Sermon preached by The Revd Gary Hastings at the Service of Commemoration of the Battle of Britain (2016)
Today we commemorate the 76th Anniversary of this crucial battle. It happened only 16 years before I was born, but is rapidly becoming a fact of history rather than memory, as those few left with us, who were involved in it or immediately affected by it, gradually and finally leave our company one by one. The growing distance begins to shade the story. Even though we have film and personal accounts of it, even though some still living remember it, the gap of time begins to blur the edges.
There is an unfortunate fashion at the moment, to a great extent driven by the media, of commemorating anything vaguely exciting and historical that happened in the last couple of hundred years. In Ireland we have had 1798, the Titanic, we now have the 1916 Rising, and the Somme. We’ll soon have 1922, and on and on. The media need to fill space on screen. So, programmes with film, interviews, and reenactments are a great stimulus to the whole industry.
The unfortunate effect of all this coverage can be simply to trivialise, as we tick off a list of historical events. We can miss the importance of some of them, and, in the case of war, we immunise ourselves to the fear and hurt, the total and utter wrongness of it, by the constant replay and repetition. We, who watch hours of both real and recreated violent footage of both crime and war for entertainment, more than any generation before us, can be desensitised to the reality. Not to mention the video games our young people play. Previous generations were equally silly, though. Before the First WW, the idea of glory and honour in war was possible only in the absence of any idea of the reality of it.
We know better. We have seen with our own eyes. The 20th C contained the lesson that war is bad, evil, awful, horrific, appalling, whatever words you wish to use of it. Whether just or unjust, right or wrong, won or lost, in defence or attack, war is the greatest evil. I don’t think we need to argue that.
The media that fill so much our lives are of no use for exploring complexity. There isn’t time, there isn’t space, it must be quick, and exciting, and keep people glued to the right channel. You cannot do complexity in a television programme beyond a certain point. You can do it in books. Big books, hard books, with footnotes and indices and references. But only a few people ever read those. Most wars come across as simple affairs in the retelling. Either we won, or we lost. If we lost, you won’t hear much about it anyway. But when wars are explained afterwards there’s usually a bad side and a good side. The war against Hitler and Nazism has been shown to be just, at the very least by what was found out afterwards in the extermination camps. This wasn’t just one country’s attempt at acquiring ‘Lebensraum’. Merely another episode of European conquest and colonisation at a time when it was no longer fashionable. Though that is also true. Nazism, Fascism, was a dangerous ideology which needed stopped. Which is not to say that WWII was simple. Stalin, for example, was a very strange bedfellow to have as an ally.
Politicians, leaders, by the very nature of their jobs, are required to simplify things. Either before or after a war. To make it seem reasonable, to be the only option, to be the right thing to do. —‘Coming generations will thank us.’— You know kind of thing. We’ve seen that in recent times ourselves. This is not to condemn politicians outright. If situations are sometimes manufactured, it is not always so. Circumstances arise, things happen. Wars can be inevitable, inescapable.
War, in reality, is always complicated. It is not just one country fighting another, or one army fighting another. It’s only occasionally simply about right against wrong. War is not just politics. It’s personal. It’s people. Individuals. In uniform, or civilians. People who will be hurt in their thousands, whoever wins. Armies, countries and nations are ideas we made up. Borders and territory are human concepts, they aren’t real. Uniformed forces are made up of thousands of individual humans. All different, all unique. All joining up for different reasons, —for idealism, to do the ‘right thing’, whatever it might be, — or for politics, or for the money, or because everyone else is doing it, or because of conscription. We do the combatants of the past a disfavour by painting them all the one colour. They were many, many different people, many lives, each as intensely personal and vivid as our own. And they had to take part in war.
War is evil, even when it is inescapable. War is always a bad thing. Win or lose, right or wrong. Today we remember people who had to go out and kill others, shoot them out of the sky, blow them up, because they were obliged. Obliged to commit horrors because not to do so could allow worse to happen. That is the true atrocity of war. Not to do something may allow terrible things to happen.
War is inevitable. Always. Just because humans are humans. We are greedy. Greedy for more stuff, for power and money. We are also scared. Scared of losing what is ours. Scared of being hurt, of our loved ones being hurt. Any of these things are enough for war to happen. If I am a pacifist, because of the gospel, I am also a realist because I come from Belfast. War will always be with us. Whether it is at the level of terrorism, or using massed armed forces, it is something humans do. There may be as many reasons for war as there are people involved in it, on all sides and in all conflicts. The rights and wrongs are subsumed into the ultimate wrong of what war is in itself. It is such a immensely sad thing that any person would be obliged to fight and kill others. The deep pathos of young lives given in order to stop the results of greed and arrogance, fear and insecurity.
The best reason for commemorating, remembering such things as the Battle of Britain, is not for its strategic importance in the War with Germany, which is what the historians will tell you of it. Forget about talk of air superiority, or of turning the tide of war. The best reason we have to remember a battle in a Christian church, is to remember that it was personal…. —The young people we remember today each went out to kill others and to most likely die in their own turn. They went to take part in a horror not of their own making. Some were willing, some were not. They did it with bravery, and at a deep personal cost to themselves and to their families. They did it despite fear and terror, which is what bravery actually means. Those who survive close contact with war still suffer, even if not physically. No one walks away unscathed.
Bravery will be required again. People to step forward, young people, men and women, to do things they should never have to do, to people whose company they could probably enjoy in other circumstances. War is evil, it makes us do evil things, hopefully to stop worse happening. May the Lord preserve us and our young people from it, as we remember here with honour, those who fought, and suffered and prevailed in the battle we commemorate today. Amen
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