Monday, 11 November 2013

War and peace

An address given at Oxford Unitarians on Remembrance Sunday 2011

War, when you look at it, is a very strange cultural phenomenon. Vast amounts of men and machines are pitted against each other, and it is not moral superiority that ensures victory, but superior tactics and technology. It is odd that the outcome is determined by tactics and technology rather than by who is actually right. One might as well determine the outcome by having politicians engage in single combat in a large stadium, as it would save an awful lot of lives and resources.
Of course faith in the rightness of the cause motivates the combatants, and we would like to think that those who are fighting for the morally superior side actually have a stronger motivation – because they are motivated by love of justice and freedom and humanity, rather than by anger towards a minority, or fear of retribution by their commanders. These ideas hold up reasonably well for the Second World War, because it was fairly obvious that Nazism must be defeated – but America was still racially segregated when it was busy fighting the Nazis, and many people in Britain flirted with far right politics during the Great Depression, so there must have been people fighting the Nazis who supported segregation and right-wing politics, or who were just fighting for nationalistic reasons. The idea that faith in the rightness of the cause determined the outcome of the First World War does not hold up so well, though, because it was the last great war of imperialism, and both sides had made alliances and grabbed territory, and were squabbling over who should have the most land.
I also find it deeply disturbing that if the reparations imposed on Germany after the First World War had not been so punitive, then the Great Depression would not have had such a huge impact on the German economy, and the Nazis might never have got into power. If only the victors of the First World War had read Lao Tsu’s warning to leaders victorious in wars.  He said, “Treat victory like a funeral” – in other words, don’t gloat over your defeated enemy and demand revenge, but treat them well and kindly so that they won’t want to fight you again.
Lao Tsu’s work, written in the 6th century BCE, is partly intended as a treatise on statecraft, and its ideas are still applicable today.
One politician who might well have been applying similar principles was the much-maligned Neville Chamberlain. Chamberlain was a Unitarian, and related to a long-standing Unitarian family. He did everything he could to prevent war (as is well known), but he also built up Britain’s armaments in case war turned out to be inevitable (something that is not so well-known). It was a very practical and balanced approach to the politics of the day.
My own attitude to war is fairly ambivalent. I admire the heroism of warriors, and the camaraderie of regiments, and their colourful and stirring traditions. I admire the craftsmanship and technology that goes into making weapons like swords, bows and arrows, castles and siege engines.  I find people’s personal war stories absolutely fascinating, and never tire of listening to them. On the other hand, I abhor the bloodshed and violence, the blind fury of battle, the slaughter of men, the terrible waste of humanity and talent that is involved, and the sorrow of bereavement on such a vast scale, and the tragedy of the physically maimed and psychologically scarred men that return from war. I often think of Wilfred Owen, whose poems we heard earlier, which often move me to tears. Wilfred Owen was killed in the last week of the First World War, and his mother received the telegram informing her of his death as the church bells announcing the Armistice were ringing out over the Shropshire hills.
And yet, and yet, I am grateful that imperialism and Nazism and other horrors were defeated so that we can live in freedom now. I wear a red poppy in memory of those who gave their lives for our freedom, and a white poppy in the hope that one day no-one will ever have to make that sacrifice again.
One thing that is very striking about the experience of war, is that people never seem to feel so alive as when death is so close to them. People lived more intensely and vividly, as if the saying “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die” was never far from their minds. If you have ever read the novels of Mary Wesley, you will be aware of how intensely life was lived during the war – lovers did not know if they would ever see each other again, and so they gave their all. There was camaraderie and a sense of common humanity during the Blitz – although, as someone who lived through that period pointed out to me, there were also a lot of people making a fast buck on the black market and exploiting others.
On the other hand, there are wonderful stories like the Christmas Truce of 1914, and the friendship of JRR Tolkien with his batman in the trenches, which he recreated in literary form in the relationship of Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings – and it is very clear that Frodo would not have succeeded in his quest if it were not for the support of his friend Sam.
I think, however, that what is happening here is the beauty and compassion of humanity asserting itself in spite of the horrors of war, not because of them. Tolkien was one of a group of four close friends at grammar school, and he was the only one to survive the First World War.
If only the heroism and the craftsmanship could be channelled towards peaceful ends. If only the world was a more just and equitable place, where resources were fairly distributed and nobody thought they needed to fight for territory, or try to wipe out people who are different. It’s possible to create camaraderie and fellow-feeling by digging a fire-pit for a weekend camp – there’s no need to go to war to create it.
Imagine a world without war. Instead of money being spent on guns and tanks and fighter planes, it would be spent on improving the lives of ordinary people. There’s a well-known feminist poster that says, imagine if the army had to hold jumble sales to raise money for weapons, and healthcare was properly funded. It’s true, there is something wrong with a world where wars are automatically funded, but hospitals have to fund-raise for essential equipment.
The Quakers talk about the seeds of war. There are ideas and practices prevalent in our society that make war more likely, make it seem inevitable, even. The way boys are discouraged from showing emotion, and encouraged to regard women as objects, so that they could one day be soldiers. The way our taxes go to fund the army and the maintenance of weapons, whether we want them to or not. The way that our industry is geared towards the manufacture and distribution of weapons of war. The way that social inequality is maintained, one result of which is that the army seems like a good career for a working-class lad.
If there are seeds of war, there must also be seeds of peace – seeds that we can plant. There are practices like non-violent communication, meditation, contemplation, community-building, diplomacy, interfaith dialogue, living sustainably, volunteering overseas, all of which promote an understanding of other people and cultures, promote dialogue rather than violence, and contribute towards the creation of a just and peaceful world. But there can be no peace until there is social and environmental justice. Until resources are fairly distributed, there will always be people trying to grab land and resources, or people trying to prevent others from getting them. I am pretty sure that both the Gulf Wars and the Falklands War were about oil, and the reason that no-one has bothered to liberate Tibet from the Chinese is because it has no natural resources worth exploiting, and because China is a major creditor and trading partner of Western countries.

Let us, therefore, seek out and plant the seeds of peace. Let us seek to see things from other people’s point of view. Let us promote interfaith dialogue, non-violent communication and social and environmental justice. And let us practice peace in our own lives, as I know many of you are already doing. For as A J Muste once said, “There is no way to peace: peace is the way”.

Readings

Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen

What passing-bell for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, -
The shrill demented choirs of wailing shells
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes,
Shall shine the holy glimmer of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Dulce et decorum est, by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Fives-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone was still yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime. –
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, -
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.


Fallen leaves by Yvonne Aburrow

Each year with the falling of the leaves we shall remember them
As the years drift into the silence of longing –
The longing for the ones who never came back.

A photograph, dimmed by time, is all that remains;
A lock of hair, a memory, a name, each evoking
A man that lived and breathed and laughed.

Poets and dreamers, craftsmen and lovers,
Farmers and ploughmen, boys from the shires,
Fallen leaves in the autumn, returning to the soil.


Prayer:
Divine Spirit, source of all being,
From whom we emerge and to whom we return,
We have gathered today to remember lives lost in war.
For it is written,
“Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
We are thankful for the great love that gave us freedom and for the sacrifice of those who died that we may live in freedom.
But we wonder sometimes if our freedom was not bought at too dear a cost.
And we pray for peace among the nations, and dialogue between warring factions.
May we always remember those who died in war and persecution – not only the soldiers, but the civilians who were raped and tortured and butchered.
May we honour those who stood as a witness for peace, because they would not turn their hands to killing.
May our lives and our communities be a beacon of justice, peace and hope,
And may our words and deeds be a witness for peace, all the days of our lives.
And when we fall into strife and bitterness, may we forgive ourselves and others, and work for reconciliation and renewed trust.
We would live our own lives in such a manner that we plant seeds of peace, and not seeds of war.
We would work for peace and justice and tolerance, so that war may be prevented.
For we are held in your vast and mysterious love,
Each life a bright thread in the tapestry of being,
And all are one, and one is all, and the divine life shines in each and all.

No comments: