by the Reverend Matt Harbage
May I speak in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the UK today, we live in a political culture of division and blame. It will not have escaped any of us that the language used in parliament over the last couple of months has been lamentable; stoking the fires of division. The Archbishop of Canterbury has rightly spoken out about this, and calls for action to heal divisions not just in parliament but “at almost every level of society”.
And indeed, as we reflect on our society, we see a mirror of the Westminster tension: Between pro-Brexit and Remainers. Rural and City. Between the radical alt-right, and the often judgemental extreme left.
And amongst all these political forces at play, it’s easy for us to become cynical, or simply find saturation. Yet our culture raises a key question of faith which must be addressed.
What is our role as Christian people amidst the divisions and tense uncertainty? Given our claim of the arrival of the world’s savior in Jesus Christ and his offer of salvation, I wish I could say our role is to make sure history rolls out properly. Surely after all, with God’s guidance, the world is heading towards progress, peace and wellbeing.
The events of the first and the second world wars, and the incomparable events of the Holocaust have truly exorcised the notion that the coming of Christ means the days of human cruelty and violence are over.
Furthermore, we feel powerless, as one armed conflict after another hits our TV screens. These are often fought as proxy wars, as Western nations and the rest of the world fight across the lands of the even less fortunate.
And so we must ask: In the face of our own divided nation and the frequently scorched and violent world, what is the calling of Christian people today?
I believe our calling is one of witness.
To witness to the Cross of Christ.
This is the site where fear and division took an innocent man’s life and God’s light became bloodied and raw death.
The site where humanity crucified God, and where God responded not with revenge, but with the costly words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”.
On the night of the 14th of November, 1940 Coventry and its Cathedral endured a relentless bombing campaign. Overnight, the ‘Moonlight Sonata’ offensive annihilated much of central Coventry. Its Cathedral in ruins, only the outer shell of the walls and the tower remained standing. In the midst of the rubble, a priest took three large roofing nails forged in the Middle Ages and bound them with wire, making a Cross. In the terrible aftermath that followed, Provost Howard wrote ” Father Forgive” on the smoke-blackened wall of the sanctuary.
Provost Howard made a commitment not to seek revenge, but to strive for forgiveness and reconciliation with those responsible. During the BBC radio broadcast from the Cathedral ruins on Christmas Day 1940 he declared that when the war was over we should work with those who had been enemies ‘to build a kinder, more Christ-like world.’
The Cross of Nails quickly became a potent sign of friendship and hope in the post war years, especially in new relationships between Coventry and the cities of Dresden and Berlin.
This story has always moved me, speaking of the witness to the Cross of Christ where profound destruction and violence is met with even more powerful compassion and forgiveness.
Along with much of London, our church of St Mark’s was also bombed during the second world war and left as a ragged shell. It was rebuilt and resurrected, not as an attempt to rewind the clock and forget the reality of war, but rebuilt to remind us of God’s enduring love and faithfulness.
Memory is vital when it comes to armed conflict. On Remembrance Sunday we are rightly reminded to “Never Forget”. An instruction all the more important as the last veterans of the Second World War pass away. We must not forget the horror of war, lest we forget the profound stain war makes on the national psyche and human soul.
On a recent visit to the Imperial War Museum, my walk through the exhibitions started to feel less like education and more like pilgrimage. The realities of armed conflict started to hit me. A quotation from Captain Theodore Wilson from the first world war was written across the wall,
“Whatever war journalists may say, or poets either, blood and entrails and spilled brains are obscene. War is about the most unclean thing on earth.”
I quote these words not to shock, but to counteract the glorification of war which tempts us to believe violence can be the righteous path to resolve tensions.
I was reminded recently of this temptation to glorify violence in an advert for a computer game called “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare”. In this game, the hero kills their way to victory. I fear for our young people to whom it is marketed. As if warfare can be entertainment, or that there are any victors in war.
As we look to the Cross of Christ, we see God’s Son, with the power to call down legions of angels able to make war, refuse to retaliate. Jesus allowed himself to be led to his death. In this he found a way to fight against evil while also living out his commandments to “love your enemy” and “do good to those who hate you”. Such love is not weak, nor without judgement. The Cross speaks of power of a subtle kind.
In our communities in London and other UK cities, we have seen some young people putting their faith in the power of knives and their trust in the balance of violent retribution.
The power of the Cross, then, in the face of such forces becomes the power of seeking peace without recourse to further violence. It means absorbing horrendous pain and disorientating loss, and harnessing it so we pursue understanding and seek reconciliation.
The physical cross made of nails of Coventry Cathedral speaks of pain and destruction. But discovering a shared pain with those once called ‘enemies’ became a source of common experience which led to reconciliation.
Seeking understanding and dialogue is vitally important, especially as we reflect on today’s political world. I’d like to end with some hard-lived words from Henry Allingham, one of the last British veterans of the First World War who died in 2009. Having turned 100 Mr Allingham said this:
“War’s stupid. Nobody wins. You might as well talk first, you have to talk last anyway”
May we honour the brave war dead by a united witness to overcoming division and working towards dialogue and understanding. To work at peace, in our everyday conversations and interactions, and never sit idle.
May our talk be wise, and be centered on the Cross, where love and pain and suffering and reconciliation and forgiveness meet.
For the sake of this generation and the next. Amen