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Verdun Hallo again to all.

Our social media have been full for days with Remembrance of the hundredth anniversary of the end of the Great War. We've returned to old poems and family stories, listened to podcasts about the human toll of that deadly five years, and been a little astonished that it has only been a century.

You can still see the scars on the land at Verdun, and unexploded ordnance continues to turn up each year in what the French have called the Iron Harvest. The severity of the destruction was new because of increased capacities: the commitment of industrial and scientific excellence to well-funded killing. There is a permanent Zone Rouge in which plants still do not grow, agriculture and human habitation are impossible, and where the silenced guns have done their lasting worst. The soil is so full of arsenic that worms cannot live.

The human count is still incalculable, even though there are no living veterans. There are still widows, and there are still orphans. Sincere men made it their best and avid work to create widows and orphans for a season, and the results are many of the borders and dynamics we still know today. Post-Ottoman Mesopotamia began its growth into a nest of what we now call terrorism. Convents were flooded and flush for the rest of the twentieth century with girls who lost their boys and still wanted human intimacy and meaningful work. The punishment of Germany prepared a world for genocide and further conflict. The tribe of 40 cousins who ruled the world in 1914 refused to solve difficulties as kin who could have saved themselves and their people in the process. It became normal for the first time in modern English-speaking Christianity to pray for the dead, because everyone lost someone.

Remembrance—the poppies version—is specifically English or colonial and semi-demi-colonial. A Jamaican friend remarked today at an American church that she was happy to see our buttonhole decoration because her grandfather had been gassed in France. The cenotaphs stand uncomplaining in rain and wind, and monarchs or government officials visit them with bouquets. But what has Christianity to say to a war whose effects are still immediate in Flanders fields? What does it mean to put a flower on one's jacket if one hasn't entered in one’s own station to the necessary task of avoiding the repetition of wars?

Our Jesus says that death is dead on his Easter morning, and that the silence of the tomb is a temporary illusion. The Paschal Troparion we have sung hundreds of times in Russian and Greek churches puts it together well for these dead as well as for the dead of every war and every disease:

Χριστὸς ἀνέστη ἐκ νεκρῶν, θανάτῳ θάνατον πατήσας,
καὶ τοῖς ἐν τοῖς μνήμασι, ζωὴν χαρισάμενος!

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

If the resurrection has undone the power of death, and we need not fear its sting, that is all well and good. And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase. But there are still children who were not held by their fathers because their hands were cold and dead in the mud of the Somme. And there are still women who waited for a body that was never returned to bury. There are still books unwritten, prayers unsaid, songs unsung, joys or sorrows unshared because of men wasting one another in those trenches and the Dardanelles. The Christian comfort is helpful. But because of the power of that comfort it must compel us to avoid the need of it being created by any of us intentionally.

The taking of the sword is promised to be a cause of death by the sword, and the historic Peace Churches have a witness of refusing to assist in this chain reaction. Most other Christians simply mop up the results: caring for the dead, consoling the wounded, protecting the vulnerable where possible, facilitating communication between parties in conflict. Acknowledging our failures, we can do better, perhaps through voting, but maybe more effectively through teaching and modeling over the longue durée: we can lead our children in paths of gentle disagreement, and we can stick fast to the knowledge that the shedding of blood is a line the thorough Christian should almost never cross. We can look at historical situations in which it was devout Christians murdering devout Christians—Germans, Russians, English, Frenchmen, Americans, Italians at one turn, Hutu and Tutsi in another—and try to find where things broke down. History is a resource to inform the present, often as caution and seldom attended. There are good divisions between religion and statecraft, but it remains the case that most persons in places of public decision-making do have some religious affiliation. Our churches should inform their consciences, support them in godly governance, and chasten them clearly if they threaten to cross hard boundaries.

We have no doubt tonight of the comfort afforded the long-dead and the long-bereaved. A hymn we sang this morning points to an eschatological possibility of this being realized:

O day of peace that dimly shines through all our hopes and prayers and dreams:
Guide us to justice, truth, and love, delivered from our selfish schemes.
May swords of hate fall from our hands, our hearts from envy find release,
Till by God's grace our warring world shall see Christ's promised reign of peace.

Then shall the wolf dwell with the lamb, nor shall the fierce devour the small;
As beasts and cattle calmly graze, a little child shall lead them all.
Then enemies shall learn to love, all creatures find their true accord;
The hope of peace shall be fulfilled, for all the earth shall know the Lord.

May we all have strength to attempt it. The craters of Verdun can encourage us.

See you next week.

Our Signatures

Richard Mammana


All of us at Anglicans Online

11 November 2018

A thin blue line
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