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Remembrance Day

 

Of Enemies, Violence, Sacrifice
and
Life’s Crosses

2nd Samuel 23:13-17
James 4:1-10
John 2:13-22

I: — For years I have arrived at church on Remembrance Day Sunday with my heart in my mouth. For years I have wondered what this service says to people of recent German 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? To be sure, we in Schomberg are orthodox enough to say we agree with the prophet Jeremiah that the heart of 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, one people in particular are extraordinarily deceitful, uniquely corrupt and thoroughly un-understandable?

The century just concluded, the twentieth century, has found Germany our enemy and France our ally in two major wars. But it hasn’t always been like this. One-and one-half centuries ago the situation was 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 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.A. for decades, as have the British. But the British and the Americans haven’t always been allies; there were slaughters in 1776 and 1812. The Citadel, that massive stone fortress in Quebec City , was constructed in the 1800s to protect you and me against the Americans. As soon as the American civil war ended Canadians were nervous lest the victorious Union army, led by General Ulysses S. Grant, decide it might as well turn north and make a clean sweep. From 1900 on the British and American navies vied with each other for superiority just in case the two countries went to war. In the year 1900 there was a celebration for Queen Victoria , and 2,500 British warships were on display for it in British waters. (Not included, of course, were British warships patrolling the high seas. And all of this in a country the size of a postage stamp.) The U.S.A. was determined to develop a navy that could conquer the Royal Navy. And in fact the U.S.A. had on file in Washington as late as 1932 plans for war against Great Britain .

Speaking of the Americans, when Rene Levesque became premier of Quebec in 1976 he began talking about claiming sovereignty over the St. Lawrence Seaway; he talked about reducing exports of hydroelectric power to the United States ; he talked about cozying up to Castro in Cuba . The Americans didn’t say anything about this; they merely did something. They immediately stationed one entire division (10,000 men) of light infantry opposite Kingston in upstate New York , so that these 10,000 soldiers could move quickly to Ottawa and Montreal in case Quebec refused to respect American interests. At the same time the CIA, America ‘s intelligence force, quietly slipped hundreds of French-speaking operatives into the province of Quebec . America wasn’t our ally in the 19th century; it was in the 20th century; I hope it will remain our ally in the 21st.

The expression “concentration camp” has been especially ugly in the past one hundred years. Who invented the concentration camp? The British developed concentration camps in their war against the Dutch in South Africa . The Dutch suffered more fatalities in the camps, we should note (principally through disease), than they suffered through enemy fire.

Jeremiah is correct. The corruption of the human heart is universal.

Nonetheless, while all hearts are corrupt, there do occur in history extraordinary concentrations of evil that are to be resisted at any cost. We cannot use our common sinnership as an excuse for not resisting the appearance of a particular concentration of evil. Naziism was such a concentration.

II: — It goes without saying that to approve armed resistance to an evil like Naziism is to approve violence. Those people who say they are opposed to violence in principle, opposed to violence of any kind, for any reason, must therefore approve non-resistance (at least non-armed resistance) to Naziism. Those people are therefore pacifists.

The tradition of Christian pacifism is long and noble. Many pacifists have suffered terribly for their conviction. There is much about them that appeals to me. I too want to be a pacifist. I am almost a pacifist by conviction — until I see once again a photograph or film footage of little children, four to twelve years old, tightly huddled on a railway platform in eastern Europe or Holland or France . Their parents are frantic. The children are waiting for a freight train — waterless, toiletless, near-airless — that will take them to an extermination site. In a few days they will not be gassed and their remains burnt (the fate of their parents); in a few days these children will be burnt alive. At this point my pacifism evaporates. No longer a pacifist myself in the face of such a hideous spectacle, I have difficulty understanding how anyone else can be.

Please don’t think that because I can’t approve of pacifism in principle I therefore approve of violence in principle. I don’t approve of wanton violence, gratuitous violence, violence for the sake of violence. To approve of violence in principle is to approve the sort of Nazi depredation we rightly deem reprehensible.

At the same time, we should be honest and admit that violence is another word for coercive power, and everyone exercises coercive power in some form every day. If everyone exercises coercive power, then everyone is violent.

When I speak of coercive power I mean that we impose our will on someone else who is unwilling. To impose our will on the unwilling is to coerce them; to coerce them is to violate them.

When the police officer arrests the criminal suspect at gunpoint the police officer is imposing his will on someone who is unwilling. He is coercing the suspect. The police officer with a revolver in her hand exercises the same coercive power as the bank robber with a revolver in his hand. The bank robber is coercing the bank teller; the police officer is coercing the suspect. But both are coercing. Both are imposing their will upon the unwilling.

When the judge sends the convicted person to prison he is imposing society’s will upon the unwilling. Violence has been done. Imprisonment, necessary to be sure, nevertheless remains a horrible form of violence.

When the parent says to her child, “No, you aren’t going to the overnight party. I don’t want to hear any more about it. One more word from you and you won’t go anywhere this weekend”; when the parent says this she is coercing the child. It’s impossible to pretend anything else.

When the dangerously deranged person is sedated and whisked off to the provincial hospital he isn’t asked if he’d like to go. He is strong-armed off to the hospital. The school principal about to suspend the pupil for striking a teacher doesn’t first ask the pupil and her parents if they agree with the suspension. The pupil and her parents are unwilling with respect to the suspension? Too bad. Their will is going to be violated (as it should be).

Someone like Gandhi is often held up as a model of non-violence. I don’t think for a minute that Gandhi believed in non-violence in principle. Gandhi used non-violence as a technique whenever he thought it would be effective; he disregarded non-violence whenever he thought it wouldn’t. If Gandhi had frontally opposed British military forces in India , he and his followers would have been decimated. Therefore he didn’t oppose British military force with whatever military force he could muster. Instead he deployed non-violence as a technique (always assuming, of course, the British tradition of justice, and always assuming that British military might — i.e., violence — would protect him and his followers in their protest against the British.) Gandhi used non-violence against the British in order to establish the oppressive power (violence) of the Indian state.

We can’t pretend that our Lord was less than violent the day he cleaned out the big church in Jerusalem . John tells us that Jesus made a whip out of leather cords. How long did it take him to gather up the cords? How long did it then take him to braid the whip? Plainly, our Lord’s violence was premeditated. He didn’t lose his temper in a flash; he didn’t lose his temper at all. He planned what he was going to do; his violence was premeditated, deliberate.

This story is rooted firmly in the gospel tradition. Every written gospel mentions it. John puts it at the beginning of Christ’s public ministry, thereby having it set the tone for his public ministry. Matthew, Mark and Luke put it at the end of his public ministry (just prior to the cross), thereby making it the climax of his public ministry.

In any case every gospel-writer understands the incident to be crucial. Jesus was not a devotee of non-violence. This shouldn’t surprise us. There is no one who is utterly non-violent. Even the pacifist punishes her misbehaving child; and punishment of any kind is coercion, the imposition of someone’s will upon the unwilling, and therefore a form of violence.

III: — Then wisdom is needed, much wisdom, if we are to forego the illusion that all violence is avoidable and forego as well the wickedness that any violence is acceptable.

Think of our Lord once again. He doesn’t hesitate to act violently when he is exposed to injustice and exploitation. He arrives at the temple (which he loves) only to find devout worshippers being “fleeced”. They are defenceless people. The animal they have brought to the service (or purchased locally for the service) must be blemish-free. The temple authorities, in league with the sellers, pronounce the animals unsuitable. The authorities tell the worshippers the only blemish-free animals are those that the sellers inside the temple are selling. It so happens that these animals cost fifteen times the market price.

The worshippers were financially poor – and were swindled unconscionably. They were devout — and their devotion was exploited shamelessly. When Jesus saw defenceless people being duped and exploited; when he saw poor people rendered poorer still, he became violent on their behalf.

Yet when Jesus is victimized himself, he doesn’t become violent on his own behalf. Concerning himself he exercises not violence but self-renunciation. When his victimizers are nailing him to the wood he will only intercede for them, “Father, forgive them; they don’t even know what they are doing.”

Self-renunciation is sacrifice. To renounce oneself is to give oneself up, to sacrifice oneself. To renounce oneself is to absorb violence, and in absorbing it, to learn that there is a cross at the heart of life. Christians believe that the crosses everywhere in life are to be picked up and shouldered willingly, gladly, even cheerfully.

Several years ago a well-known leader in the British Methodist Church , Rev. Scott Lidgett, objected to the attention and adulation heaped on a very popular preacher and able psychologist, Dr. Leslie Weatherhead. On one occasion when his heart was especially twisted Scott Lidgett said publicly of Weatherhead, “We are not interested in stars that scintillate but do not illumine.” It was a vicious remark. What did Weatherhead do? He absorbed it. When I say he absorbed it I don’t mean that he gritted his teeth and fought down the urge to retaliate. I mean he never let the remark impair his relationship with Lidgett; he never let the remark curdle his spirit. The remark was simply absorbed and therein neutralized. But we should never underestimate the sacrifice involved in such renunciation.

A year or two ago my mother was reading the newspaper obituary column when she came upon the name of one her former office-colleagues. My mother told me (again) about her late colleague. The woman and her husband had had a child born with spina bifida. The child had to be turned every hour. The woman and her husband took turns getting up in the night, hour-on, hour-off, to turn their son. They did this for thirty years. Having had her sleep interrupted frequently during the night, every night, the woman would come to work in the morning and cheerfully set about the day’s tasks, never once complaining about her lot or suggesting that she and her husband were hard done-by. What kind of self-renunciation is involved here? There is a cross at the heart of life.

A man in one of my former congregations was at worship every Sunday, diligent in his responsibilities on the official board, and enthusiastic at the weekly bible study Maureen and I had in the manse. He and his wife had married in their mid-twenties. Shortly after they married, his wife began behaving oddly, and soon was diagnosed schizophrenic. After that she had good days, bad days, and terrible days. On her worst days she abused her husband. When this fellow was having an especially difficult time he would talk with me. At the end of every conversation he would tell me he was feeling better and could go on caring for his wife (in every sense of “care for”). “I made a promise on our wedding day”, he told me often; “I made a promise to her.” Some promises entail enormous sacrifice, nothing less than a cross.

Our Lord made a promise too. (The bible calls it a covenant.) Our Lord made a promise to all humankind. His promise kept meant self-renunciation for him, self-renunciation so extreme as to end in a dereliction, a forsakenness that is unique.

The truth is, self-renunciation worthy of the name, anywhere in life, is never less than a cross. We should never pretend anything else.

IV: — Today is Remembrance Day Sunday. It is not a day in which we gloat over the superiority of some nations while despising the inferiority of others. Neither is it a day when we boast of violence in principle.

But it is a day when we understand soberly that violence and non-violence are not the simple alternatives that we have been taught. Violence is the exercise of coercion, and coercion is a household commodity: everybody exercises some form of it every day, even must exercise some form of it. The question we must ponder today is, “What kind of coercion (violence) are we to exercise? When? Where? Why? How?”

On Remembrance Day we recall the example of our Lord in the violence he chose to exercise and the violence he chose to absorb. We who are his people must come to the same understanding and make the same self-renunciation. For there is a cross at the heart of life, and therefore a cross everywhere in life. And such a cross God has promised to honour in such a manner that it will redound to his praise even as it eases the distress of us his creatures.

Victor Shepherd
November 2005