As I prepare for the Remembrance Day Service in my church (this coming weekend btw) I can’t help thinking of some of the fascinating contradictions associated with the day: contradictions that are inevitable given the depth of emotion stirred by such memories.
November 11th is designated as “Remembrance Day” in Canada and Commonwealth countries, but known by other names such as “Armistice Day” or “Veterans’ Day”. We seek to remember soldiers who served in wars. We honour those who served in some capacity, and seek out those who can bear witness.
In a Christian church in peacetime we are easily able to find texts supporting one side of the equation: the dream of peace. That’s what every soldier wants.
Even so, alongside the yearning for peace, there is a celebration of the warrior. In Flanders Fields, John McRae’s iconic poem of the Great War, contains these lines:
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
There’s nothing problematic about this sentiment while it’s in the mouth of a soldier contemplating war and the fallen. It’s another thing entirely in a church, where Christian values collide with the secular values of war. How does one reconcile the commandment against killing with the usual behaviour of a soldier: killing the enemy?
But in fact there are plenty of instances where the Bible contains records of wars and the killing of the enemy. Sometimes the church says we must not kill, while at other times says the opposite. I think the version of church many of us have encountered—particularly in the years when Canada’s military presence in the world was as peace-maker rather than war-monger—emphasized the dove over the hawk, even though the past few years –notably since September 2001—have seen a renewal of a more conservative celebration of this day for warriors.
The other text I associate with Remembrance Day is John Gillespie Magee’s poem High Flight. It re-frames the actions of a pilot as a kind of lyrical celebration. I think one reason it’s been celebrated is the complete absence of anything warlike from its lines. Magee’s immortal poem was written before he had reached his 20th birthday, and his untimely end.
I am reminded of another contradictory text associated with war. The song Jerusalem with its text by William Blake was composed in the darkest days of the First World War by Sir Hubert Parry. In that context Blake’s poem can be read as a kind of call to arms, even though I believe it is originally more of a call for spiritual awakening (particularly in a line such as “I will not cease from mental fight”). The weapons that are named all carry strong metaphorical connotations far from the realm of actual warfare:
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
Blake is no war poet even though the celebration of Remembrance Day often puts Blake’s words into the same Order of Service with the young poet-warriors.
Parry (via Elgar’s orchestration especially) can be proud of his creation.
Are we evolving away from war as a species? Ha, here I am –like Blake in that poem—asking questions.