasing rivalry between the Great Powers after the victory of Prussia over France in 1870. It is, therefore, highly significant that yesterday Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Macron of France, their heads touching, held hands at the site of the Armistice, displaying the fruits of European co-operation, and one can only hope that it is not equally significant that by that time Mrs. May had already left for home and President Trump stayed out of the rain, watching television in his hotel.

Now it will have escaped nobody's notice that at the very time we are mourning the millions of dead and injured from a conflict caused by international rivalry, that we are extracting ourselves from the European Union. After the First World War the League of Nations was too weak but the victorious powers learned their lesson after the Second World War by constructing the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and, a decade later, the European Economic Community. But the generation that has not experienced world war is currently dismantling multilateralism: led by Donald Trump, Turkey, Brazil and the Philippines have joined China, Russia and a host of other nationalist dictatorships and we are planning to put "England first", apparently indifferent to the reality that if two countries put themselves first and come into conflict, they both cannot remain first; we only have to look at Hitler and Stalin to know what can happen.

As Christians are the people of Christ's peace, the issue we must address about Brexit is the extent to which it will promote peace. This question is far more important than the calculus of economic advantage. Economies may get a little better or a little worse according to foreign policy but war wrecks individual lives, families and communities; and so we must be very careful that every diplomatic measure we take promotes rather than detracts from peace.

We, to transfer a political term into theology, are a people of pooled sovereignty; we build community; we are committed to the poor and the weak. As well as being community people we are also Magnificat people. And so the questions for all Christians are: how compatible is international competition with our cardinal precept of love; and how compatible is economic competition with our precept of justice, particularly with respect to the poor?

If the dead of The Somme came back today they would be entitled to ask what we think we are doing, whether we are honouring their death by being gratuitously hostile to foreign powers and foreign people. They would have the right to ask whether we have learned anything from the catastrophe which killed them. But, as Carol Anne Duffy writes in her Sonnet for today, addressing the dead:

"History might as well be water, chastising this shore,

for we learn nothing from your endless sacrifice."

and, as an historian myself, I often think that we never learn from history, that each generation has to learn for itself from its own mistakes.

But whereas history can teach us pragmatic lessons, the lessons of Jesus are timeless. The man who was reviled went like a lamb to the slaughter. The man who died at the hands of the politico-religious authorities could have summoned his legions but did not. And the man who was without sin died for our sin.

And the church he bequeathed understood him to want a community which held its goods in common and was fixated on justice - economic and social justice - for the poor. Never was there a better occasion than now to ask the rather hackneyed question "What would Jesus do?"

There is a school of thought which insists I should say none of this; that we cannot possibly invoke a Christian response to questions of war, peace, diplomacy and justice; but I maintain that if we cannot apply the teaching of Jesus to what we do, collectively as well as individually, we are no longer a church, over-arching the world, but are a sect of self-referential spiritual beings. Just as our childhood interest in anything has to be made more complex by lifelong study if we are to make anything of it, so our notion of what it is to be a follower of Jesus has to become enriched by experience. Jesus was the last of a line of prophets, beginning with Moses, who called for social justice and compassion and we have to understand our dilemmas in the light of prophetic example and teaching.

This morning at the official Service of Remembrance we heard the Kohima Prayer in which those who lost their lives in the Great War sacrificed their tomorrow for our today; we have to be very careful in our collective life that we do not end up reversing that precept, sacrificing the tomorrow of our grandchildren for our today.