This month, the ghost of a great army will march to our church building on the Sunday before Remembrance Day. The pipes and drums will skirl and sound throughout the neighbourhood. If we’re lucky, five octogenarians will be among those who march up the aisle this year. The significance is in their falling numbers: 10 last year; 25 three years ago; 55 eight years ago; 1.1 million Canadians serving in the Second World War 65 years ago.
It has been nine years since the padre of our local legion asked if we might host “the comrades” on a Sunday morning. For years, they had been shunned at other churches that equated anti-militarism with faith.
Pacifists, I can respect. Mennonites and Doukhobors have paid their dues in sacrifice and service. But it seems craven for the rest to enjoy prosperity, academic freedom and freedom of religion while snubbing the conflict that pushed oppression so far beyond our borders that peace has endured through three generations.
I blame the Vietnam War for altering our worldview. We identified with the conscientious objectors who crossed the border to settle among us — idealists, like ourselves, who reinforced our conviction that we were not like the aggressive, self-serving, imperialistic American war machine ravaging southeast Asia. Our prime minister was not Richard Nixon. We assumed that we didn’t do riots, discrimination and segregation, because we were not American. We were anti-Vietnam and thus anti-war.
Somehow our Canadian ethos was corrupted in those years — the “separation of church and state” is an American import, and certainly not a Canadian tradition. In this country, The United Church of Canada was formed by an act of Parliament. Our Methodist Victoria University was the first church college to admit Jewish students — a harbinger of non-sectarian post-secondary education. In Ontario, the public school system was the brainchild of Egerton Ryerson, also a Methodist educator, who saw that literacy for the masses was the best antidote to child poverty, specifically because literate children could read the Bible and become open to possibilities beyond the hopelessness of 19th-century urban ghettos. Before social workers, “city missionaries” served the urban poor. Canadians adopted universal health care when Americans did not because a Saskatchewan Baptist pastor named Tommy Douglas and the politicians of his day were not afraid of public partnership in a just cause.
Churches built in that era still display stained glass memorial windows and military honour rolls, the silent evidence of a history that reflects the reality of conflict, bloodshed and sacrifice as part of the fabric of this fallen world. Canadian people of faith have always been in the fray — a fact that has been airbrushed from liberal arts education for 40 years now.
Ironically, the young cadets who accompany the Legion are growing in number each year. They fill the pews with pride. Many are only one generation removed from countries entangled in war. They believe in good and evil because they and their parents have seen and weighed the evidence and know the price of what we take for granted. Like them, I am not ashamed to honour our veterans, to remember our history and to pray for those who stand and have stood in the line of fire.
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