War is indelibly impressed upon the Canadian psyche. This year, the government of Canada is commemorating the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812-a conflict that left 15,000 dead on both sides, not to mention the many more thousands wounded.
Thankfully, Canada was spared most of the wars of the 19th century, but in the second decade of the 20th century came “the war to end all wars.”
Most of the countries involved were headed by monarchs related to one another. The Kaiser was a cousin of King Edward, for example.
All the countries fighting, except for Turkey and Japan, had strong Christian majorities where presumably people knew about Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom and the teaching of Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount. Western Europeans, at least, believed in the same God, attended Christian churches, heard Christian preaching, received Christian sacraments and read the same Bible. Yet on the battlefield, they slaughtered one another in the most barbarous ways possible. Somehow, religion never interfered with the pursuit of victory.
There is a story mentioned often by both German and British soldiers. On the first Christmas Eve of World War I, with soldiers in their trenches awaiting orders for the next assault, someone began singing “Silent Night.” Other soldiers joined in, first from one side, then the other. For that one night, both sides stopped trying to kill each other long enough to sing about the birth of the Saviour. It was a magical moment of peace and goodwill amidst the horrors of war.
The following Christmas Eve, as casualties mounted and the desire for victory grew stronger, soldiers were ordered not to sing or to respond to the singing of “Silent Night” if it came from enemy lines. When one German soldier began singing in defiance of orders, he was shot dead by an officer. No more singing, no more carols. After all, this was war!
When Canadians commemorate Remembrance Day, we remember those who served and died in war. God knows, Canada suffered more dead in World War I as a percentage of the population than any other country. Sixty-six thousand young people from a population of less than eight million died in that war. Thousands more were wounded, maimed, crippled, scarred for life.
Who were these Canadians who sacrificed their lives for King and country? They were farm boys, labourers, office clerks, school boys, fishermen, loggers, grandsons of Underground Railroad survivors, First Nations hunters, university students with promising careers, and a host of others. Ordinary Canadians like you and me sacrificed their lives for a cause greater than them.
Take, for example, the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Back in April, the nation commemorated the 95th anniversary of that battle, in which Canada suffered 10,600 casualties, including 3,600 dead. I have not been to Vimy Ridge, but I understand it is a place of great solemnity and sorrow.
In The Globe and Mail, [“Our lost and found memories of Vimy Ridge,” April 9, 2012, A6] Canadian novelist Jane Urquhart wrote of her visit to the Canadian National Vimy Memorial: “While I was there, almost anything could bring me close to tears: a maple leaf floating down from a specially planted tree; the sight of the same leaf gracing nearby Canadian war graves; the word ‘Winnipeg’ carved into the soft chalk of tunnels where I was told soldiers had stood for hours before being flung into the nightmare of the battle; the fact that a flock of sheep was employed to keep the grass down in many parts of the battlefield because, even 60 years later, the ground was still so dangerously alive with ammunition that a mower was out of the question.”
In the gospel, Jesus commends an aged widow for her incredible act of generosity in giving to the temple treasury. Wealthy people were putting huge sums of money into a large metal basin but this poor widow gave only two small coins worth a few cents. Calling his disciples to himself, Jesus said to them, “I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they gave from their surplus wealth, but she from her poverty has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.”
What does a poor Jewish widow have in common with our Canadian war dead? They both gave all they had. They held nothing back, not even their own lives. This is self-giving that defies common sense. This is the willingness to give and not count the cost. Jesus asked that of his disciples, and our Canadian war dead did that in the service to their country.
We still see that sacrificial giving today in any who puts self on the line for some greater good. We see it in our soldiers fighting in Afghanistan; in aid workers in Somalia or the Sudan; in missionaries in the Middle East; in people who risk their lives so that the light might shine in the darkness and love conquer hate. Despite the ravages of war, the peaceable kingdom is still humanity’s ideal. It is the harmony that bonds human beings together, puts aside old animosities and builds a world of justice and equity for all people. As Christians, let us never tire of building that kind of world, for where there is love, there is God.
In Canada as in the United States today, for every soldier killed in conflict, there are many more who are wounded. These are our Wounded Warriors. They have lost legs and arms and sight and their ability to function and live a normal life. Some are so deeply scarred that they may never fully recover mentally and emotionally, even if they heal physically. Truthfully, as a former army chaplain, every time I think of these wounded warriors, it is hard not to shed a tear.
We need always honour our troops and their sacrifice. One way we honour them is by committing ourselves to building a world where war is no more, where violence and terrorism no longer happen, where the conditions for lasting peace with justice exist, and where people of different races and religions and nationalities and ethnic backgrounds come together as brothers and sisters of the one God who loves us all.
Do you believe there will come a day when war will be history? I tell you: this is not too hard to believe, only too good to believe, we being strangers to such goodness. I believe that everybody can learn to love everybody, but that nobody can force you to hate anybody. If you hate someone, it is because you choose to hate them. But even the greatest hatred can be removed by the love of Jesus. Jesus can remove the hatred from every heart in every person in every place on earth. The cross is greater than the sword. Resurrection is stronger than death.
Love will reign triumphantly. This is our Christian faith.
Sergeant Jacob DeShazer was a bombardier in U.S. General Jimmy Doolittle’s squadron during World War II. While bombing Japan, his plane was shot down by antiaircraft fire. He bailed out of his plane and was captured. He was placed in a five-foot wide cell in a prison camp. He was beaten, whipped, spat upon, tortured and forced to endure some of the most horrible indignities imaginable. He developed an intense hatred for his guards. His hatred became like one giant mountain. He had only one reason for living and that was to get revenge on these guards.
One day, a Bible was brought into that prison. It was passed around and it finally came to DeShazer. He began to read it, and he came across the words of Jesus that said, “Love your enemies.” Miraculously the love of Jesus began to permeate his life and melt the hatred inside him. From that point on, every time he was tortured, beaten, whipped, or harassed, he would say, “Lord, help me to love my enemies.”
When the war was over, he returned home. He determined that God wanted him to go back to Japan, not to seek revenge, but as a missionary to tell the Japanese people about the love of Jesus.
The story of Jacob DeShazer’s conversion and return to Japan was printed in a little gospel tract. One day, Captain Mitsuo Fuchida-the Japanese officer who spearheaded the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor-was given that tract by an American stranger. Broken and suicidal at the time, the former pilot read it and his heart was touched. He gave his life to Jesus and began to preach the gospel of God’s love in Jesus because of three words: “love your enemy.”
The best way to honour the sacrifices of those who have died in Canada’s wars is to work for a world where war is no more. Love your enemy as God loves us and you will begin to build a world where there are no more enemies, only precious children of God.
The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.