A talk, given at Chilworth: St Denys, on Remembrance Sunday 2017, in a service of BCP Matins. The reading was Proverbs 3.1-27 which concludes in the King James Version:
Withhold not good from them to whom it is due, when it is in the power of thine hand to do it.
We are gathered to remember the consequences of war. Death, most grievous harm to minds, the ruin of bodies and the destruction of entire communities. This year we mark the centenary of the third battle of Ypres: Passchendaele a battle whose casualty rates ran at averages of thousands of dead on each side every day for 150 days. Around half a million lives: not counting casualties, poured into the mud of Ypres.
Transition, To and War are three separately innocuous words that woven into a military order mark the threshold of general war in our democracy. They are a sign that all is to be become war. That nationally we are calling in the final insurance on free passage, survival a hope and a future. They are a sign – especially now – that it is too late for us civilians to protest, lobby or influence because the transition itself is often swift and dreadful. In 1914 Europe cascaded from peace to general war in 100 days. Today the fall into convulsive nuclear exchange could happen in hours. Even widespread conventional war could begin in just five to ten days.
We are met here in place devoted to the worship of Jesus. He had plenty of opportunity to raise an army: to cause another one of the many Jewish wars Roman history records. He chose to do the opposite: to offer himself as a ransom for many. Despite the pain of the sacrifice: good was in his hand to do and he withheld it not from all of us – even though we had done nothing to deserve it. If that’s a striking thought, do grab me afterward the act of remembrance.
In an echo of an inscription left after the battle of Thermopylae in 480BC a Classical scholar fighting by some chance of War among the troops in the battles in Burma (Myanmar) left us the words of the Kohina Epitaph: ‘When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say, For Your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today’.
So today, I ask what is the best we can do to remember the uncounted dead of Twentieth century war? Surely the best is to do all in our power to prevent all becoming war again. The reading from Proverbs holds a key to that. It is a matter of Wisdom, and of ensuring that we “Withhold not good from them to whom it is due, when it is in the power of our hands to do it.”
Ensuring peace is he work of every human heart. Our hearts included. Only truth brings the lies and injustice on which violence can be founded clearly into sight. For there to be a peaceful community we each and together must choose truth. For sure wars are made by governments – but even outside democracy governments are permitted to exist by the people. The degree of that permission in dictatorship requires discussion: there is not time to do so here. Speaking here in this church I say too that without the presence of God human hearts are incapable of truth.
Today the the agents of foreign powers are fiddling on the edges of unwary states: our own included. Equally this country’s agents, with others, are more or less directly intervening in Syria and Iraq and around the world. We with others, are permitting the use of weapons of war as methods of extrajudicial executions. War is out of its box again. As we watch, everything is at risk of becoming war
In this place of truth we can say: they that intervene are not doing so wisely or well. The time when we may be called on to choose truth over lies is fast approaching. The troops who we remember today cry out from beyond the grave: Choose Truth, Choose peaceful ways of being, Chose life.
Today the forces of the crown are deployed on many activities and operations short of war, and on exercise around the world. They place their lives at great risk every day nonetheless. It was one of those activities short of war that ended my own brief career.
After years of counter insurgency warfare UK troops today know the personal consequence of war very clearly. Despite that knowledge they are committed individuals who will turn out when they are so ordered. Such is the covenant they make with us. We owe them honour for that covenant, entirely separate from any views we may hold about the way they are employed. I challenge you: Next time you consider supporting military operations. Be very sure that weighed your support against the test of ‘withholding not good from them to whom it is due, when it is in the power of thine hand to do it’.
Here is the text again. This time from the English Standard Version
My child, do not let these escape from your sight: keep sound wisdom and prudence, and they will be life for your soul and adornment for your neck. Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it.