Yesterday I walked part of the Dales Way and came into Kettlewell and stood for several minutes at its war memorial decked with red and white poppies, commemorating those who have died in the wars and remembering all the casualties of war including civilian and non-British casualties. War memorials are embedded into the life of every hamlet, village, town and city here in Britain. A reminder to not only remember but to stand, pray and work for peace.
One of the most poignant moments of my presidency of the Baptist Union was standing at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday. Prior to taking up our places among the ranks of church and other faith representatives, ambassadors and party political leaders I watched the assembled crowd, most of whom were from the Armed Forces and scattered among the rank and file were ex-military personnel. I was in my late 40s and as I looked out upon the elderly former soldiers, sailors and air force personnel, I realised that unlike them, I and the vast majority of people under 60 years of age had no personal memory or experience of war.
I find it hard to comprehend the fact that over 19 million people died and a further 23 million people were military or civilians casualties in the 1st World War and over 56 million people died in the 2nd World War.
Reflecting on these horrific facts and the consequences of the two world wars as I stood by the war memorial yesterday, with the storm clouds emerging down the valley, I felt a foreboding about the storm clouds that are brewing across the world today that threaten peace and could be the sparks that ignite conflict and war once again in the continent of Europe and the wider world.
The unspoken message of war memorials is a warning about the danger of living without virtue and values, about the folly that gets us into war: seeking power and control, following economic recessions, inequality, the widening gap between rich and poor, exploitation, injustice, oppression, the reemergence of tribalism, nationalism, autocratic, dictatorial leaderships and regimes, the threats and counter threats in relation to trade agreements; all incendiary devices and contributing factors that lead to conflict, violence and war.
I’ve been at Scargill this weekend in the beautiful Yorkshire Dales to lead with good friend and partner in the gospel Phil Stone, the warden of the community here. We’ve been exploring the place of communities in our changing, turbulent world.
The monk Thomas Merton said that “Community is a completely Christian answer to questions of economic exploitation, political oppression, and today’s loneliness epidemic”.
The nature of the God whom we worship is community. The Trinity; Father, Son and Holy Spirit reflect a unity in diversity and provide the pattern and order for humanity. We, being made in the image of God, are called to reflect the nature of God, which is community. The excessive individualism and rampant secular, consumerism of the western world has damaged the notion of community and now with the evils of tribalism, sectarianism, racism and nationalism rearing their ugly heads, the storm clouds of division, conflict, violence and war are emerging.
The current crisis that we are facing in Britain over the foolish referendum and its damaging aftermath has been dominated by economics and national, self-interest. Little attention has been paid to asking the deeper, more foundational questions as to what kind of society, nation and continent we want to live in. The European Union, for all its faults and failings, was founded on the principle of a ‘Community of Nations’. The EU, formed in the aftermath of the Second World War was the brainchild of Christian statesman from France, Germany and Italy who had a vision of a European Union that would no longer go to war. A union that would prevent a repeat of the killing fields which witnesses the death of millions across the continent in the 1st and 2nd World wars. A European Union that would not fall out over trade agreements but would find ways of working and cooperating together for the common good. With Britain’s exit from the EU, we need to employ all our energies into building healthy and harmonious relationships with our European neighbours and in our attitudes and actions given no encouragement for those who would seek to take advantage and fuel the fires of everything that leads to division and war. Popularist politicians with simplistic solutions have and are deceiving people and fuelling fear, prejudice and intolerance which can lead the nation and nations down a path of conflict and war.
As we were gathered this morning in the wonderful chapel at Scargill to celebrate Eucharist we remembered and gave thanks to God for Jesus who died, a victim of injustice, suffering as a consequence of the worlds evil, whose body was pierced and whose blood was shed like many of those whom we remember today. His battle was with all that was evil and destructive in the world. We celebrated that Christ conquered death and the power of evil is, and will one day, be utterly defeated. Christ’s victory over sin and death and His resurrection points to new world order, a world where people are reconciled with God and one another and nations move from enmity to friendship. We prayed,”Your kingdom come, your will be done here on earth as it is in heaven” and concluded with the words,”Go in peace to love and serve the Lord”.
In the light of this weekend, where we have been looking and celebrating the gift that is community, we left Scargill with a vision of community that is good news to a troubled, fragmenting, partisan, divided world. Good news for America that could hardly be described as the ‘United States’ – now so divided and conflicted, threatening and menacing, mirroring in its own way the bullying behaviour of some other world leaders.
We have a gospel to proclaim and the medium that conveys the message is that of community. Community that reflects the heart of God. Community that averts conflict and war or helps to heal and rebuild life after the ruins of broken relationships, be they in the home, family, workplace, neighbourhood, church, nation or world.
A vision of community which speaks of peace in a world of war, gentleness in a world of brutality, compassion and care in a society that is callous or indifferent, where kindness carries more weight than hatred, where hostility is countered by hospitality, where friendship conquers loneliness and isolation.
A vision of community where the whole of creation is at peace with itself and with one another.
A vision of community where justice and mercy inform all of our ways, where no one dies of starvation or lack of clean water. A vision of community that spurs us on, alone /together to work for peace in the world.
A world, a continent where yesterday the President of France can embrace the German Chancellor on the site where the Armistice treaty was signed at the end of the war in 1918. A world where this evening the German President is welcomed at Westminster Abbey and reads from 1 John 4: 7f “Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God….Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us.”
Amen. So be it Lord.