Did you read Friday’s ODT editorial on Remembrance Day?
It took us back to the memory of the First World War and the society that bore the immediate devastation of that conflict 93 years ago. One in every 4 New Zealand men between the ages 20-45 was killed or wounded; one in every four, - imagine that! It seems the ratio was even higher in Otago and Southland because of the higher rates of volunteers from our region. One in every 4 – no wonder that even today nearly every New Zealand town still has its War Memorial as a crumbling legacy of the war that shredded a generation. In this Cathedral also: that Memorial Window bears the badges of all the Otago and Southland units that served in that War. But there is more: there above us is the flag that Hoani Parata, a Curate (and later a Canon) of this Cathedral, took and used as Chaplain to the 1st Expeditionary Force in France and Egypt. Each year, on the 21st of October, the Anglican Church of New Zealand remembers him.
The war changed everything and the human cost was immeasurable.
The generation that went to war was not only shredded but it returned with its confidence and hope badly dented. All around were the signs of absent contemporaries. Try and imagine what that absence might have felt like: everywhere, in every street, there were absent sons and daughters, parents, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, lovers, friends, colleagues, neighbours. Everyone who survived would daily have felt surrounded by loss.
Perhaps the greatest loss in the war was immeasurable – and it was the loss of faith in human purpose, human meaning and our institutions. There was no longer any automatic belief in such things as national righteousness, wise government, the trustworthiness of official communication and popular media alike – was shaken beyond repair. All the spiritual and intellectual maps and landmarks of that generation were damaged beyond recognition. In the spiritual winter that followed, they experienced the Great Depression, the sugar bag years, and the economic consequences that splintered the nation and saw riots in Queen Street and unemployment rise to an estimated 30%.
Yet despite the horrors and losses, some good things happened.
For some there seems to have been a new moral clarity and I think of such things as:
· a deeper understanding of social injustice;
· a renewed determination that war should not recur;
· and a new kind of idealism that led to the Welfare State and visions of a sustainable society;
· and, for some, there was a new understanding of God
What I mean by this last point is that the shambles and agony of war caused (for some) a new understanding of God to come painfully into being. The God of nations and Empires, God the problem-solver, many familiar but questionable understandings of God, began to change.
For example, one of Hoani Parata’s chaplain colleagues illustrates the sort of change that began to emerge: Chaplain Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy (better known as ‘Woodbine Willie), who doled out smokes while he chatted to the troops, and wrote his poetry in the language of the ordinary soldier in the trenches. He was no ordinary chaplain. In one of his meditations on prayer he recreated a scene in the trenches and says: 'I wish that chap would chuck his praying. It turns me sick. I'd much rather he swore like the sergeant.'
In the mud, the muck and the misery Kennedy is revolted the thought of a bland problem-solving God and all the pious platitudes that reloigion can produce. Instead he looks at the cross and to the God who is discovered in the heart of one’s own endurance and pain – a God is not a solution, not a Father Christmas or a fairy godmother, but simply the one who ‘holds’ your deepest self, shareing your suffering, and so makes it possible for you to look out on the world without loathing and despair. I suspect that the way Studdert-Kennedy talked and wrote was pretty well the only religious response that was at all credible to those who were living through a daily nightmare. Throughout the mayhem he maintained his discipline of prayer – a discipline that kept his heart and imagination open to who he was, and that kept him grounded deeply in the reality of the suffering Christ. Doubtless some found their lessons at the front through other disciplines, but whatever kept them grounded in themselves, and with one another – I’d say God was in that anyway.
However, the trouble was that after the war, people being what they are, too many forgot to keep asking those questions, and abandoned the disciplines of mind and spirit that nourish us and keep us honest: many religious people went back to cosy shallow ways of thinking about God, while others settled for easy clichés about world progress, and so the hard lessons learned on the front line were forgotten. And the winter of the spirit, and another war, were yet to come.
So Remembrance Day is not just a sad and wistful looking backwards but very much a day to search our hearts for what it means to be a human being and for what kind of society we are building. It is a time especially to be wary of what Chesterton described as ‘The easy speeches that comfort cruel men’. In our current Global Financial crisis, with the power wielded by faceless unregulated global financial agencies, it may be that those who now camp in the Octagon and protest at what is happening to our country are asking the questions we should all ask. The generations we remember today walked forward with courage and held the bonds of our society, our nation and our Commonwealth together. Today may we ‘remember the lessons they learned and may we be spared from learning those lessons the way they had to’.