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Honour veterans or promote peace?

Every year on Remembrance Sunday, the church where you minister holds a ceremony to honour the congregation’s veterans and to remember their fallen comrades. The congregation’s peace committee complains that the practice glorifies war and promotes nationalism. They’ve asked you to put a stop to it. How do you handle this?

By Connie denBok and Orville James

So, the peace committee is declaring war on the veterans’ remembrance? It comes as no surprise. The border skirmishes began three years ago with a resolution at the annual meeting. The committee’s motion was defeated, then reintroduced one year later with stronger language and identical results.

My predecessor, Rev. Chamberlain, proposed that the Board accede to the wishes of the committee. He predicted the members would live at peace with their neighbours henceforth. It worked for one year, until the veterans planted poppies in the church flowerbeds and insisted the dove hanging above the chancel be removed because it was taking sides.

The problem, unfortunately, has very little to do with theology or ethics. The issue is values, those slippery, emotional truisms we believe absolute because we feel them so strongly. An unexamined conviction will conjure enemies out of neutral bystanders because those who “don’t get it” are wrong. It will escalate to name calling, marginalization and harsh judgment. Conflict in the name of peace; exclusion of those who don’t buy our vision of inclusion — the ironic pairings are endless.

Churches are particularly susceptible when feelings become the criterion for what is true and right and just. Sometimes a peppering of Bible verses spices the discussion, but the book as a whole supports complexity, right relationships, humility and obedience to a higher power — none of which appeal to combatants.

Will I use my position to “put a stop to it”? Not on your life. We will have to sort it out while living together in community. I’m putting on my referee vest, ready to blow the whistle for slashing, high-sticking and dirty tricks while we master the art of church. God save us from being a people who know the words of Jesus but not his spirit.

Both sides have a point. The peace committee, noting this age of rising nationalism and super-patriotism, rightly wants no glorification of war.

But is that what the advocates of Remembrance Day ceremonies really want? I doubt it. Most veterans I’ve met rarely talk about their war years because war is hell. They carry memories of violence, loss, grief and fear. Few want to relive those experiences.

However, they also do not want to forget the justice that was sought, the sacrifices that were made and the peace that they believe was won. They want to remember and honour colleagues whose sacrifice was supreme.

This is a great opportunity to help people grow in their understanding of one another. Why not bring the groups together?

Using the model and tactics of a conflict-resolution mediator, I will coach a spokesperson from each group — separately and in advance — to describe their concerns, what they want and what they would be comfortable including in a Remembrance Day service. Then I will bring the groups together. I’ll start the meeting with a fervent prayer, that Jesus’ spirit fill the room, that ears will hear and hearts will respect the opinions of others. Then I’ll let the groups share their hopes, desires and concerns — and press both sides to listen and understand.

Once they understand each other, they can work together to shape a service that includes both prayers of commemoration for the past and prayers of peace for the future.

The end result may be a unified group, united in violent agreement.

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