By Matthew Judson
This weekend, millions of people across Britain will come to a stand-still in remembrance of soldiers from our country who died fighting on our behalf. Every year, it is a powerful and emotionally charged moment, and it is right that we remember. However, it is also a sobering time of year because of the many uncomfortable questions it raises about national identity, patriotism, and how to respond to modern-day wars.
As we remember those soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice, it is equally important that we remember the values they fought for. Both world wars, especially the second, were fought against nationalism and dictatorship dominated Europe. This explains the ability of wartime Britain to inspire us: it seemed to stand for tolerance and democracy when Europe was awash with insularity and fascism. Whether it actually did so is almost incidental; the victories over aggressive Germanic imperialism and then the overt racism and intense nationalism of Hitler are rightly remembered as representing a more moderate, more open society.
For decades after Britain’s victories the values on which they were apparently built seemed to be on the rise. The second half of the twentieth century saw barriers broken down across much of the developed world. Acceptance of social diversity increased. Economic inequality decreased. Yet, not far into the twenty-first century, we live in a world in which populism is resurgent and tolerance seemingly receding in a swathe of anger. Both the institutions upon which our democracy is built and the fact of multicultural diversity are now regarded with suspicion. This dangerous shift, at least partly to blame for the electoral success of Brexit, Trump and potentially Front National, is one we must fight. Direct experience of the war may be fading from living memory, but this cannot and must not mean we forget the reasons the wars were fought. The best way to honour the memory of fallen soldiers is to peacefully but passionately continue the fight for a more democratic, tolerant and inclusive society, defending the gains made by previous generations against the encroachment of nativist, populist nationalists.
The wars were fought and won in the name of national pride, yet this is a concept that has been distorted by populists seeking electoral gain. Patriotism is an idea that the Left often struggles with. We are against aggressive nationalism, the kind that excludes others and precludes international co-operation. For us, being patriotic means we love our country, and we express that by wanting to contribute to it. One way to do this is to comply with tax laws. Christians on the Left received a positive response from senior Labour Party figures the recent Party Conference, where we promoted our #patriotspaytax campaign, a slogan deliberately designed to incorporate themes of patriotism into a broader message of social justice. Those of us on the centre Left must continue to combat those who believe that loving your country is incompatible with being an outward-looking, open country.
But, important as it is to remember, the memory of the world wars is now semi-legendary in the minds of those who have only ever read about them in history textbooks or heard pensioner grandparents recount distant stories of blitzes and rationing. The cold war has been and gone; I was born in 1998, nearly a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall. For my generation, remembrance raises difficult questions of how to come to terms with modern, contemporary warfare, whose ethical legacy is manifestly more complicated than our (arguably somewhat rose-tinted) view of conflicts long past?
I have grown up in the post-9/11 age of global terrorism and liberal interventionism, and for me the thought of war is far more readily associated with distant conflicts and moral question marks everywhere, including over Western politicians agonising over our proper role, than with anything that could conceivably threaten to occur on the European continent. The word ‘Iraq’ is code for the moral ambiguity the lingering presence of war in this world creates for our leaders, and the moral ambiguity with which some approach difficult issues of intervention.
As someone who has personally lived in the Middle East, I have experienced a small glimpse of the confusion and anger that Western involvement can create. It is not right much that so much of the focus in Britain is on us, on what ‘we’ can do, and how it will affect ‘us’. I am no expert on the situations in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, and will not attempt to untangle them militarily or politically. All I am certain of is that every passing day is a travesty. When we only see such countries in the context of the news, we can be blunted to the unfolding despair and agony that many in the Middle East are facing daily. Sometimes, in the spirit of remembrance, the only thing we can meaningfully do is to think of those in hopeless situations, and pray for comfort and inner peace, however hard it can be to imagine a situation of external peace.
Infinitely complex and long-running wars, such as that in Syria, are symptomatic of humanity’s basic depravity. Some may question how God could just watch such events occur, but it is the first tenet of Christian faith that ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23). Sometimes it is hard to appreciate just what this implies; observing the atrocities human beings are wantonly wreaking on each other in the Middle East and other parts of the world, and the damaging legacy of Western intervention, is a stark reminder. The world we are living in is not the one God wants for us, and that is largely the result selfish human choices and flawed decision-making. But one day He will recreate everything to reflect His divine values. Everything in this world must be seen in that context.
As Christians, it is often very difficult to wrestle our way through much of the other-worldly, bizarre and frankly contradictory material the Bible gives us on the topic of war. In the Old Testament, we see God endorse destruction and even command his people to be astonishingly vindictive in victory over enemies. Yet in the New Testament Jesus seems to be a peace-loving, turn-the-other-cheek figure who promotes reconciliation. Morality is never black and white (in human terms at least), and this is especially true of war. But whether or not it is possible to biblically justify going to war in certain circumstances, the fact is that war happens, and it is safe to say that God is as distraught as we are to witness some of what is occurring in the Middle East and beyond.
Wars happen for many reasons, but fundamentally they are about domination and forcing something on a group of people. This is an ungodly approach to conflict. Jesus taught his disciples that ‘whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant’, saying that He himself ‘did not come to be served, but to serve’ (Mark 10:43,45). We must remember that security is ultimately provided not by military force but by the love of God, so powerful and all-embracing that it allows us to consider and even prioritise the needs of others in a spirit of co-operation community. This is what peace on earth would look like. While those engaged in armed conflict obviously fail to do this, we should also question how much we adhere to this standard in our own lives.
Finally, peace may be best measured not by the amount of war in the world but by how we feel. Paul talks of ‘the peace of God, which transcends all understanding’ (Philippians 4:7). External peace is elusive, but that does not prevent us from seeking internal peace. It is difficult to comprehend the scale of suffering. It is difficult to explain why people want to perpetrate atrocities. It is difficult to imagine how God could stand by and let horrific events occur. But the Bible tells us that we do not need to understand. Sometimes it is all we can do to trust God and to ask Him to bring His peace to our minds and hearts. But in many situations it is also all we need.
So, this weekend, let us honour the memory of those who died in wars long gone. But let us not forget those on this planet still suffering from war. Let us pray for peace, in the way we relate to one another and in our own hearts. And let us look forward to the coming of a kingdom in which there is no war: the kingdom of God.
About the Author
I am a gap-year student from Luton with a passion for politics and economics. I have spent eight years living outside the UK, in Jordan and then Cyprus, experiences that have convinced me of the need for a government that provides for its people. I am a Christian, and I believe that my faith provides a perspective on life that informs and helps to shape my political convictions. I have just finished my A Levels, and am volunteering with Christians on the Left during my gap year, before studying philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University. I am excited by the potential to make a difference to my country and am keen to see where God’s plan for my life leads me.
All Bible quotations are from the New International Version (NIV).