“Remembering Rightly: The Pastoral Dilemma of Remembrance Day” (5th Anniversary Reprint)

It has come to my attention that people have been searching for my 2013 article “Remembering Rightly: The Pastoral Dilemma of Remembrance Day.”  The article was originally published in Volume 5 (November 2013) of the online journal Missio Dei: Tyndale Seminary’s Journal of Missional Christianity.  The essay was by far and away the most commented upon article to appear in the journal.  It appears that the online journal is no longer active, so I have decided to make the article available here.

“Remembering Rightly: The Pastoral Dilemma of Remembrance Day”

One of the most significant dilemmas that pastors and others responsible for the planning and leading of worship encounter each year is the question, “What are we to do with Remembrance Day?” However, I fear that in many Canadian church contexts the significance of this dilemma is not experienced. On the one hand, this may be due to ignorance concerning how the lives of parishioners have been touched by the grim realities of war or a refusal to recognize the broader cultural forces impacting Christians today. In the pastoral contexts in which I have found myself, the presence of people whom I dearly love and deeply respect within the congregation whose lives have been profoundly impacted by the armed conflicts of the past century has made Remembrance Day an occasion that is impossible to ignore. On the other hand, the failure to experience the tension associated with Remembrance Day may be evidence of a troubling conflation of the Gospel with civil religion.

From a Christian perspective war is never something to be celebrated, but can only, at best, be understood as a tragic necessity. The distinguished 20th–century theologian Karl Barth, who endorsed the Allied participation in the Second World War, did not shrink back from acknowledging the Pandora’s Box that is opened during times of war. Barth places the crucial questions before us:  “Does not war demand that almost everything that God has forbidden be done on a broad front? To kill effectively, and in connexion therewith, must not those who wage war steal, rob, commit arson, lie, deceive, slander, and unfortunately to a large extent fornicate, not to speak of the almost inevitable repression of all the finer and weightier forms of obedience?”1

War is clearly then not a matter to be celebrated within the Christian community, even if a particular war has been deemed just. This perspective is reflected in the practice of the church in past centuries which required Christian soldiers returning from a just war to do penance for three years before being restored to the Eucharist.2  The practice of requiring ‘just-warriors’ to undergo a period of penance before being readmitted to the Table is an unfortunate interim solution to a problem that awaits its resolution with the coming of the Kingdom in its fullness.

How then should those responsible for planning and leading worship approach Remembrance Day? This question was personally brought to a head for me several years ago when a member of my congregation presented a proposal for a skit that they desired to perform on the closest Sunday on the calendar to Remembrance Day. The skit involved an usher confiscating Bibles from parishioners as they arrived at worship to illustrate the point that we owe our existence as Christians to the men and women who have fought in armed conflicts overseas in order to preserve our freedom, which includes our religious liberties. Although this premise may in fact be widely shared across various religious, cultural, and denominational boundaries within Canada, I would suggest that on several levels it is highly problematic for Christians.

First, as Christians our definition of freedom is much different than that of the surrounding culture. Modern Western culture understands freedom in terms of autonomy. To be free means to be able to do whatever one wants to do. Connected with this is the notion of religious freedom, the idea that people are free to engage in their religious and devotional practices unhindered and without fear of persecution. Religious freedom is a wonderful modern Western value that must not be taken for granted and for which we must give thanks. However, the freedom of religious expression must not be confused with true Christian freedom. The freedom of the Christian is the freedom to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our mind, with all our soul, and with all our strength and to love our neighbour as ourselves.3 The great Protestant Reformer Martin Luther, memorably expressed this reality in his influential treatise The Freedom of a Christian: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”4 This type of free Christian existence is possible within even the most rigidly oppressive contexts. On the other hand, this freedom can be easily forfeited by the Church within contexts that appear on the surface to be religiously tolerant. The 20th century Lutheran theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer recognized this reality, observing that “Freedom as an institutional possession is not an essential mark of the church. It can be a gracious gift given to the church by the providence of God; but it can also be the great temptation to which the church succumbs in sacrificing its essential freedom to institutional freedom. Whether the churches of God are really free can only be decided by the actual preaching of the Word of God.”5

Second, the preservation of our own personal religious freedom can hardly be the grounds for the Christian justification or celebration of war. As followers of the crucified Messiah Jesus, the proper response for Christians when their religious liberty is threatened can never be to take up arms, but rather to turn the other cheek, and in doing so to take up the cross. If we confuse this distinction and celebrate those who have killed to “preserve our religious freedom” then we as Christians are no different from the contemporary jihadists who commit religiously inspired acts of terror. The Gospel of Jesus Christ does not advance by the tip of the sword, but rather by the Word of God which is “sharper than any double-edged sword.”6

The points mentioned above are important markers for delineating some of the boundaries within which right remembering should occur for Christians. With these in mind, I would like to offer several diagnostic questions which might help situate Remembrance Day within the broader context of Christian worship.

What Time is it?

James K.A. Smith, in his important book Desiring the Kingdom, has helpfully illumined various ‘secular’ liturgies which are competing with the Gospel for the hearts and minds of Christians in North America today.7  Each of these ‘secular’ liturgies—Smith explores the liturgies of the mall, the nation, and the university—include a way of keeping time that shapes our habits and imaginations according to the predominant values of their guiding stories. Historically, the practice of the Christian year has served such a role in the formation of Christians. Evangelicals have often looked upon the Christian year as mere ritual or empty formalism, but in failing to keep time with the church our time often ends up being dictated by a time other than the new time inaugurated by the irrupting of the Kingdom in Jesus Christ. What is needed is a recovery of the evangelical practice of the Christian year. The Christian year is truly evangelical for when it is celebrated well it directs our attention to Jesus. As we travel through the various seasons of the Christian year, from Advent right through Pentecost, we are drawn into the story of salvation as it unfolded in the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ and in the sending forth of the Holy Spirit. The Christian year is our invitation to keep time with Jesus, the One who has acted for us and for our salvation within time and space.

Under Which Banner Do We Gather?

The theological ethicist Stanley Hauerwas once provocatively addressed a conference of youth pastors by posing the following rhetorical question and response: “How many of you worship in a church with an American flag? I am sorry to tell you your salvation is in doubt.”8 Lest we congratulate ourselves too quickly for being Canadian and therefore not having American flags in our sanctuaries, Hauerwas’s comments could equally apply to the presence of Canadian flags in places of worship. The theological argument is actually quite simple: although Canada may be a wonderful country in which to live, Canada, or for that matter any country, is not coterminous with the Kingdom of God. The church of Jesus Christ transcends all borders, advancing under the banner of the cross, not under any particular national emblem. One of the great tragedies of the major armed conflicts of the 20th century is that this reality seems to have been forgotten as Christians have been found on all sides killing and being killed by other Christians. According to the Gospel, water is thicker than blood. Through baptism into the body of Christ we are more closely bound to believing brothers and sisters around the globe than to our unbelieving neighbour next door. This should be enough to give us pause with respect to the presence of national flags in places of Christian worship. At the very least we will recognize that if we are going to fly flags in our sanctuaries then we should be flying the flags of every country in which a Christian community is found.

Why is the Table Empty?

The Protestant Reformers laid great emphasis upon the importance of Word and sacrament for the building-up and identification of the true church.9 As spiritual heirs of the Protestant Reformation, evangelicals have rightly emphasized the importance of the proclamation of the Word, but have often neglected the place of the sacraments in congregational life. Where the Lord’s Table is not regularly celebrated, the Christian community forfeits what is perhaps its preeminent resource for forming and informing its practice of remembrance. The Eucharist is the Christian embodiment of what it means to remember rightly. At the Table of the Lord we break bread in remembrance of the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. As the congregation gathers at the Table, it testifies to the fact that the world was changed forever not on November 11, 1918, nor on May 7, 1945, or even on September 11, 2001, but rather on a spring morning close to 2,000 years ago when the Lord of glory hung on a wooden cross outside of Jerusalem. At the Lord’s Table we continually lift high the cup of salvation until the day we drink it anew with Christ in the Kingdom of God, when every tear will be wiped away and death will be swallowed up forever.10

In Whose Presence Do We Speak?

In worship we are drawn by the Holy Spirit into the eternal conversation that has been shared between the Father and Son from all eternity. Our ability to call upon God as our Father as we are united with Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit is not the result of anything we have accomplished, but rather is the result of the gracious initiative of the Triune God. In the presence of the God who has freely demonstrated his great love for us in acting for us and our salvation, we no longer need to keep up false fronts but instead are empowered to speak truthfully about ourselves in repentance and with gratitude receive our lives as gifts. In the context of prayer we are free to speak truthfully about the ambiguities of war, acknowledging these conflicts have frequently been the theatre for tremendous acts of bravery and self-sacrifice, and also for acts of great cowardice and cruel inhumanity, sometimes even embodied in the same person. In the presence of He who is making all things new, we are invited to remember those whose lives have been lost in war and those whose lives were forever altered knowing that no life or death lies beyond the pale of God’s redemption.

When these questions are taken into consideration, the problem of Remembrance Day is seen in a much different light. This is not to say that there is no place for remembering those who have lost their lives in armed conflicts in Christian worship, only that the remembering which takes place on the Lord’s Day by the people of God assembled in the power of the Holy Spirit will look much different than the remembering which takes place on Parliament Hill. The difference is important, for we, as the church, are a people who have been called by the Gospel for the sake of the world to remember rightly until Christ comes again.

  1. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III:4, The Doctrine of Creation, ed. G. W. Bromiley & T.F. Torrance, trans. G.W. Bromiley (London: T&T Clark International, 2004), 454.
  2. Stanley Hauerwas has drawn attention to this ecclesial practice in various places and articles, including: Patrick O’Neill, “Theologian’s Feisty Faith Challenges Status Quo,” National Catholic Reporter 38, no. 32 (June 21, 2002): 3-4.
  3. Matthew 22:37-40.
  4. Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian” (1520) in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 596.
  5. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Protestantism Without Reformation” (1939) in Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Witness to Jesus Christ, ed. John de Gruchy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 206.
  6. Hebrews 4:12.
  7. James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 89-129.
  8. Stanley Hauerwas, “Why Did Jesus Have to Die? An Attempt to Cross the Barrier of Age,” Princeton Seminary Bulletin 28/2 (2007): 182.
  9.   Consider for example Calvin’s famous assertion, “Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists.” John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), IV.9.1, 1023.
  10. Psalm 116:3; Luke 22:18; Isaiah 25:7-8.

2 thoughts on ““Remembering Rightly: The Pastoral Dilemma of Remembrance Day” (5th Anniversary Reprint)”

  1. Thanks for re-posting this. It is a significant article that has been incredibly helpful to me as we seek to remember rightly in our church context.
    I appreciate your work in helping us discover the “life in all it’s fullness” that we were made for.

    1. Thanks Jamie. I am pleased to hear that the article has been helpful and that it’s re-posting was of service. When it was first posted five years ago, a vast majority of the comments were thoughtful and positive, but there were a couple of people who savaged me for failing to “support our troops.” Beyond the immediate question of “Who is the ‘our’ in that phrase?, if I were to write the article again I would probably say something about how such “support the troops” movements often end up silencing veterans by venerating them in such a way that they do not give them the space to speak honestly about the horrors they have experienced, and sometimes even perpetrated, in war.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *