Remembrance Talk

As cathedral bells toll remembrance in Worcester, I thought I’d repost these thoughts on war for 11/11/11.

For Christians, Remembrance Sunday can stir mixed emotions. Today we remember the fallen of war and regret that war seems to be the natural condition of man. We weep along with God who, when surveying the war and murder that polluted his earth said, “I gave them commandment that they should love one another, but they are without affection, and they hate their own blood. As a result misery shall be their doom; and the whole heavens shall weep over them . . . ; wherefore should not the heavens weep, seeing these shall suffer?” (Moses 7:37).

The observance of Armistice Day — the 11th Day of the 11th month — was originally intended to ensure that never again would the nation commit to the slaughter and evil that have become synonymous with words such as “Somme” and “Flanders Fields.”

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
(John McRae)

As Latter-day Saints we are commanded to “renounce war and proclaim peace” (D&C 98:16). Jesus said, “blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God” (Matt 5:9, 3 Ne 12:9). Former president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Spencer W. Kimball, chastised Americans, and Mormons, thus:

We are a warlike people, easily distracted from our assignment of preparing for the coming of the Lord. When enemies rise up, we commit vast resources to the fabrication of gods of stone and steel — ships, planes, missiles, fortifications — and depend on them for protection and deliverance. When threatened, we become anti-enemy instead of pro-kingdom of God; we train a man in the art of war and call him a patriot, thus, in the manner of Satan’s counterfeit of true patriotism, perverting the Savior’s teaching:

‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven’ (Matthew 5:44-45).

President Kimball was right: we go to war far too easily. Nevertheless, there is somewhat of an awkward tension regarding Latter-day Saint/Christian views of war, for there are times when war can be just, regrettably. I cannot resolve this tension, but it ought to be raised. You see, Mormons are not absolute pacifists. Speaking of America’s (and by extension, Britain’s) current conflicts in the Middle East, President Gordon B. Hinckley said,

First, let it be understood that we have no quarrel with the Muslim people or with those of any other faith. We recognize and teach that all the people of the earth are of the family of God. And as He is our Father, so are we brothers and sisters with family obligations one to another.

But as citizens we are all under the direction of our respective national leaders. They have access to greater political and military intelligence than do the people generally. Those in the armed services are under obligation to their respective governments to execute the will of the sovereign. When they joined the military service, they entered into a contract by which they are presently bound and to which they have dutifully responded.

One of our Articles of Faith, which represent an expression of our doctrine, states, ‘We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law’ (Articles of Faith 1:12).

341 British military personnel have died in the current Afghanistan conflict, dutifully responding to their obligation to serve Queen and Country. Today, whatever our feelings regarding the rights and wrongs of this or that war, we remember their sacrifice. That is the reason for Remembrance Sunday. We also remember the civilian casualties of war, poignantly described by President Hinckley: “There are . . . mothers, innocent civilians, who cling to their children with fear and look heavenward with desperate pleadings as the earth shakes beneath their feet and deadly rockets scream through the dark sky.” Perhaps we can also take that painfully difficult Christian step to pray for our enemies, as President Kimball exhorted.

Doctrine and Covenants 134:2 teaches us that governments have a duty to ensure “free exercise of conscience, the right and control of property, and the protection of life.” I believe that when governments and nations threaten and do violence to these rights, their moral standing is void and we are permitted to resist. This led a young Latter-day Saint German boy, Hellmuth Huebener, to actively oppose Nazi evil in Hamburg during the Second World War. He was executed for what the morally bankrupt Nazi regime considered “crimes” against the state; certainly his reward is in heaven. It is what led the young men of America and the Commonwealth to risk their lives so far from home. It is what led the young pilots of the Royal Air Force to fight in the skies above Britain seventy years ago during the Battle of Britain. 498 of them died. Given the stakes, I do not think Churchill engaged in hyperbole:

The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the world war by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few (August 20, 1940, House of Commons).

When I finish speaking, the choir will sing that beloved hymn Jerusalem. Blake’s poem invokes images of “England’s green and pleasant land,” a beauty I would also extend to all corners of our islands. They are not words of a dewy-eyed patriotism, however, but a call to build Zion, Jerusalem. But here is the thing: one cannot build Zion when there is no freedom, when we are slaves in Babylon. Again, President Hinckley:

[T]here are times and circumstances when nations are justified, in fact have an obligation, to fight for family, for liberty, and against tyranny, threat, and oppression.

So, today we remember those who fought for those very reasons. Like the angel who instructed Alma, we “remember [what] great things [God] has done for [our forebears]; for they were in bondage, and he . . . delivered them” (Mosiah 27:16). I invite you to remember those in your families and in our church and local community who have served their countries. I invite you also to have a look at the war memorial next time you are in the Leicester stake centre and remember the sacrifices of our brother Latter-day Saints in the Great War.

Our family remembers, among others, our Bradley and Head grandparents who, doing their duty, kept calm and carried on;  Grandad “Banker” John F. McLaverty who served in the Royal Navy on the Arctic convoys; Grandad Ralph Smith who was injured at Dunkirk; and Great Uncle Herbert Kirkby, 2nd Battalion Rifle Brigade, who fell at the Somme in 1918.

They shall not grow old,
As we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn;
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them.
(Laurence Binyon)

[Choir sang Jerusalem followed by 2 minutes' silence. Loughborough Ward, 14.xi.10.]

Comments

  1. Ronan,

    Thank you.

  2. Preach on, Brother.

  3. [T]here are times and circumstances when nations are justified, in fact have an obligation, to fight for family, for liberty, and against tyranny, threat, and oppression.

    This phrase is so open to abuse, as was the case with the war in Iraq. At what times and in what places are nations justified, nay obligated, to fight for family, liberty, and against tyranny, threat, and oppression? When we can? When political leaders say so? Iranians are currently oppressed. Why don’t we fight for their freedom, too? The Palestinians are oppressed. Should we fight for their freedom too? It is too bad that World War II happened not 20 years after the end of the “Great War” because we’ve certainly not learned our lesson about the destruction of war. Maybe it will take actual war on American soil for us to relearn how horrible war is, and how we should do everything we can to avoid that hell.

  4. Daniel,
    Your thoughts are well-known by now. The great thing is that ultimately, Remembrance Sunday is about the fallen, not why they fell. That’s a discussion (and President Hinckley accepted we would disagree) for another day.

  5. Ronan,

    Isn’t Remembrance Day about understanding why they fell so that we wouldn’t have those kinds of losses anymore?

  6. Great post, thank you. War is such a complicated topic for me to understand as an LDS. It is hard sometimes, as Pres. Kimball suggests, to know who a patriot is. But I can appreciate the sentiment of those who serve diligently based on a sincere committment they hold, especially when I’m reminded by these types of writings.

  7. Daniel,
    To an extent, that’s the point of Armistice Day on the 11th, but I think the memorial is ill-served by politics and debate. It’s your prerogative to do that if you wish, but I have no interest in it … today.

  8. Excellent. I love hearing Jerusalem sung in our congregations and it seems especially pertinent today. I think next year we need to have a real sermon, like this, as well as the readings we had today.

  9. Don’t worry Ronan, that’s all I have to say on the matter here.

  10. Powerful stuff, Ronan. An excellent balance between memorial and introspection and exhortation.

  11. Very very nice. In Finland, Fathers Day corresponds with the Sunday closest to Remembrance Day, so we sand a few Sibelius Hymns and had a rip-roaring talk on courage. Good stuff.

  12. Glad to see I’m not the only one bringing up Helmuth Huebener at church. It’s great that many Germans remember him. It’s unfortunate most members of the church haven’t even heard of him.

    Wish I could hear “Jerusalem” at church. Maybe I’ll have to move to England some day…

  13. Well done, RJH. My father was a part-time radio singer. I have a recording of him singing “Jerusalem.” One of my favorites.

  14. Well said, Ronan; thanks for sharing it. Would that the language and ritual of America’s Veterans Day was as amenable to balanced, mournful yet dutiful, expressions such as these.

  15. If I still lived in my last ward, there would have been an enormous American flag plastered across the front of the chapel today, celebrating Veteran’s Day.

    In my current ward Veteran’s Day didn’t even get a mention.
    The right approach is somewhere in between. We shouldn’t worship war or soldiers (as my last ward did) and we shouldn’t ignore them either. Although I’ve got to say, I prefer my current ward’s approach to that of my last ward.

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    Well done, Ronan.

  17. Well done, Ronan!

  18. Fond memories of the UK says:

    Ronan, thanks for this. Some of my choicest and most formative spiritual experiences took place in that Loughborough chapel. I’ts been a long time, but the memories remain fresh.

  19. I really enjoyed this. Thank you for posting it. It’s a great experience to sing God Save the Queen on Remembrance Sunday.

  20. I had my first experience of singing God save the Queen in our congregation on Sunday and it meant a great deal to me and many others.

  21. How did your service go, Aaron? We had our traditional readings-based Sacrament Meeting with sciptures, poems and hymns planned out on the program in advance, including God Save the Queen and the Two Minutes of Silence. It really is so refreshing to do this kind of meeting once in a while. We had six hymns, for one thing, which is great. Our bishop gave a pulpit-thumping sermon at the end to round it off.

    Our Remembrance Sunday service revovled around Alma 36:2 — the whole thing turned out perfectly.

  22. As someone who prides himself on being a stoic Englishman, I am afraid to report that I could barely utter the last couple of paragraphs of my talk.

  23. And no, we didn’t sing the national anthem. But we will, one day, I hope…

  24. It went really very well. Following some reflection and friendly discussion I realised that some of my angst was unnecessary. We followed a similar pattern to yourself. We had poems by Carol Ann Duffy and Siegfried Sassoon. Also Keith Douglas’ Vergissmeinicht gave an excellent sense of the humanity of the ‘enemy’. Having two veterans in our ward who led us in the silence was especially poignant for me.

    I’m afraid that I am not generally as stoic as Ronan, but nevertheless it was an emotional and sombre day.

  25. I hear you on that. I conducted our meeting and in introducing the readings-based program/format, I commented that this Remembrance Sunday program was not actually a “celebration” but rather an acknowledgment of the millions who paid the ultimate price for their countries. I unfortunately choked up a little in explaining my opinion that there were no winners in WWI and that the 15 million soldiers who died were not masters of their own destiny but rather only pawns in someone else’s political game.

    Our program had a certain logic to it. As I noted, the theme of the meeting was taken from Alma 36:2:

    I would that ye should do as I have done, in remembering the captivity of our fathers; for they were in bondage, and none could deliver them except it was the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; and he surely did deliver them in their afflictions.

    The readings-based format allowed us to involve more people than a normal Sacrament Meeting with talks. After enjoying a reading of John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” (1915) by an old veteran in our ward, we had a string of scriptures read by various ward members of all ages from all different cultural and national backgrounds. The first readings included Doctrine and Covenants 134:2 and other scriptures generally outlining a possible argument for just war, including Alma 46:11-16 (The Title of Liberty). We had some somber hymns interspersed, such as “I Need Thee Every Hour” and “Nearer My God to Thee”. Then to bookend this portion, we heard a reading of Moina Michael’s “We Shall Keep the Faith” (1918) by the son of a British soldier who was taken captive at Dunkirk (rather than escaping with the majority in the flotilla) and spent the rest of the war in a Stalag followed by intensive hospitalization for four years after the war.

    Isaiah 52:7 served as a somewhat blunt but always beautiful transition scripture from the war-focused portion of the meeting. The rest of the scriptures read emphasized our duty as disciples of Jesus Christ to make peace. I realize this could be considered slightly dissonant with a Remembrance Sunday church service but so much the better. This section of scriptures praising the earthly peacemakers also included acknowledgment of those who publish peace in the Spirit World, as found in Doctrine and Covenants 138:29-35, which was read as well.

    In an attempt to turn our minds back to publishing peace in the here and now, we arose and sang “God Save the Queen” — it was very moving — followed by a reading of the Twelfth Article of Faith. The last scripture read to close off this peace-focused portion was 4 Nephi 1:2-5.

    The bishop gave concluding remarks before our Two Minutes of Silence. He focused on very traditional Remembrance Sunday themes of gratitude for those serving in defense of the country in the military. He pointed out that the readings in the program had been by old and young (we had very young primary children included as some of the readers), lifelong church members and new converts and by people from the full variety of walks of life and cultural backgrounds represented by our ward. He noted the contributions made in WWI by regiments from West Africa, India and Asia, East Africa, North America (Canada and the United States) and from Australia and elsewhere. Fittingly, he turned his attention toward the early Latter-day Saints who began their lives in England and Wales and emigrated to North American in search of Zion to find persecution, forced migration and death by exposure. It is the sacrifice of those who dedicated their lives to preserving our freedoms that we remember on Remembrance Sunday. So it was nice for him to give this British Holy Day a very Mormon twist in that way. As always, our bishop then tied our readings and the idea of Remembrance Sunday back in to the Atonement of Jesus Christ, ensuring that the outcome of the meeting was entirely Christ-focused. He did this in part by re-emphasizing the lead scripture, Alma 36:2.

    Standing together with my ward, all with heads bowed, in the Two Minutes of Silence, was very moving. The two minutes seemed very long but the chapel was extraordinarily quiet. Even noisy children were silent.

    Sorry for the long comment. I might post this to ABEV as long as I’ve written up a description of our service this year.

  26. Thanks for this respectful post.

    I was not aware that this sort of remembrance service took place in some sacrament meetings. I served a mission in Scotland 20 years ago but do not recall such a service. I think it is so appropriate to have a “remembrance talk” in the meeting where we come to remember Christ (and our covenant brothers and sisters), and in line with one of the messages of the Book of Mormon, the “captivity of our fathers”.

    Many Irish men gave their lives during the great war and on her recent visit here, The Queen of England remembered them. Most poignantly for many of us also, she reverently remembered all those who gave their lives in the struggle for Irish freedom, at the memorial in The Garden of Remembrance in Dublin city. It was indeed a majestic moment.

    Many people here do wear the poppy in remembrance also but it is inspiring to me that some sacrament meetings remember the sacrifice of those who gave their lives.

  27. Sharee Hughes says:

    This was wonderful. Thank you for reposting it. For those who mentioned Helmuth Heubener, remember also that the church excommunicated him for his anti-Hitler activities. However, later the church repented and restored his blessings posthumously, I knew one of Heubener’s cohorts, Rudi Wobbe, who fortunately was not executed as his friend was. They were very brave young men.

  28. Sharee, you might want to check out this post from last year:

    http://bycommonconsent.com/2010/05/11/karl-heinz-schnibbe-rip/

  29. M J,

    Greetings to my Irish brothers and sisters.

    Such talks aren’t that common in LDS congregations, I don’t think, for a myriad of reasons I won’t go into here.

    I agree that the Queen’s visit to Eire was incredible.

  30. In the US November 11 is a day for patriotic observation
    including honoring those who died in combat but it generally does not include a distinctive Sacrament Meeting program. However, there are predominantly military wards at major military bases around the US and overseas where the scriptures about war and peace are referred to with consciousness of their direct relevance.
    The Book of Mormon is very clear that war is only justified in defense of freedom, never as a means of gaining power over others. It gives an object lesson in the way being bloodthirsty is so spiritually destructive that only total abstinence from fighting, even at the risk of the lives of onesself and family, is the only way to repent of taking innocent lives. It also shows us that men who are generals can also be prophets of God who are visited by Christ. I can assure those who lack military experience that these issues are very much on the minds of those who put their lives on the line to defend freedom, and whose training includes restraint and discretion in the use of force. Their goal is establishing peace with freedom, for they know that without freedom, there is no real peace.

  31. With all due respect to Prez Hinckley, although he was a very good prophet, the military cannot be understood by civilans. You either serve or you don’t get it. The worlds are too different.

    So today, as a person who was trained to murder my bretheren in creative and efficient ways, and really wanted to do the bidding of my unworthy masters, I apologize for the misplaced trust of my youth. Today I follow Christ only. The only colonel I salute is Col Sanders.

    On this day of rememberance, I will remember the victims of the war machine. The two million Vietnamese who never grew old, the million Iraqis, the children blown to bits by drones, the employees of defense contractors with the inevitable blood on their hands, and the dupes who fought and died for the ultra rich.

  32. Glass Ceiling says:

    Bradley,

    Thank you for that.

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