Remembrance Sunday

We come together today in remembrance. We come together today in gratitude. We come together today to remember the horrors of war. 

This commemoration began after the end of the First World War – the war that was hoped to end all wars. The armistice signed at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month has been commemorated ever since, but sadly, the blood spilled in that conflagration was eclipsed by the suffering of the Second World War. 

Throughout human history, there has been warfare. We have used the tools available to us. When those were limited to stones and clubs, the damage was less. Today, our technology gives us the means to kill millions of people and destroy entire cities and even countries. 

Over the past century – a century that began with great hope for the upward direction of humanity - millions of soldiers – mostly young men but also women – were sent off to battle. Millions of them returned home broken – physically or psychologically scarred for life. Millions more went off to war and never returned. 

These many millions made enormous sacrifices. Sometimes they volunteered to fight. For others, war was forced upon them. 

To all of them, we owe our gratitude whether or not we agree with the war in which they fought. These millions who sacrificed in war sacrificed for us – for country and countrymen and women. They sacrificed to preserve our freedom from oppression and tyranny. Often, they gave their lives so that other lives could be spared. 

As we mark Remembrance Sunday today – this day so tied to the First World War - we may look primarily to the two World Wars. In a way, these two global firestorms carry with them a certain sense of moral clarity. While there were many who opposed involvement in each of these wars, we may now understand that involvement as unavoidable and view these wars as ones in which survival and freedom were clearly at stake. 

The moral clarity less as we move forward through time to places like Vietnam, the Falklands, and Iraq. 

Most recently, our news has been filled with stories of a war that rages in a place called Afghanistan. Two hundred and thirty British soldiers have died in this conflict. Several fold more troops have been wounded - and of those – many will be impaired for the rest of their lives. 

Our hearts ache for the lives that have been lost and the lives that have been ruined and for the loved ones who are left behind to grieve or to try their best to pick up the shattered pieces of the life of a broken warrior. 

With every dead and wounded British soldier, sentiment seemingly grows stronger for taking our troops out of Afghanistan. Some say that the war was ill-conceived in the very first place – that it lacks a clear purpose. “Why are we there anyway”, they demand. Others might be more inclined to accept that there are valid reasons, but that our strategy is fatally flawed. For them, this war must be ended because it is futile – it cannot meet its objectives. 

As in many conflicts, there is the danger of confusion between opposing the war and opposing the warriors. The white poppy has become a symbol of that dispute, with some veterans and families feeling that a white poppy – a peace poppy – dishonours those who have died or been wounded in war. 

Let us be clear that when we call for peace, it is not to take anything away from the courage or sacrifice of the soldier – nor to lessen our debt of gratitude. It means rather that we pray there will be fewer who suffer in wars to come

Is the conflict in Afghanistan right or wrong? Should there be British troops there? 

As the conflict drags on and the body count climbs, more and more people seem to become certain that we should not be there. Quite honestly, I don’t know if we should be in Afghanistan or not. And I want to be very certain that the death toll is not my determinant of whether that conflict right and wrong. 

Some contend that war is never justified. Others contend that some wars are necessary and that fighting can be the necessary and correct moral course in some instances. Srebrenica, Rwanda, Darfur, Auschwitz… The names of these places are seared into our consciousness. I think that most of us suspect that sometimes, nothing but immediate force is sufficient. 

When other means are shown to be impractical and ineffective, is it acceptable to turn to violent means? If you were in a position to rescue a woman who had been trafficked and held as a slave and forced into prostitution, would you be willing to do that if it meant using violence? If it meant killing a trafficker? If killing a trafficker meant saving 100 women? These are, of course, questions without easy answers. 

They bring us to the subject of pacifism. Most of us may think of the Society of Friends – the Quakers – when we think of pacifism. It is important to recognise that there are in fact two different varieties of pacifists – principled and pragmatic. Quakers are principled pacifists. They believe that war is morally wrong under all circumstance. It is an absolute moral principle and the specifics do not change that. 

A pragmatic pacifist believes that violence is wrong – not because of an absolute moral decree – but because the consequences of the use of violence are so negative that it should be avoided as much as possible. For a pragmatic pacifist, the understanding that violence inevitably leads to more violence is the motivation for rejecting all war. 

As Unitarians, we often find ourselves in rather strong agreement with the liberal social values of the Quakers. Of course we also differ from them quite a bit – we are much noisier, for one thing. 

And we differ with regard to pacifism. All Quakers are expected to adhere to pacifism – no violence no matter what. For Unitarians, on the other hand, no such stance is required of our members. After all, freedom and the use of reason are central to our way of religious. To be told that we must believe violence is always wrong would compromise our own freedom to choose and to assess each situation on its merits. While our belief in the worth and dignity of every person might lead us in that direction, it also might lead us to examine each situation on its own merits. 

Certainly, there have been Unitarian pacifists. Quite a few Unitarian ministers in the US actually lost their pulpits because of their opposition to involvement in the First World War. 

Unitarianism does not require pacifism. It requires something harder, I think… Unitarianism is a faith that requires us to think carefully and thoroughly. It demands that we consider and refine our deepest values and then ask how those values inform our stance on the issues at hand. That does not mean, of course, that each of us needs to be an expert on everything. It does mean, I think, that we must be thoughtful and deliberate in the application of our principles to any given situation. 

It would be much easier to have a principal that we always apply, and your own search may lead you to adopt such a principle. But Unitarianism will never impose one upon you. 

We may come to different conclusions about Afghanistan. If we are thoughtful, my guess is that we will find answers and arrive at perspectives that are neither black nor white. Life, we know, is never as simple as the absolutes we might like to see. 

And so, today, we honour and express our gratitude for all those who have sacrificed in past wars and those who continue to sacrifice today. Today, we also mark a step that we have taken in supporting the good work of an organisation that helps to fight for freedom and justice. This is work we can believe in – work that helps to support human dignity. 

We pray that there will come a day when no one will suffer in war or from tyranny. May we dedicate ourselves to playing our part in bringing about that great day. 

May it be so.