Today is Remembrance Sunday – the Sunday closest to November eleventh – the day World War I ended nearly a hundred years ago at the "eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" of 1918. In the United Kingdom and in many Commonwealth countries, Remembrance Sunday is kept with great solemnity as an annual reminder of the evil of war and the sacrifice of those who have given their lives for their nation and for the cause of justice and freedom. Many people on this day attend worship, visit cemeteries, and wear a poppy flower on their lapels in commemoration of the day and what it represents.
Veterans Day, as November eleventh is now called in the United States, is not observed with perhaps the same widespread and popular involvement as is Remembrance Sunday in other lands. Still, it is appropriate for all of us from time to time to remember and honor those who have served their country in periods of both conflict and peace.
War is, of course, nothing new. And World War I, as we now know, far from being “the war to end war” in the catchphrase popularized a century ago by H.G. Wells, has sadly proved to be but one more in a long succession of wars and conflicts beginning before written history and extending right into our own times. Humankind, it seems, has yet to learn to settle its differences peaceably and equitably.
And tyrants, as we also realize only too well, do not easily give up their power and hegemony in the name of the common good and righteousness. Sometimes it takes a popular uprising, and the conflict and violence it entails, to bring change and, ironically, peace. We can only hope at this point that such will prove to be the case in the Middle East, as nations and peoples long demoralized and repressed now demand their rights and liberty.
Warfare and conflict, in fact, play an important part in the story of virtually every land and culture, including our own. Even scripture itself is replete with accounts of battles and clashes too numerous to count, all of which in some sense molded Israel into the people of God. Our first reading today from the Book of Judges provides us with one example.
And it is an interesting one at that – the story of “Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lippidoth.” Her story exemplifies the familiar Biblical themes of sin and redemption. “The Israelites again did what is evil in the sight of the Lord,” we are told as the story unfolds, though of course without being given the details of their transgressions. God punishes his people for their unnamed misdeeds by seeing them sold “into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan,” who, in turn, oppresses them “cruelly for twenty years.”
The Israelites predictably “cried out to the Lord for help,” and through what must have seemed to them the unlikely intervention of Deborah – the only woman judge in Israel’s long history – an armed force of some “ten thousand” troops is organized and sent into battle. The people of Israel are at last rescued and their enemy vanquished. The narrative is nearly archetypal for every great conflict in the history of ancient Israel from the time of the Exodus to the era of the Maccabees.
While no one today would likely suggest that oppression and war are of necessity God’s punishment for sin, there is nevertheless surely something in our fallen nature that brings conflict in spite of our best intentions and determination to avoid it. Like the Israelites, we remain all too capable of doing “what is evil in the sight of the Lord.” That much has not changed. Nor for that matter has our need for redemption. Just as in the time of Deborah, it is still the Lord alone who can rescue us from our own worst instincts.
In the Prayers of the People during many of our Sunday liturgies today, we will once again pray “for the peace of the world.” It may seem sometimes a futile, even perfunctory, petition, as conflict and fear still remain the norms in lands far away and on the streets of many of our very own communities. Paul is doubtless right in what he bluntly tells the Thessalonians in our second reading: “When they say, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come.” It seems sadly to be a fact of life as much today as it was in Paul’s time – not to mention in 1918.
The last combat survivors of World War I have only recently passed on. Our human link with that generation and its war has been broken forever. But our fervent prayers for peace and for those who have died in conflict continue unabated. After all, we can only ever hope for the miracle of peace when we also remember in prayer the cost of war.