Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, Remembrance Day Nov. 6, 2016
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.
It was during the Second World War, when connections began to be made between the fascism, which our soldiers were risking their lives to fight overseas, and racism within our own borders. An article in The United Church Observer of June, 1944 asked, “Does not the passing of laws discriminating against the Japanese seem perilously like Hitler’s anti-Semitic laws?” Canadians were beginning to realize that they needed to re-examine their own racism and prejudice which resulted in the internment not only of the Japanese but also other ethnic groups, such as the Finns, the Ukrainians, Germans, Mennonites, Hutterites and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Labour prison camps were actually set up in our own Canadian national parks for any who were considered to be “enemy aliens.” I was stunned to learn that right across the highway from where I grew up in a forestry research station at the foot of Castle Mountain was a barbed wire labour camp for the Ukrainians during WWII. My little piece of heaven had been a place of suffering for others.
Today we remember those who died fighting against the spread of fascism. But simply remembering one day a year is not enough. Letting others risk their lives, while we risk nothing is not enough. We, too, are called to be peace-makers, to be vigilant against the very seeds of fascism that are still found in every country of the world. These seeds of fascism begin with a fear of difference and an intolerance of those who don’t look or sound or think like us.
Our gospel lesson warns us to vigilant about all that is happening around us, so that when we need to act, we will be ready. We are to keep watch for the signs of the coming of the kingdom of God; we are also to keep watch for the signs of devastation that oppose the peaceable kingdom of God. We can’t leave it up to the troops, because by then, the seeds will have taken root and lives will be lost. We count on them to protect us, to protect everyone throughout the world from human rights violations. I think that they also count on us to root out seeds of fascism and intolerance before they begin to take root in hearts of fear.
Edith’s story was carried in the November 2014 issue of the Observer. She began to notice seeds of fascism when she was a teenager, growing up in Berlin. Terrible things were happening around her. One day, she ran to her church and asked her priest, “Wasn’t Jesus a Jew?” “Of course,” he answered. “Then why are our Jewish neighbours disappearing and others taking their homes? Why are they attacked and no one helps them?” He put his finger to his lips and hushed her. “My child,’ he said, “we live in difficult times; we mustn’t ask questions.” That was when Edith learned about the evil of Christian collusion with fascism.
A few years later, Berlin was immersed in war. At the end of the war, she met a British church organist in Berlin, who asked her to marry him and move to England. She had heard about London and was excited to move to England so that she could attend the London operas, concerts and theatre. It was only later when she realized that her fiancé’s small town, which was only a half-inch away from London on a map, was not close enough to attend anything in London. However, the real reason she wanted to move to England was to leave behind fascism. In particular, she could not tolerate her parent’s anti-Semitism. But when she arrived in England, she encountered a different kind of prejudice and fear. When she tried to join a church choir in her new home, two other women said that they would not sing with a German. And so, she told the choir director that it was too soon—she would withdraw and come back in a few years. He replied, “No. If you leave, I will leave. Music is a great healer. We all work together.” So Edith stayed and no one left.
Remembrance Day services were difficult for Edith, because she did not want her presence to embarrass others. She wanted them to be able to remember and fully grieve. But when asked if it was time to let go of Remembrance Day services, she was adamant that they continue. She explained that one of the purposes of Remembrance Day is to remember how easy it is for any nation to follow the wrong leadership and fall over the precipice into chaos. She said that we have to remember the horror, the devastation, the depravity and the colossal losses and waste of human life. We have to remember what human nature is capable of when we lose our way. She then added that we all have many reasons to seek forgiveness.
There was one woman in the small English town who became a close friend of Edith’s. They knew that they had each suffered and grieved tremendously during the war. Through this suffering, they both became compassionate people, but they never spoke of the war to each other. Instead, they shared forgiveness. Edith noticed that whenever she came to this woman’s house for a visit, the woman brought out her best china for her dear friend.
May Edith’s story inspire us not to remain silent when we encounter racism and prejudice. For the sake of our troops, who continue to risk their lives both overseas and at home to prevent human rights atrocities, let us be ever vigilant for seeds of fascism and instead sow seeds of forgiveness. May our troops count on us to do our part in helping to usher in God’s reign of peace.