Remembrance Day 2012

Remembrance Day, November 11, 2012  A sermon by Rev. Brian J. Kiely                 Unitarian Church of Edmonton.

 Part One

This service is born out of my confusion, my mixed emotions and perhaps even my own fear.  I am a Unitarian minister.  I serve a congregation full of Unitarians. We like to think ourselves open and free thinking, but there tend to be some strongly held opinions in our community.

Once in a while we discover we are not as free-thinking as we would like to believe ourselves to be.  Once in a while we discover that there are some ideas that are not so acceptable.

I can’t always predict which ideas will be contentious, but as someone who serves at the will of this congregation, wandering into those areas of potential conflict can be a little nervous making.

The subject of war is, however, one of those areas.

It strikes me that the safe position would be to be a quiet pacifist.  I don’t think that would upset anyone particularly.  But I’m not.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t favour war, I wish they never happened, and when they do, I wish we never had to get involved.  But as a student of history, I know they do happen, and that nations and peoples are often drawn into the conflict, sometimes reluctantly and sometimes enthusiastically.

There are times when diplomacy does not succeed and one group decides to use force to get their way – to be the bully.  And what then, is the right response?  That’s the tricky part.  Wisdom from the world’s religions says, “Thou shalt not kill” in many ways.  They say don’t fight, but we do. The Sources portion of our Statement of Principles calls us to look for guidance from many places.  One of them is, “Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.”

Well, the transforming power of love might suggest a peaceful response, but confronting powers and structures of evil with justice certainly does not eschew violence and I wonder if compassion for the victims might actually stir violence within us.

So here we are at Remembrance Day, in a congregation that includes members who are active and retired military, and members who are passionately dedicated to the causes of peace and non-violence.  Granted there are some with a foot in both camps, but I hope you will understand that it feels a little delicate.  I feel pulled by both sides of the debate.

This morning I felt a need to offer a service of Remembrance to the Fallen, both the soldiers and the civilians.  But I also hope to push us all to contemplate our reactions to the idea of war.  In the face of violence, I am not sure there is always good solution easily available.  Silent witness may get as many people hurt as armed engagement.  There may only be a Sophie’s choice between equally costly and terrible solutions.  These are awful choices which nations, leaders and individuals must make.  Someone will always pay the price when violence is unleashed, the choice is often about who and how many will pay and what kind of physical, psychological and emotional prices will be exacted.


Part Two

These services of Remembrance are always emotionally charged for me.  Funny really.  No one in five generations of my family tree has ever worn a uniform.  We owned a machine shop.  Those Kielys who tried to enlist in wartime were refused and sent back to run the shop, which the government had claimed for making war materiel.

But I did grow up when war movies and programs were ubiquitous on TV, and I was a boy after all.  To this day I am fascinated by war movies, by the question of why we fight.

As I said earlier, I don’t like war.  Don’t confuse my fascination with like.  War is a perpetual part of human history.  If we agree with the old song and decide, “I ain’t gonna study war no more,” then I suspect we will simply be engulfed by the violence of someone who doesn’t care for that tune.

I admire Gandhi and his non-violent passive resistance, but it must be remembered that his was a protest against a British government that, while arrogant and dismissive, tended to respect fair play and the rule of law more often than not.  I suspect that if Gandhi had been trying to stare down a Hitler he would not even be in history’s footnotes.

When one party in a conflict sees aggression and violence as a legitimate means of asserting their aims, what are the rest of us to do?  Some will claim that it is better to be alive and enslaved than to be dead. That’s a valid position.  I respect it.  There are some who claim that wars cause enormous numbers of civilian casualties, so called ‘collateral damage’.  Absolutely true.  There are some who claim that warfare begets warfare, that subsequent generations of vanquished rise to start new wars.  That is sometimes true, but not always.  Japan and Germany have been peaceful nations since 1945, largely because the victors tried to create a so called just peace.

And then I look at some of the recent conflict zones in the world where the “united” nations have chosen either not to intervene or to intervene in extremely limited ways.  There has been genocide in Bosnia (10,000 dead 25,000 expelled), in Darfur, (300,000 dead, 80% via disease and starvation) in Rwanda (800,000 dead), in Cambodia (1.7 million dead).  The other solution to that ‘generations rising’ problem appears to be make sure there is no next generation to rise against you.

It seems that diplomacy, sanctions, peaceful protest and silent witness may be no more effective in preserving civilian life than is armed intervention.

In the face of armed conflict there are no good solutions. There is only a choice between bad ones.

What to do? I don’t know.

I said earlier that I am not a pacifist.  It starts at home.  If someone tried to physically hurt my daughters, I don’t honestly know how long I would spend trying to reason with him.

I watch as far away fanatical misinterpreters of an ancient religion subjugate and enslave women and declare death for all who will not believe and behave as they dictate. How do we deal with that?  How does a society with 21st century sensibilities cope with an armed, angry and aggressive people with an 8th century mentality and a lot of hatred?  I don’t know.  This issue will be before us for a long time to come.

I recall when Canada decided to go into Afghanistan.  I called up a woman I know who has long been active in Women in Black.

“Women in Black… is a world-wide network of women committed to peace with justice and actively opposed to injustice, war, militarism and other forms of violence…An important focus is challenging the militarist policies of our own governments.” (

It was begun in 1988 by Israeli and later Palestinian women who simply gathered in public places to silently protest for peace in their land. The woman I contacted had been spending many Saturdays with others at the Strathcona market bearing witness to the oppression of women under the Taliban among other things.  I admire them.

So I called her and asked what she thought of the Canadian decision.  She was opposed to the Canadian mission.  Women in Black disagrees with all militarism.

“But aren’t we going over to end the oppression, murder and rape that women suffer under the Taliban?  Aren’t those the women on whose behalf you have been protesting”

War is never the answer was the firm and consistent gist of her reply.  No amount of conversation could shake her conviction.  I admire her for that, but I was not convinced by her conviction.

To be sure a lot of wars have been started or joined for really bad reasons.  We need only look at the lies and deceptions that led the US and UK into Iraq to understand that, but sometimes a nation finds itself engulfed in a war or tyranny they did not invite.  I wonder if they are satisfied that the world is protesting their suffering from afar?

Maybe it’s the testosterone talking, but I have a hard time watching someone get bullied, whether it’s a Gay person on a city street or an entire nation of people.

I don’t ever want to see troops deployed in harm’s way again.  The cost is always terribly high to them and to all around them.   But then I don’t ever want to see a firefighter have to go into a burning building, or a police officer placed in a life or death situation either. But those things will happen.

And again, I don’t know what the right thing to do is, what the right way to think is, what the right way to feel is.  I almost envy those with more certain beliefs in these matters.

And so we have Remembrance Day.  For me it’s a day to put aside these challenging, nearly unanswerable questions for a while.  It is a time just to pause, to stop worrying about the big picture and to concentrate for a while on the very small picture…the picture of one stone, one grave, one soldier at a time, and to shed tears for people I will never know.

It is a day to understand that for whatever reason there have been wars that have involved people we knew, perhaps people we loved.  It is not a day to question why they were there or whether or not it was a good idea.  We have 364 other days for those debates.  It is, instead a day to appreciate what they must have endured, to briefly contemplate their suffering and perhaps their terror if we can.  It is a time to mark the tragedies of their deaths whether they were combatants or innocent victims. It is a time to mourn the lives unlived, the sacrifices made. For if we forget the human cost, then surely we will be tempted again to fall sway to the uniforms and banners and messages of heroism and start it all again.

We need always remember that when violence comes there are no good choices, but only choices between evils.

Lest we forget.