On 11 November 1918 at 11am, the First World War officially ended. After 1,564 days and the deaths of 16 million people during the war, peace was restored.
Simply remembering is not enough, we also need to learn from the past, change and make a difference. It’s said that those who don’t learn from history are cursed to repeat it.
It was called ‘the war to end all wars’, but it didn’t. It was called ‘the Great War’, but it wasn’t, except in the level of destruction and chaos it caused. In it, the mechanisation of war was born and nurtured, with machine guns, tanks and trench warfare all either starting or developing during the war.
This year we commemorate 100 years since the end of this atrocity. What have we learned?
Wars continue; prejudice remains; we find new and innovative ways to kill people, either individually with novichok poisons or with weapons of mass destruction.
Yet it is right that we remember. We need to remember that nobody wins a war. We need to remember the senselessness of violence, the selfishness of humanity that leads to such acts of violence, the stupidity of constantly repeating the same mistakes again and again.
So what do we remember?
We remember the human cost of war. We remember the individuals, families ripped apart, children growing up never knowing their fathers, women losing husbands, parents losing children. Peter Jackson has recently recoloured black and white footage from the First World War, calling it They Shall Not Grow Old, and what is most striking is the ordinariness of the men. They are the man-next-door sent to fight and probably die.
What do we remember?
We remember the lives sacrificed for a common good.
2, 018 years ago a man came not to start wars, but to show a different way to live. Jesus didn’t fight any wars, he didn’t rule any country or start a war, or even stop it, but the way he lived his life, and particularly the way he died, showed a different way to act. His was a life sacrificed for a truly common good.
The famous war poem ‘In Flanders Field’ gives us the image of the poppy, an image of new life growing from the dead. But the poem also encourages us to ‘Take up our quarrel with the foe’, which is a worrying sentiment that leads to ongoing xenophobia. Jesus’s message is of a different kind: ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’.
A century has passed since the ending of that war, yet many other wars have been fought since and continue to be fought. When, I wonder, will we stop taking up the quarrel with the foe and start loving our enemies and praying for those who wish us harm?