A Remembrance Sunday meditation on Jesus' teaching to love our enemies

The view across to Christ's Pieces from the front of the
Memorial (Unitarian) Church on Remembrance Sunday 
Readings: Matthew 5:43-48 and Luke 10:25-37

All of you will have had primordial experiences that have shaped your own understanding of what is,or should be, happening in an Armistice Day/Remembrance Sunday Service. But, however deeply felt are those personal, primordial experiences, they took place within a context that is even more primordial and collective, namely the general culture into which we were born and brought up.

So, for a child of my age (47), I grew up in our culture's still moving shadow of the Second World War. This shadow could be seen moving in the countless British and American war films I saw in the cinema and on television, in the memoirs, hagiographies and histories of politicians and war heroes and also in the sermons and liturgies I participated in as a choir boy, Scout and Sea Cadet on Remembrance Sunday in the local church and around the village war memorial. I saw it, too, in the general way my family would simply act, for example, the way we just bought red poppies and wore them, the way we would simply feel “relieved” when, in a film, we saw an enemy ship, plane or tank eliminated. These are just two of the things we simply did and felt in this still moving cultural shadow. This general context silently passed on to me the ideology of my culture - in this case a culture which understood itself as having "won" the war and for good and just reasons. Please don’t hear the word “ideology” negatively because to speak of it is, of course, simply to speak of the comprehensive vision and way of looking at the bequeathed to me through my socialization in mid-twentieth century British culture. In many, many ways it’s an ideology that I remain very proud of.

Such a process of socialization is, of course, necessary for everyone everywhere around the world, because without it no one could, in any meaningful sense, get started in the world and have the chance of going on to become in it an authentic individual. But what is an "authentic" individual in this context? Well, at the very least it must include a process in which an individual person in the culture begins to notice this process of socialization which has made them what they are and, then, to be able to go on to inhabit and move along their culture in creative and, we hope healing and healthful ways.

NB - As I have said in another address this is to engage, not in a process of overcoming (überwinden) - that is to say attempting to affect change by the wholesale defeat of certain ideas and practices of our culture and society - but one in which one can find ways to change them by incorporation, reinterpretation, twisting or weakening (verwindung). 

Now, there are many ways by which a person comes to notice the silent ideology of their own culture and so begin to play their own part in moving it on in creative and healing and healthful ways but I began to notice the ideology of our own culture in the places and moments where it met and conflicted in some way with personal experiences of it. Here, briefly, are my two most memorable experiences related to war and remembrance.

The first concerns my mother. I remember one Saturday afternoon watching some war film on TV about heroic British bomber crews - it was something like the film "The Dambusters." When it finished I began talking with her about bravery, heroes and the fighting of the good fight; you can imagine the kind of talk. Without diminishing their undoubted bravery, heroism and willingness to fight the good fight my mother’s unexpected response quite shocked me out of my culture’s ideology and into an encounter with my mother’s own direct experience of what the dropping of bombs really meant to her as a very young child. She spoke to me in simple and straightforward terms about the horror of hearing doodle-bugs, the V-1 flying bombs, coming over their neighbourhood (near Hampstead Heath) and knowing that when the engine cut out all she could do was wait and pray that it did not fall on her. It never did so fall but, well into my own childhood, she still had nightmares about those bombs. In that moment I saw clearly that there was a huge difference between the corporate ideological understanding of the meaning of any conflict and an individual’s understanding of its meaning as someone actually caught up in its midst. The experience of her sharing this with me brought me up sharp and lit up for me something important. What that something was we'll come to in a moment.

The second event occurred when I was about fifteen. For some reason I read a memoir called "I Flew For The Fuhrer." It was written by Heinz Knoke who joined the Luftwaffe at the outbreak of the war, rose to the rank of commanding officer, and who was eventually awarded the Knight’s (Iron) Cross. Although a later reading of the book revealed to my, by then, more sophisticated understanding, clearer sight of Knoke’s own problematic relationship with the great evil inherent in Nazi ideology, what I took from the book on my first, naive, reading still came powerfully to me. Namely, that Knoke, as an individual human being, was shockingly similar to the individual human beings who sat in Allied cockpits. In reading his book I found, not a clichéd ideologically shaped enemy, but a real person whose feelings and concerns were wholly familiar to me: fear, love, courage, a sense of duty and loyalty to one's country and culture and a deep concern for the well-being of his own family. This profoundly disturbed me because it definitively challenged my naive and socially reinforced belief that easy distinctions could always be made between the "enemy" and me. The experience of his book brought me up sharp and lit up for me something important.

So what was that important thing that was lit up? Well, it was something about the teaching of Jesus that we should love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). I have always been struck by how this teaching is so rarely publicly invoked on Remembrance Sunday. Of course, I'm so completely a product of our culture that I fully understand why this is the case for, however, you look at it, and from which ever side of the conflict you look, the "enemy" had killed the people whom you were now remembering and the idea of loving them at that moment is extraordinarily hard. But I'm also completely product of a Christian culture that takes with absolute seriousness Jesus' teachings. For me these teachings simply cannot be ignored. In short there is for me always a huge tension present on this day.

What was lit up for me was how Jesus' teaching is consistently concerned with the individual who is actually in front of him at any given time and he is never directly concerned about the ideology that has shaped that same person. This powerful way of being in the world is no better illustrated than in his parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). The message of the story relies upon us knowing that both of the characters involved are ineluctably shaped by their respective, conflicting ideologies such that in important ways they are truly enemies to one another. Jesus' compassionate strategy to move us beyond the ideological and into a more authentic way of living is to help the Jewish man (and therefore us) to see how, without necessarily going on to love, or even approve of, Samaritan ideology he can, in fact, love that person who is his enemy and to care for him compassionately as a neighbour.

This realization, this thing that was lit up for me in Jesus’ teachings by my mother's and Knoke's stories, has been for me very helpful in all kinds of ways for many years. But something happened last month which took this general realization to a much more challenging place.

Three weeks ago, Susanna and I were, as you know, in Germany in the small towns of Lemwerder, Altenesch and Bremen-Vegesack to attend the induction of my friend and colleague Jochen Dallas into his new ministry there. These towns have been the site of shipbuilding for centuries and to this day there are still two major shipbuilders present, Lürssen and Abeking & Rasmussen. Because of this industry, during the Second World War, the place was very heavily bombed. So heavily that, at least in the centre of the town (Bremen-Vegesack) where we were staying, there were appeared to be no surviving old buildings.

As Susanna and I walked around Bremen-Vegesack on the Saturday I slowly became increasingly aware of this fact and my mother's story slowly began to press in upon me with great and painful force. I couldn't stop thinking that in so many of those old buildings there had been hundreds of children of my mother's age who had experienced the same abject terror she had. Not only children but whole families - families just like my family. At the time, ideologically speaking, they were clearly our enemies but, as we have just seen, according to Jesus' ethic they were also always-already our neighbours and, as such always-already deserving our love and care. That Saturday I didn't really know what to do with this painful experience and tried, for the moment, simply to put it to one side.

On the following day, Sunday, along with thirty other members of the German Lutheran Church in Cambridge, we went to and took part in Jochen's induction. It was a splendid and joyous event.

In the afternoon after the service and shared meal Jochen took us all on a tour of the three churches he currently has charge of. Naturally, in each of them there are war memorials. However, in Bardewisch, one of the memorials consists, not simply of a list of names carved anonymously upon stone, but of pictures of real people. It was the human faces looking out at me that completely stopped me in my tracks. To be sure the memorial, which you have in front of you (click on the picture on the right to enlarge it), contains other images which for us in Britain will resonate ideologically and negatively, but at that moment I didn't, couldn't see them, because all I could see were the human faces of real fathers, brothers, sons, husbands and lovers and, by extension their many loved ones some of whose children were welcoming us so warmly in this church community and in the town where we were staying.

That this was happening to me the day after my own remembrances of my mother's experience of the bombing, that it was happening in a church in which Jesus' teaching of love, compassion and forgiveness are eloquently and passionately preached by Jochen, that happily chattering away around me were a mixed group of German and British friends, and that we were here to celebrate something wonderful and beautiful that we shared, meant that the faces of these German soldiers burnt unexpectedly and very deeply and painfully into my consciousness.

In that moment I became acutely aware that on Remembrance Sunday, by then fast approaching, I could not, under any circumstances, fail to remember, not only our own war dead - which we have already done - but also the German soldiers of Lemwerder, Altenesch, Bremen-Vegesack and Bardewisch and the thousands of other people who had died in these towns.

The question that remained unanswered until this week was how was I going to do this? In my private prayers? That seemed necessary but insufficient. Perhaps it should be done in the very intimate, quiet  evening service amongst the half-a-dozen people who come? Again, this seemed necessary, but it also felt insufficient. Or should it occur in this larger, much more public morning service that, understandably, expresses our own British culture's ideology more clearly and formally and where, in consequence, actually heeding Jesus' teaching and taking time publicly to remember German war dead would be significantly more difficult? I hope you will see why it has to happen here and now.

If we're really concerned to be a genuine liberal Christian church community that actually practices a religion rooted deeply in the spirit of Jesus then we simply must like him pay attention to the real people whose faces are before us now on Bardewisch's war memorial and to see beyond the ideology that separated us and made us enemies. We must begin to find ways to love them and to see them as neighbours who also deserve a worthy and compassionate remembrance. Our conflict was a shared European tragedy and we must find ways together to transform our remembrance of it into something better and deeper so we may share together a more hopeful future.

We have already in this service remembered our own war dead with the two minutes silence and this is right and proper. But now I’ll conclude this address with a further minute of silence in order that we may explicitly remember those German soldiers, sailors and airmen from Lemwerder, Altenesch, Bremen-Vegesack and Bardewisch who died in the war and to hold, too, in our prayers, their families and loved ones.

Silence . . .

May the dead of Lemwerder, Altenesch, Bremen-Vegesack and Bardewisch’s rest in peace alongside our own dead and may the loving, healing and forgiving spirit of God be amongst us all, now and forever. Amen.


sfwc said…
It is one of the more insidious tragedies of war that it makes us see our `enemies' as drably inhuman, or even monstrous. Thanks for helping to undo this persistent harm

PS If you are ever in this part of northern Germany again, I would love to see you.
Le Penseur said…
What a wonderful, sensible, touching sermon — thank you for your thoughtful words, Rev. Brown!
Thank-you to the authors of the two previous comments. I know that both of you live in Germany and so am particularly glad to hear that the address makes sense and seems to have been helpful in a German context.

Since I write this reply on Christmas Eve 2012 I wish you both a very Happy Christmas and New Year.

Warmest wishes,