In recent years there has been an increasing argument as to whether the Act of Remembrance, as practiced across the United Kingdom and further afield on Remembrance Sunday each year, should include references to God. It was General William Tecumseh Sherman who first coined the phrase, ‘War is hell.’ If that is the case, then what part should a God of love, honour and sacrifice play in such wars, and should He really be a part of remembering such horrific events?
In my role as an Army Scripture Reader, and formerly as a serving soldier, I have often heard objections concerning the link between Christian faith and military service; between the mobilisation of military force and what many see as a ‘pacifist Divine’. My experience has been that the most vocal and vehement objections have come from those who have never served in Her Majesty’s Forces. They therefore make their judgements from the luxury of opinion rather than experience. The reason I suggest that kind of terminology is because I have spent a lot of time as a soldier in conflict areas (Operation Banner, Northern Ireland and Operation Granby, Saudi Arabia) and have spoken to many soldiers who have gone through the traumas of more recent areas of conflict, particularly Iraq and Afghanistan. These soldiers speak from experience.
The fascinating, and some may rightly feel surprising, outcomes of both experiencing conflict as a soldier and listening to many, many others who have gone through conflict, reveal that the comprehensive testimony of those who have gone through those traumatic experiences do not return shaking their fist at God, but rather tend to believe that the old adage, ‘There are no atheists in foxholes’ is actually true. I have seen and heard the most vitriolic anti-God sentiments in the military as a soldier and as a Scripture Reader. But I have also seen those same atheistic attacks melt under the weight of attending a fellow soldier’s funeral, or realising that conscience does play a role in the taking of another life, and that in the end, the resounding acceptance is that conscience comes from a Divine Maker.
So, what does God have to do with the Act of Remembrance? Firstly, including God in the Act of Remembrance acknowledges that human life is more than just flesh and bone. The presence of Scripture and prayer affirms that life lost for the great cause of national freedom is life honoured, because we as human beings are of utmost importance to God and that we are created as living souls. Secondly, those who serve in Her Majesty’s Forces find great comfort in both the truth that those who paid the ultimate sacrifice did not do so in vain, due to a chaotic and meaningless worldview, and also the truth that in times of great crisis and a sense of loss, there is a benevolent Creator that we can turn to in prayer for comfort. Thirdly, and perhaps most poignantly considering recent years, many of our serving Forces personnel are living with the difficult reality of having taken a life. Having sat with soldiers who have cried into my arms with that kind of guilt, the belief that God is not only present to witness such an event, but also to forgive such an event, is something which those who call for the removal of God from the Act of Remembrance simply do not understand. There are of course other arguments to support retaining the Act of Remembrance as a Christian practice, but these three reasons capture my experience both as a soldier and as an Army Scripture Reader serving soldiers.
To highlight this tension of placing God within or without the place of trauma and remembrance, let me share the story of Geoffrey Beattie. Geoffrey Beattie is a renowned psychologist, and whilst undertaking research into the effects of trauma on a community, he travelled back to an area of Northern Ireland known as ‘murder triangle’. As he entered the community, scrawled on one of the gable walls of a house was the statement, ‘God is nowhere’. That kind of statement is understandable considering the brokenness which this particular community has suffered. The community resident there had gone through a disproportionate level of loss due to the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. As Professor Beattie went from home to home, family to family, he heard harrowing tales of sons, fathers and friends losing their lives in gruesome and barbaric ways. This community truly had suffered. What surprised him, though, was the impact this community had on him. Far from being the shattered and disjointed community he expected to find, he experienced a community which was fiercely close, protective of each other, had a kind welcome for the stranger, had a strong community spirit, and most surprising of all, was a community deeply reliant on a belief in God; and in a God who does comfort the broken-hearted, does forgive the worst atrocities and does help through the darkest of valleys. As Professor Beattie was driving out of ‘murder triangle’, he looked back over his shoulder to that gable wall again, and whether it was the light, or the angle, or simply what he now chose to see, that scrawled graffiti statement now read, ‘God is now here’. God is found to be present in the midst of trauma and suffering, not piously absent.
In the Act of Remembrance, we remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice and laid down their lives for others. This ultimate sacrifice does not develop out of a vacuum, but is an outworking of a God who knows what it is to suffer for others; knows what it is to lay down life for loved ones; even greater than this, knows what it is to lay down life for enemies and those the world might feel are ‘not worth it’. Romans 5:8 tells us that ‘God commends his love towards us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ There is no greater sacrifice than one human being laying down a life for another. And yet, even this pales into a lesser honour compared with the very Son of God offering up His own life for the sins of the world, to grant to those who would believe, the greatest measure of freedom that anyone could ever know – salvation from sin.
This Remembrance Day, let us remember with thanks those who died in the service of King and country or Queen and country, for it is a noble thing to do so. But let us also remember and give thanks for the One who died to give us life, and that more abundant: Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God.