"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Remembrance, November 11

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Acts 10:1-38, Luke 23:44-47 (the Acts reading is only Cornelius)

Today we gather as the Body of Christ, and worship, with a moment of remembrance for the cost of violence to all those who are touched by it, but particularly for soldiers. One of the things I try to do through my ministry is to bring you glimpses of this task of remembrance from the perspective of a soldier – from my own 20 years of service in uniform with the Canadian Forces as a soldier (and not a chaplain, as most assume). As we talk about the Scriptures set for today, I will mix in this soldier’s perspective.

As Canadians, we have more experience with warfare than at any time since the Korean war in the 1950’s. 158 of our soldiers – men and women just like you and I, have died during combat operations in Afghanistan. What I want to focus on this day of remembrance is the cost of soldiering to those who are called into that ancient vocation. I call soldiering a vocation with some authority, as my own path into military service in the air force was a clear call from God, a calling that has only been more strongly confirmed in the years since I retired. One of the things I want to engage today is a painful question – the cost of being a soldier.

We start today with a pair of encounters with centurions, one in the Gospel and one from the Acts of the Apostles. A centurion was the commander of a century of the Roman legion, that is, 100 soldiers. Six centuries combined made one cohort of 600, and 10 cohorts made a legion of about 6,000 soldiers. We would call that centurion, in modern terms, a company commander of the rank of senior captain or a major, responsible for four platoons of about 25 people . The centurion is a person of some authority.

We have a series of encounters through the Gospels with these soldiers, who we must remember, were a part of the occupying force in a land under the rule of the emperor, and benefiting from the rather brutal but effective pax romana, the peace brought about by Roman justice. How then is it that Christ sees fit to offer these leaders in the army of occupation in such good light? In the Gospels we have two encounters – one at the cross, where it is a centurion who proclaims either Jesus’ innocence or his Godliness (Matthew 27:54; Mark 15:39; Luke 23:47); the second is the nameless centurion who asks Jesus to heal his servant who is dying (Matthew 8). The centurion in Capernaum is particularly interesting as Jesus uses the centurion’s understanding of God’s power to make a dramatic statement about faith: “When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. …” I find it startling that this deep faith is ascribed to a Gentile, a soldier, and a leader in the occupying army. It should cause us pause, and to ask some questions about the way of the soldier, and what that way offers that can instruct us in our faith. Jesus the Christ holds up this centurion’s understanding of God’s authority, something he understands in the context of his own authority as a commander, as an example of faith that he has not yet found within the nation of God’s chosen people.

Today’s encounter is with another centurion, this one named Cornelius, a centurion living at Caesarea as a member of the Italian cohort. Cornelius is a devout man who prays continually and gave alms generously, and as a result is visited by an angel of the Almighty who tells him to send men to Joppa to find Simon Peter and to bring him back. Cornelius immediately turns and tells of his experience to trusted companions and sends them off to Joppa.

We miss the other parts of the reading today, for as this is going on, Simon Peter in Joppa is having his own holy encounter. This is when, while praying on the rooftop, he sees the sheet lowered down with all forms of animal and bird and reptile, and hears of voice commanding him to rise, kill and eat. Simon Peter objects that he has never eaten anything unclean…that is, he has always kept the purity regulations. The answer, from God, is that he is not to call unclean anything that God has made clean. As he is pondering this vision, the men from Caesarea arrive to ask him to come along with them.

These purity regulations governed every aspect of life for a Jew, and would have effectively prohibited them from entering the dwelling of a Gentile, as they could not guarantee they would maintain a state of ritual purity. This encounter of Simon Peter’s is seen as the Lord’s undoing of the body of purity regulations, by effectively undoing all the divisions about clean and unclean creatures. That Peter goes with these Gentiles back to Caesarea leaves us with a clear indication that he understood God’s command to include an end to the purity rules as they related to other races as well. The first thing Peter says to Cornelius and his assembled family and guests after arriving is that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate or visit anyone from another nation, but that God had shown him he should not call any person common or unclean.

This approach by the Lord to this Gentile centurion is instructive for us, for the same reason that Peter was commanded: we are not to call unclean anything which God has made clean. In the post-resurrection world, Jesus has made us all clean, and that includes those who call themselves soldiers. Peter goes on and gives us an interesting test as to God’s impartiality: in every nation, anyone who (1) fears God and (2) does what is right is acceptable before God. As Peter speaks the Holy Spirit comes upon everyone in the room, including the Gentiles. The Jews are amazed, as they believed to that point that the Holy Spirit was only a gift to the Jews, and here it was being poured out upon this group of Gentiles. Peter’s response is to order that all there be baptised with water, since God has already baptised them in the Spirit.

This encounter is the start of a fundamental change in the Jewish Christian understanding of salvation. Peter’s words, that God shows no partiality, are proven in God’s response to Cornelius. This is the point at which Gentile believers begin to be welcomed into the early Christian communities without first requiring that they undergo a conversion to Judaism. Cornelius is our forbearer, in that he is the first Gentile to be welcomed into the Church as a full member, along with his whole household. It was the faith of a soldier that marked the way for our membership in the Body of Christ. The witness of Cornelius tells me that we of the Body of Christ should pay close attention to the way of the soldier.

One of the reasons that Jesus speaks about avoiding violence is because He was well aware of the cost of violence to the soul and spirit of those involved. This is what I want to close with today, as we as Canadians look back on 10 years of combat operations that involved some 25,000 members of the Canadian Forces, and exposed many of them to very challenging experiences.

I’ve stated before that one of the things the soldier teaches us is about the willingness to sacrifice. Soldiers operate under what is known as the unlimited liability to serve, a legal and moral obligation to undertake to follow orders even if those orders will certainly result in your death. That unlimited liability is only present in the military…others are exposed to high risk in their employment, but it is only the soldier that has that unlimited liability to serve. It interests me that one of my most frequently searched internet articles is on combat versus non-combat veterans….something I wrote in response to a number of comments I read about how the society owes a special obligation to those injured in combat, but not to those injured in non-combat. I’ve been surprised at the traffic that article has generated, and it speaks to a widespread misunderstanding of military service.

I lost one friend to enemy action in Afghanistan, but 6 to accidents in Canada. Military training is by nature hazardous work, much of it without parallel in the civilian sector. The soldier, even in training or domestic operations, is exposed to risks that no one else faces and is denied the protection available to other Canadians, such as occupational health and safety, employment standards and workers compensation. That is because of the nature of the soldier’s business. So whether a soldier is killed in Canada training, in the work up to deploying to Afghanistan, or in a non-enemy cause while in Afghanistan (as 26 of our 158 war dead experienced), or in direct-fire combat, matters not as these are all deaths as a result of military service. This unlimited liability links all soldiers together through adversity. Any suggestion that the death of my friend Geoff in Afghanistan is somehow more significant than the death of my friend Miles who died while training with the Snowbirds near Moose Jaw is frankly offensive. One of the reasons for my offense is because I know the cost of service, in terms of the toll it has taken on individuals even if they have never been deployed in combat. I’ve counselled soldiers with post-traumatic stress problems who have never fired a shot in anger, but are torn apart by the particular stresses of that unlimited liability to serve. We also have real-world deployments that happen right here in Canada, and I’ve forgotten the number of times I deployed on arctic operations or to the West Coast for real-world defence of Canada operations.

Soldiering teaches us about dealing with adversity, and doing so with honour. CS Lewis describes the life of a soldier this way, “All that we fear from all the kinds of adversity, severally, is collected together in the life of a soldier on active service. Like sickness, it threatens pain and death. Like poverty, it threatens ill lodging, cold, heat, thirst and hunger. Like slavery, it threatens toil, humiliation, injustice, and arbitrary rule. Like exile, it separates you from all you love. Like the gallies, it imprisons you at close quarters with uncongenial companions. It threatens every temporal evil – every evil except dishonour and final perdition, and those who bear it like it no better than you would like it.” (Lewis, Why I Am Not a Pacifist – notes below) This is true of my career and even truer for my friends who did tours in Afghanistan in the past ten years.

Now, it is important we recognize the sacrifices of those who soldier, but it is equally important that we not forget the cost. Societies like to remove the violence, the fire and the pain, and reduce warfare to epic tales of heroic action – while the soldier tends to flee from the term ‘hero’, as people who set out to be heroes tend to get their friends killed. Rather the soldier values duty and the greatest compliment is to be told one has done their duty. Part of the job of soldiers, new and old and retired, is to take part in the process of remembering, and telling the stories. Not heroic epic tales of Gilgamesh, but stories that capture the horror and the fear and the cost of violence, and stories that remember the soldiers who continue to bear those burdens on behalf of their society. The voice of the warrior calls out to her nation, to remind them that the death and destruction of war are to be feared, and those comrades who did not return are to be remembered. The voice of the warrior calls us to account, and reminds us that warfare is not some Disney experience where no one bleeds, but a time of caustic horror that is to be avoided at all costs.

I want to close with the words of a classmate of mine, John Conrad, who commanded the National Support Element in Afghanistan in 2006. This is a part of his book, What the Thunder Said, where he reflects on the soldiers under his command that died.

“It is not your fault.

I noticed among all of my leaders that they tended to blame themselves when their soldiers got hurt. I was just as bad as my subordinates in this arena and right up to the end of the tour. It took me the entire seven months and most of the next year in Canada to realize that these wounds of war, the human toll on your unit, are not your fault. This is far easier to write and say than it is to practice. You must ensure that the dead are removed with the utmost respect and that the wounded are treated and consistently well provided for until they return to duty or leave Afghanistan. If you have performed competently and fully discharged these duties you must move on. We, the living, need you. We need you fully invested in the next operation. […]

I was criticized during my exit from Afghanistan for taking things too hard when my men were hurt or killed. It is true that you cannot lose it in front of the soldiers. I worked hard to ensure that I never shed tears around any of them and I know I slipped a bit in the aftermath of Ray’s [MCpl Raymond Arndt] death. However, I absolutely believe that the leader has the first duty to remain human under these most inhumane of circumstances. You can, in fact I believe you must, show emotion without losing control or respect. The soldiers will be disturbed if you behave otherwise.

When you lose soldiers, a little piece of you dies along with him or her. That’s certainly how I felt overseas. It is how I still feel. Corporal Gomez and Corporal Warren were lost in my convoy right in front of me on 22 July 2006. They were killed instantly and their ramp ceremony left me rocked by emotions I could never have anticipated. I think about 22 July every day, and even though my dreams of Kandahar have ramped down to occasionally instead of nightly, I find my thoughts on that same patch of Highway 1, 22 July 2006, every single day. […]

It is not your fault.”   What the Thunder Said, LCol John Conrad, 2009, pp. 195-196.

I’m not talking about this to somehow create a sense of guilt but just to highlight that one of the reasons we have an obligation to avoid violence whenever we can, and one of the reasons we have an obligation to our soldiers who do our nation’s will around the world, is because violence leaves quite deep scars on one’s soul. And so, on this day, we pause to remember all those who bore the burden of violence on our behalf, to pray for those who didn’t return home, and for their families (as one soldier wrote, pray for their families.  A soldier leaves on duty knowing the possible cost of their service, and accepting it, but no family willingly gives up a loved one to death), but also to pray for those who carry hidden wounds from their service, that they will find healing and peace. We pray that those worthy of the vocation of service in the military, and police, firefighters and emergency medical responders, and others who bring us care and protection in crisis will respond to the call, and will serve with honour. And so finally, we pray for an end to war, and an end to the need for soldiers to bring peace from chaos in this broken world.

They shall not grow old as we who are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them. Amen.

——————————–

The CS Lewis quotation is from an address he gave during WW II titled, “Why I am Not a Pacifist”.  This is periodically published in collections of his addresses, but is challenging to find.  The citation is: “Why I Am Not a Pacifist,” in The Weight of Glory, edited by Walter Hooper (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1980), 33–53.  I think I finally had to track a copy down in the university library.  It’s worth reading.

A couple of interesting articles talking about Lewis and pacifism: http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=16-03-045-f#2 (This one by Darrell Cole)

http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2012/08/24/3575360.htm  (This one by Stanley Hauerwas)

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Written by sameo416

November 10, 2012 at 8:15 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. That was a lovely Remembrance Day sermon. We know so few these days who have served so have lost the first hand story tellers of a past generation and the story is important in every generation. Thanks so much for your remembrances, Matthew.

    Liz LeMaistre

    November 20, 2012 at 7:44 am


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