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Lest We Forget


Isaiah. 2:1-4
Mat. 10:34-39
Mat. 5:9


[1] For years now I’ve arrived at church on Remembrance Day with my heart in my mouth. For years I’ve wondered what our service says to people of Germany ancestry. Have we implied, however unintentionally, that German people are the ogres of the world? that they are people of impenetrable hardness and incorrigible cruelty? Oh yes, we in Streetsville United are both orthodox enough and charitable enough to say we agree with the prophet Jeremiah that the heart of everyone, everyone without exception, is “deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt, beyond understanding.” (Jer. 17:9) But even as we say we agree with the prophet do we quietly qualify the statement so as to suggest that the hearts of one nation in particular are especially corrupt and unusually ununderstandable? The last thing I want to do today is foster the myth of superiority; namely, that some of us are superior because our hearts are more benign than the hearts of others.

Yes, the two major wars of this century found Germany our enemy and France our ally. If we were to push back one century earlier, however, we’d find the situation reversed: France was the enemy and Germany the ally. Following the battle of Waterloo, where the Duke of Wellington defeated the French forces, Wellington remarked, “Never have I come so close to losing.” He would have lost for sure had the British troops not been supported by German forces. In other words, labels like “enemy” and “ally” change in a twinkling.

Think of the United States. We Canadians have been allies of the U.S. throughout this century, as have the British. But the British and the Americans haven’t always been allies. They warred in 1776 and 1812. The Citadel, that massive fortress in Quebec City, was constructed in the last century to protect you and me from the Americans. At the turn of the century British and American navies vied for superiority just in case the two countries went to war again. The United States had on file plans for war against Great Britain as late as 1932. When the Parti Quecbecois came to power in Quebec in 1976 and began talking about asserting sovereignty over the St.Lawrence Seaway and impeding American access to electricity and fresh water, the United States government moved an entire infantry division (10,000 men) to upstate New York opposite Kingston so as to be able to move immediately should American interests be threatened. We mustn’t assume that because America is Canada’s ally today it will always be Canada’s ally.

The expression “concentration camp” has been especially distasteful in the past one hundred years. Who invented the concentration camp? Not the Germans; the British developed concentration camps in their war against the Dutch in South Africa. The Dutch suffered more fatalities in the camps than they suffered through enemy fire. Jeremiah is correct. Human sinnership is universal.

At the same time, while all hearts are deceitful and corrupt, there do occur in history particular concentrations of evil that are to be resisted relentlessly. We can’t use our common sinnership as an excuse for not resisting the appearance of a particular evil, a concentration of evil. Nazism was such an appearance, such a concentration.


[2] While there are many aspects to the evil of Nazism that we could discuss today we are going to examine one in particular: Nazism’s victimization of the Jewish people. We mustn’t think that the holocaust was simply part of the war, or at least a consequence of the war, neither more nor less evil than war inevitably is. The holocaust was unprecedented as evil for the sake of evil. Acts of war are customarily undertaken for the sake of something else. A military invasion, for instance, is undertaken for the sake of acquiring territory. Acts of war are customarily viewed as evil (at least by victors) even as those acts of war are undertaken for the sake of garnering natural resources or restoring national reputation or expanding “living room.” The holocaust occurred for none of these reasons; it was evil for the sake of evil.

We should consider several respects in which the holocaust differs from acts of war. Wars are fought by competing parties where both parties have power. Both parties may not have equal power, but both parties have some power. The Jewish people had no power. They made up less than 1% of Germany’s population. They had no access to the armed forces or the government. They were never a threat to the Third Reich; they couldn’t be. Therefore the aggression visited on them can’t be called an act of war.

Neither should we regard the holocaust as another of those collateral “spillovers” of war. Wartime “spillovers” occur when passions are unleashed inadvertently and people are found behaving subhumanly. The holocaust, however, wasn’t the result of mindless passion loosed unintentionally. The holocaust, rather, was planned with utmost rationality, executed with utmost deliberation, perpetrated with utmost detachment. Passion is spent quickly. If the holocaust had been the result of passion loosed in the course of war, it wold have disappeared as quickly as it flared up. It didn’t disappear, however, in that it had never flared up. It was coolly conceived, rationally implemented, deliberately executed, dispassionately protracted. It wasn’t done as a result of collective loss of self-control; it was done with utmost self-control. It was evil for the sake of evil.

Neither should we regard the holocaust as yet another instance of racism. Needless to say, the Nazis were racists. But they weren’t anti-semites because they were racists; they were racists because they were anti-semites. The Nazis, we should remember, pronounced the Japanese to be honorary Aryans! Since the Japanese were honorary Aryans, the Nazis weren’t racist in principle. They were racist to the extent that they were anti-semitic in principle. Moreover, racism asserts that some races are humanly inferior. In North America black people have been deemed inferior to white people; in central Africa, brown people inferior to black people. The Jewish people weren’t deemed humanly inferior, however; they were deemed not human at all but rather verminous. The racially inferior are customarily enslaved; vermin is always exterminated.

Neither were the Jewish people mere scapegoats in the holocaust. To be sure, in the early stages of the Nazi movement they were used as scapegoats. Jews were blamed for all of Germany’s woes; they were blamed for Germany’s loss of international prestige, its financial collapse, it’s defeat and humiliation in World War I. Very quickly, however, the Jewish people ceased to be a scapegoat for anything. As long as any were to be found alive they were to be ferreted out, degraded, and then murdered. Now they were singled out as evil was done for the sake of evil. Auschwitz wasn’t the first time they had been singled out. They had been singled out at Sinai. There, however, they had been singled out for life and a task. Now they were singled out for torment and slaughter.

Let’s be sure we are clear on a point that most people confuse: the holocaust wasn’t an aspect of Germany’s war effort, however misguided. The holocaust wasn’t perpetrated because it was thought to advance Germany’s war effort. It was never going to advance the war effort. By 1943-44 the tide was turning against Germany. An all-out effort was needed if Germany was to regain military ascendancy. Freight trains were needed desperately to transport materials to troop-fronts and airfields and naval depots. These trains were diverted to other destinations and used to transport people to death camps. Zeal for the holocaust undermined the war effort. After D-Day it was obvious that Germany would be defeated. Allied leaders announced that those who were orchestrating the holocaust would be tried, at war’s end, as war criminals and punished. And still the zeal for the holocaust didn’t abate. The holocaust wasn’t an aspect of the war effort; it jeopardized the war effort. It was evil for the sake of evil.


[3] In light of such monstrosity we ought never to undervalue the sacrifice that so many Canadians made in the face of it. We ought never to undervalue it, even though we persist in downgrading it to a trifle, even denouncing it. If you think I invent or exaggerate let me refer you to several textbooks in Canadian history written by Canadians for use in Canadian university and highschool classrooms. Discounting the 30,000 men Canada lost in the last war; discounting the 10,000 air crew that were lost in defeating Germany the only way Germany could be defeated, the most recent textbooks on Canadian history discuss Canada’s contribution in only a paragraph or two if they discuss it at all. I consider all such Canadian writers of Canadian history to be violating the ninth commandment, the commandment that enjoins us not to bear false witness against our neighbour. I consider all such revisionism to be disgusting, as revisionism always is.

When the best-selling, two-volume History of the Canadian Peoples comes to discuss the different fronts on which Canadians fought in World War II, its entire discussion lasts one paragraph. Robert Martin, a law professor at the University of Western Ontario whose father perished in the last war, pointed out in a November, 1991 newspaper article that recent history textbooks in Canada had “airbrushed” off the page the sacrifice Canadians made. In a November, 1996 submission to the Globe and Mail a school vice-principal from Surrey, B.C., asked why, on Remembrance Day, her school should have “some veteran…come in and stand up there and bore us all to death with his medals.” When “Victory in Europe” Day was being highlighted overseas (particularly in Holland) Nova Scotia’s Ministry of Education provided no curriculum resources concerning the event of V-E Day and the anniversary celebration currently underway. One board of education in Nova Scotia, however, did hold a daylong training session for teachers on the topic of human rights. The irony would be laughable if it weren’t tragic. Had the Third Reich lasted 1000 years as planned, no teacher would be sitting around a coffee urn discussing human rights. In 1996 an attempt was made to provide curriculum resources for Remembrance Day in Ontario’s schools. The Ministry of Education at Queen’s Park stifled the attempt.

What occurs at the provincial level occurs at the federal as well. In 1992 the CBC and the National Film Board colluded to show on national television The Valour and the Horror. Brian and Terence McKenna, the two men who crafted the details and mood of the movie, implied that the RCAF was a clone of the Nazis. We should note that while the movie vilifying Canadian airmen had the support of the CBC, the CBC refused to air No Price Too High, the response of air force veterans. Canadians forget because Canadians are programmed to forget.

The Dutch, on the other hand; the Dutch don’t forget. The Dutch remember because they want to remember. In May, 1995, the Dutch people festooned their homes and streets with banners commemorating the Canadians’ liberation of Holland. The Dutch have never pretended that Canadian efforts were of the same order as those of the Nazis. The Dutch remember the brutality of the occupation. They know who Anne Frank and Corrie Ten Boom were. They remember the cold-blooded killing of underground resistors who were captured. They remember the treachery and ignominy of fellow-citizens who collaborated. Does this mean that the Dutch harbour an ever-festering hatred towards Germans? Of course not. Myself, I have found very few Dutch people who don’t speak some German and are glad to speak it. The border between Holland and Germany today isn’t armed; in fact, it isn’t even manned. There’s only a sign that tells travelers they are leaving one country and entering another. Dutch and German forces train together today in NATO exercises.

Still, the Dutch remember what Canadians did for them. They take entire schools to the cemeteries of Canadian servicemen and remind their schoolchildren that political freedom comes with price tag attached. On the anniversary of V-E Day in 1995, fifteen thousand Canadian veterans marched through the city of Apeldoorn. The parade was scheduled to last two hours; it lasted eight, so frequently did the Dutch people run into the parade to hug, bedeck and press gifts upon the veterans. Mothers still in their twenties held up their infants so that the baby might receive a veteran’s kiss. The Dutch remember because they have reason to remember. We Canadians have reason too. Yet the CBC refused to televise No Price Too High. PBS, an American network, aired the film in any case.


[4] Yet as fine as Canada’s contribution was in the last Great War, Christians can never pretend that war is glorious, let alone godly. General George Patton was never more wrong when he said, “War is humankind’s noblest effort.” What can be noble about the human activity that advertises our innermost depravity and outermost wretchedness? What can be noble about the spectacle of those created in the image and likeness of God sparing no effort to maim and kill others made in the image and likeness of God? So far from being glorious, war proves as nothing else proves what the church holds up as patently obvious: humankind needs saving, and humankind will never save itself. Humankind doesn’t need to be helped; it doesn’t need to be inspired; it doesn’t need to be “topped up” with tonics intellectual or moral. Humankind needs to be saved.

To be sure, on Remembrance Day Sunday we are “remembering” in church. At the same time, the church knows that war isn’t an aspect of the kingdom of God or a herald of the kingdom of God. George Orwell was surely correct when he said, “War has never been right; war has never been sane; but sometimes war has been necessary.” In order to gain proper perspective on the matter we should invert Orwell’s aphorism: war has sometimes been necessary, but war has never been sane, never been right. Never been right in the sense of never been righteous. Righteousness pertains to the kingdom of God, and war is a contradiction of the kingdom of God.

How unrighteous is war? Who knew war better than Ulysses S. Grant, and who waged war more masterfully? When Ulysses S. Grant was leader of the Union forces during the War of the Great Rebellion (its official title in the U.S.A.) Grant used to say, “The purpose of war (the purpose of the war he was waging) is to end war. Then war should be ended as quickly as possible. War is ended fastest when war is waged against civilians. Governments surrender much faster when their civilians are being slain. Therefore always endeavour to wage war against civilians.” War, however necessary, has never been right, righteous. Only the kingdom of God knows righteousness.

Then the church’s responsibility, especially on Remembrance Day, is to exalt the triumph of the Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. Our Lord has been raised from the dead; not merely raised from death, he’s been raised beyond death, beyond the reach of death. The powers of evil that overtook him once can never overtake him again. Raised from the dead and raised beyond death, he now bestrides the world as the guarantee of that new creation in which, says Peter, righteousness dwells. (2 Peter 3:13)

Unquestionably evil afflicts God’s creation at this moment. Then is evil to distort and disfigure forever what God created out of his goodness and pronounced good? Is evil to linger so long as slowly but surely to gain the upper hand and thereby submerge even the residual goodness of the creation? No! Our Lord has been raised from the dead. His victory can never be overturned. God’s decisive intervention has already occurred. The struggle between the righteousness of God’s kingdom and the unrighteousness of a fallen world is a struggle whose outcome can never be in doubt. Because of our Lord’s victory we who are called to resist evil can never be involved in a losing cause. In resisting evil, rather, we are bearing witness to that triumph whose irreversibility renders our resistance fruitful.

Yet we must be sure to understand that resistance to evil is more than mere defiance of evil. Defiance of evil is certainly necessary; yet defiance of evil is never sufficient. Defiance of evil leaves us locked in a stalemate, with evil always setting the agenda. Defiance of evil, then is essentially negative. Resistance to evil, on the other hand, is essentially positive. Positively, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, we are to “go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” (Isaiah 2:1-4)

For the Hebrew mind “mountain” always has to do with revelation, and revelation is God’s gift of himself accompanied by the illumination of his gift. “House of God” has to do with the venue of worship. The God who longs to give himself to us is apprehended – that is, both understood and grasped — only as he is worshipped. It is only as we worship that we know ourselves the recipients of God’s gift, find ourselves illumined as to the meaning of this gift, learn the ways of God and therefore, ultimately, walk in God’s paths.

Resistance to evil, essentially positive whereas defiance of evil (admittedly necessary) is only negative; resistance to evil always entails peacemaking. Here we should note carefully the difference between peacemaking and peacekeeping. Peacekeeping (once again necessary in our world) presupposes the capacity to wage war. All peacekeepers are armed. This point is surely significant: all peacekeepers are armed. In other words, peace is kept only as the threat of non-peace is a real threat. Peacemaking, however, is different. Peacemaking, so blessed that Jesus pronounces peacemakers “sons (daughters) of God”, those who mirror God’s nature; peacemaking has to do with shalom, and shalom is a synonym for salvation. God has made provision for us in the cross, his characteristic deed of sin-absorbing self-renunciation. We can make peace only as we “go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob”, and there “learn God’s ways and walk in his paths.” It’s plain that God’s way is the way of the cross; it’s plain that to walk in God’s paths is to walk the way of the crucified.

Ascending the mount of the Lord, worshipping in the house of the God of Jacob and learning his ways; all of this exists for one thing only: that we might walk in his paths. Walking in his paths happens to be most difficult of all. Ascending, worshipping, learning: all of this is easy compared to walking, for that walking which is the closest following of our Lord always entails crossbearing. Peacemaking, then, is every bit as arduous and dangerous as warwaging. Peacemaking entails as much hardship, discipline, self-renunciation – sacrifice – as warwaging.

Therefore we must always support those who pursue peace. We must never think that warriors are virile while peacemakers are “pantywaists.” We must never think that peacekeeping, necessary to be sure, is more important than peacemaking. We must always thank God for peacemaking wherever it occurs on however small or large a scale. The resurrection of our Lord from the dead (which resurrection is irreversible) means that the self-renunciation of peacemakers is never finally futile. Peacemaking, on whatever scale, is ultimately an anticipation of that God-appointed day, itself irreversible, when, in the words of the prophet Micah, all

shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken. (Micah 4:4)


                                                                    Victor Shepherd
November 1998

Remembrance Day 1998