Sunday, April 22, 2012

Canada's pride and shame: 95 years after Vimy Ridge

Text: Luke 24: 36-48 (Jesus suddenly appears)

April has been filled with commemorations. In the church, of course, we have celebrated the resurrection of Jesus. And since this is the third Sunday in the season of Easter, we continue this celebration today.

The media this month have also marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, the 95th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, and the 30th anniversary of the patriation of the Canadian Constitution.

The Titanic anniversary reminds us of a time when human optimism and confidence were shaken by the sinking of a supposedly unsinkable ship.

The Vimy Ridge anniversary reminds us of the growth of Canadian nationalism in the fires of World War One. In early April, 5,000 Canadian teenagers accompanied Governor-General David Johnston to France. They honoured the nearly 4,000 Canadian young men who were killed in taking Vimy Ridge from the Germans in April 1917. Johnston echoed many commentators before him when he said that this Battle 95 years ago marked "the birth of our nation."

The patriation of Canada's constitution in 1982 reminds us of a final milestone in Canada's independence from Great Britain. It stands at the end of a process that includes Confederation in 1867, Vimy Ridge in 1917, and the Statute of Westminster in 1932. The latter ended Canada's status as a colony of Britain.

Today, I use these commemorations to contrast national pride with the humble path to the realm of God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

World War One is a central turning point not only in the history of the world, but also in the history of the Christian church.

The decades leading up to the 1914-1918 War were ones of growth and optimism in Europe and its settler colonies like Canada. By 1914, almost every part of the planet had been colonized by European empires. Free trade was the norm. Huge waves of immigrants from central and eastern Europe moved to less populated areas of the world, including here in southern Saskatchewan. So even as the world anticipates the 100th anniversary of World War One, century farm celebrations are occurring all along the Saskatchewan/Montana border.

In the years before the Great War, new technologies like the telephone and the automobile revolutionized society. Economic growth, scientific advances, and the spread of church missions gave the decades leading up to 1914 an optimistic feel.

There were hints of trouble, though. In 1912, the sinking of the Titanic was a harbinger of a disillusionment that would sweep the world with the coming of the Great War two years later. There is no denying the daring represented by the Titanic. At that time, it was the largest and most luxurious ship yet built. But the fact that this supposedly unsinkable ship did not survive even one cross-Atlantic voyage caused many people to stop and wonder about the limits of progress. Perhaps there were flaws in the prideful plans of European civilization.

Then two years later in 1914 came the disaster of the War. All the European empires -- Britain, Russia, and France on one side, and Germany, Austro-Hungary, and Turkey on the other -- ended their peaceful coexistence and attacked one another. On every side, the churches supported their own king, czar or kaiser. And as the slaughter unfolded, many ordinary people became disillusioned in their empires and in the churches that supported this disaster.

All the predecessors of the United Church of Canada supported the war with a few individual exceptions such as Methodist minister and first leader of the CCF party, J.S. Woodsworth. Our churches argued that the War was a holy crusade for democracy, decency and freedom. They did so despite the fact that one of Britain's main allies was Russia, a fearsome state that crushed all demands for democracy and human rights and that imprisoned scores of nations, including Poland, the Ukraine, Finland, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

Nor was Britain innocent. From its start in the conquest of Ireland in the 1500s, the British Empire had become the largest empire in history. It conquered and exploited much of Africa, the Indian sub-continent and the Caribbean. In all of these colonies, Britain stood against self-determination, democracy, and human rights.

Nevertheless, God was on our side in the War, declared the churches in Canada and Britain. Meanwhile, the churches in Germany, Hungary, and Austria declared that God was on their side. In reality, both sides in the War were characterized by imperial greed, violations of national and human rights, and terrible crimes of violence. On both sides, young men were slaughtered in their millions with the encouragement of church leaders ringing in their ears.

Although some historians disagree, I believe that neither side in World War One deserved support. If ever the church should have opposed a war, World War One was it, I believe. And yet to our shame, the opposite was the case.

The consequences of the War were many -- 15 million people killed, the fall of the Czar in Russia and the Kaiser in Germany, the break up of the Austro-Hungarian and Turkish empires, and the beginning of the end of Christianity as tool of empire. After the war, many countries in Europe cut official ties between church and state and became more secular.

Our United Church was a partial exception to this trend, at least in our first 40 years. Because Canada and Britain were winners in the War, disillusionment with king, empire and church were not as severe here as in countries that lost the war.

At first, the United Church benefited from the rise of English Canadian nationalism in WWI, which had its key moment in the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917. This battle 95 years ago was the first one in which Canadian troops fought as Canadians.

Almost 4,000 Canadians were killed in the Battle even as they killed thousands of young Germans. Despite the Canadian victory, the two-month Battle of Arras, of which Vimy Ridge was just the opening, ended in a stalemate. The death of thousands on both sides changed nothing -- except to give Canadians something in which we were supposed to be proud.

In the United Church history that I read while on study leave in March, the prideful attitude of the Canada's churches towards Canada in the War was noted. The author wrote, "Canada's epic victory over the Germans at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917 demonstrated to supporters of [the creation of the United Church] Canada's virility in a righteous cause ." (C.T. McIntire, p. 23).

Even today, our Government says we should feel pride when we remember this slaughter. However, the more I know about Vimy Ridge, the less likely I am to feel anything positive about it.

As Christians, our mission is to pray and work for peace. But in World War One, the churches supported earthly empires and their kaisers and kings instead of God's realm and its king, Jesus the Christ . . .

Nearly 2,000 years ago, when Jesus entered Jerusalem in triumph on Palm Sunday, his followers expected that he would lead them to military victory over the Romans. Instead, of course, the Romans arrested and executed Jesus.

At first, Jesus' disciples were dismayed and terrified. But as we heard in our reading from Luke today, Jesus appeared to them soon after his death in a new way. His first words to them were "Peace be with you." Jesus then gave them a mission to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations.

Jesus is a king who does not rule from a throne. Instead, he reigns in the hearts of  his followers. His kingdom is not like the Roman, British or German ones. It is a kingdom for all peoples, one that rejects violence and one built on love and service.

Since 2006, the United Church of Canada has adopted the goal to become an intercultural church. We hope that in time our membership will better reflect the diversity of today's Canada. If we are to succeed in this goal, I think we would do well to move beyond our British imperial roots and show remorse for the role that the church played in key moments like World War One.

Nearly 100 years ago, young men in Canada were urged by their political and church leaders to kill and die for a senseless cause. No shame should fall on those who answered this call. The shame, I think, belongs to the political and church leaders who argued that killing Germans was a holy cause. The same holds for the other side. No shame should fall on the young Germans who responded to the arguments of their  government and church that killing Canadians and our allies was a holy cause.

World War One helped break the church's hold on many people in Europe, for which we can only give thanks, I believe. A church that supports blood-drenched empires instead of the realm of God is a church that deserves to decline, in my opinion.

Today as we in the United Church try to relate to a diverse Canada that is no longer British, we can be sure that the resurrected Christ will appear to us in unexpected places. As with his disciples, he will wish us peace and show us glimpses of a humble way forward to repentance and forgiveness for all peoples.

Perhaps five years from now when the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge is marked, our church will use the occasion to denounce the idea that we should feel pride that Canada sent young men to kill and to die for "God and Empire."

Jesus' life, death and resurrection shows us another way. It is a way of humility, a way of non-violent resistance to empire, and a way of sharing and love among people of all nations. Through the power of God's grace, he makes this path available to us in this as in any moment

Thanks be to God.


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