Sermon: Forgiveness, not sacrifice

Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
ANZAC Service – 22nd of April, 2018

Have any of you seen the recent film Good-Bye Christopher Robin? It flashes forwards and backwards between the two World Wars and the period between them. It begins in 1941, when author A.A. Milne and his wife Daphne receive the news that their son Christopher is missing, presumed dead. We look back to 1916, when Milne is in the trenches himself; and then we suddenly flash-forwards to find ourselves with Milne in post-war London, celebrating the birth of his son, Christopher Robin, commonly known as ‘Billy Moon’, in 1920.

From 1920 to 1941 the film tells its story chronologically. In 1938 Milne, Daphne, and Christopher’s headmaster are standing outside his school waiting to see whether Christopher has been found to be fit enough to join the army.

A.A. Milne: I was in the last war. The War to end all wars.
Daphne: Yes, well, it didn’t work, it seems.
Christopher exits the school in civvies, rather than a uniform.
A.A. Milne (under his breath): Thank God.

One element of the plot of Goodbye Christopher Robin is both the futility of war, and the futility of trying to prevent it. Having fought in World War One Milne was deeply opposed to warfare. In his autobiography he wrote:

AA-Milne-on-his-own-lr-e1447338237695it makes me almost physically sick to think of that nightmare of mental and moral degradation, the war. When my boy was six years old he took me into the Insect House at the Zoo, and at the sight of some of the monstrous inmates I had to leave his hand and hurry back into the fresh air. I could imagine a spider or a millipede so horrible that in its presence I should die in disgust. It seems impossible to me now that any sensitive man could live though another war. If not required to die in other ways, we would waste away of soul-sickness … I was a pacifist before 1914, but this (I though with other fools) was a war to end war. – A. A. Milne, It’s Too Late Now: The autobiography of a writer (1939), p.209.

So, in 1914 Milne went to war, and in 1934 he published a book called Peace with Honour.  But in 1939 he wrote in a letter to another pacifist:

I believe that war is a lesser evil than Hitlerism. I believe that Hitlerism must be killed before War can be killed. I think that it is more important to abolish War than to avoid or stop one war. I am a practical pacifist. In 1933 when I began Peace with Honour my only (infinitesimal) hope of ending war was to publish my views and hope that they would have time to spread before war broke out. They did not. One must try again. But since Hitler’s victory will not abolish war; and since Peace now (which is the recognition of Hitlerism) will not abolish war; one must hope to be alive to try again after England’s victory – and in the meantime to do all that one can to bring that about. – Quoted in Ann Thwaite, A. A. Milne: His Life (1990) p. 526.

Milne reminds me a little of John Curtin, who was jailed in 1916 for refusing to report for military service (David Day, John Curtin: A Life (2006), p. 257) and who then became Australia’s war-time Prime Minister during the second world war.

Many of the men who fought at Gallipoli in 1915, those in whose honour the 25th of April was first designated ANZAC Day, might, like Milne, have thought that they were fighting in the war to end all wars; and then have discovered that too often wars simply beget more wars, and that they would have to send their own sons and daughters to fight, without themselves ‘wasting away of soul-sickness’. Every year, as we approach ANZAC Day, I wonder what it is that we’re doing, since sadly we are not celebrating the end of war brought about by the War to end all wars. I suspect that for many of the veterans of the First World War #LestWeForget was to remind the rest of us of the horror and futility of war. But there are fewer and fewer of those veterans among us, and so as we remember them, of what do they remind us?

As you watch the television and read the newspapers over the next week you might notice that for some Australians ANZAC Day provides an identity and a reminder of the significance of sacrifice. That’s not what it provides for Christians, because we already have those things. Our identity comes from our baptism, as the Apostle Peter tells us: ‘Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people’ (1 Peter 2:10). For Christians the only necessary sacrifice took place on the cross almost two thousand years’ ago, ‘when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins’ (Hebrews 10:12). So while for many Australians ANZAC Day is about identity and sacrifice, for Christians it must be something different. For us it can be a reminder of God’s commandment of forgiveness and the constant possibility of reconciliation.

In 1915 Sigmund Freud wrote about the First World War that it ‘tramples in blind fury on all that comes in its way as though there were to be no future and no peace among men after it is over. It cuts all the common bonds between contending peoples and threatens to leave a legacy of embitterment that will make any renewal of those bonds impossible for a long time to come’. For Christians, maybe ANZAC Day can remind us of the need to remake the common bonds between people that war and violence sever.

One of my favourite stories from the first world war of the possibility of reconciliation comes from a story told by a British Conscientious Objector who had been imprisoned for his refusal to fight. (You may recognise this story – I’ve told it before.) One of the groups that we often forget to remember on ANZAC Day are the people, many of them committed Christians, who conscientiously refuse to fight in World War One. It must have taken a great deal of courage to do that at a time when it meant imprisonment and punishment, and derision from a society that gave non-combatants white feathers and called them cowards. This particular Conscientious Objector’s name was Corder Catchpool, and on the afternoon of the Armistice, 11th of November 1918, he and some of the other COs were in the exercise yard in their English prison. He wrote: ‘An airman suddenly swooped down from 3,000 feet and skimmed over our heads, waving a black arm and an oily rag. I was deeply touched by this little incident. I took it as peace overtures from the Army to us – a message of goodwill for the future, by-gones by-gones, all recrimination and misunderstanding, all heart-burnings over, wiped out by that kind, dirty bit of cloth.’ – Quoted in Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars: A Story of Protest and Patriotism in the First World War, London: Pan Books, 2011, p. 342.

Perhaps for us the most immediate and obvious example of reconciliation is the fact that on ANZAC Day Australians are allowed to gather on the Gallipoli Peninsula to hold services commemorating the Australian dead. The Government of the country that we invaded, a country that lost more than 80,000 people to the campaign, is willing to allow us to remember our dead along with theirs. I’m not sure that we often stop to think how gracious that is.

Today we gather to remember all those affected by war; to honour all those who were injured or killed; to mourn with all those who lost people they loved; and to recognise those who conscientiously refused to fight. We also gather to pledge ourselves to do everything possible to prevent war, so that future generations will not have to experience its horrors. We do this as Christians because Christ is our peace; because in his body he broke down the dividing wall, the hostility, between all human beings (Ephesians 2:14). As Paul told the Corinthians: ‘All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.’ (2 Corinthians 5:18-19) Let us use today to commit ourselves to be agents of reconciliation. In the name of Christ, Amen.

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