May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.
Years ago in El Salvador, mourners cried, “Presenté, after the name of each person, killed in the 1980s conflict, was read out. It was a way not only of remembering them, but of re-membering them with their community as the mourners evoked the presence of their spirits.
When we remember loved ones who died or were injured mentally, spiritually or physically in the war, we do so not only to conjure up a mental picture, but also to help bring home the spirits of the lost to their families and communities. We complete the circle by honouring their sacrifices and committing ourselves to the work of peace so that their sacrifices are not in vain. We complete the circle by making room for them in our archival memories and in our hearts. Our acts of remembrance take the severed relationships that war cruelly broke by death or PTSD and offer this brokenness into God’s healing hands. When we remember, we might be able to make beauty out of brokenness.
Rev. Harold Appleyard served Christ Church Anglican in Meaford, Ontario, when WWII broke out:
He joined the Grey and Simcoe Foresters in 1941 as their unit chaplain. Almost as soon as he landed, the destruction in England struck him as appalling. He quickly began to collect shards of stained glass from the shattered windows of damaged churches and began to envision using them for a memorial window at his parish church. Cox and Barnard Stained Glass Works in Hove, Sussex offered to design and re-lead the glass into windows to fit the Meaford church—free of charge in gratitude for the Canadian war effort.
The Rev. Appleyard retrieved glass from more churches in France, Belgium, and Holland, and a year after the war ended, the church unveiled the windows as memorials to the parishioners and townspeople who had been killed or wounded during the years of fighting. At the service of dedication, he said, “During my first few moments in England, the appalling destruction of homes and churches alike, along with the courage of the British people, made it desirable to link their sacrifice with ours.” His words were broadcast across Canada and Britain. In 1999, the church became a Centre for Prayer for World Peace.
The ultimate goal in war is not revenge nor punishment, but peace where weapons of war will eventually be turned into tools of peace. United Church minister and military chaplain, Linda Tomlinson-Seebach, describes how a military unit’s colours are intended to wear out. A unit’s colours are a flag of honour used in commemorative ceremonies today or, historically, to lead soldiers into battle. When flags begin to wear out and are replaced, the old ones are hung until they finally waste away to dust. Linda explains that this is a visual sign of our desire that, in time, there will no longer be any need for such colours to be newly displayed, and war will be no more.
This is our prayer, especially on Remembrance Day. We remember so that we might pledge, “never again.” But even as we pledge, we are also reminded of our human fragility, of egos out of control, of warped senses of justice that twist the truth and make increasing demands of the vulnerable. And once again, we find ourselves back in places of conflict, fighting to arrive in a place of “never again.”
There are alternatives to killing and I also wish to remember the brave souls who put themselves on the line for nonviolent resistance. This, too, is a way to pledge “never again.” One of the most radical proposals on how to arrive in the place of “never again” comes from the words of Jesus, who challenges us not to kill our enemies, not to hate them, but to love them.
In April, 1972, American pilot Dan Cherry flew an F-4 Phantom fighter jet in a dogfight with a North Vietnamese, Russian-made MiG-21. Dan fired a heat-seeking rocket that that blew the wing off of the enemy plane. Cherry recalled seeing the plane’s pilot with his arms broken, ejecting himself from the plane and parachuting to the ground 30 miles outside of Hanoi.
Years later, the memory launched Cherry on a search for the North Vietnamese pilot, and in 2008 Cherry found him in Ho Chi Minh City. “Welcome to my country,” Nguyen Hong My said. “Glad to see you are in good health. I hope we can be friends.” Cherry then went to the man’s home for dinner, met his family and held his one-year-old grandson. Later Hong My returned the favor and visited Cherry in the United States. Dying to their old selves, two former enemies were reborn as friends.
Even as we support the war effort in Ukraine, we must never forget these words of Jesus to love our enemies. May we hold close to our hearts the stories of brave souls who bring life to these words. We can nurture the seeds of love and forgiveness. We can choose life—or we can choose death by nurturing the seeds of envy, revenge, possessiveness, and control. The seeds that we nurture will determine our future.
When we remember the horrors and the sacrifices of the armed forces, may we also remember the flag of peace that motivated their selfless acts. As we take up their torch, may we commit ourselves anew to peace and to the cultivation of the seeds of forgiveness and love that will keep the flag of peace from never wearing out. Amen.