As a boy I remembered a bench being installed in our town, with an inscription “in thanksgiving for forty years of peace in Europe” – I think it must be been featured in the local newspaper, benches not being so very memorable, except for that one that was briefly outside the Woolpack! Now we’re thirty years on, and marking seventy years of peace in Europe. Seventy years isn’t a typical anniversary to make a fuss of, but I think in this case it is, because it’s the last big number for which a significant number of people who were adults, and actively involved in the events at the time, will still be alive. To have been on active service in the armed forces before VE day, anyone will now be almost ninety years old, and, by nature, there won’t be many veterans around to celebrate the centenary in 2045.
Seventy years of peace in Europe needs to be qualified, of course. The troubles in Northern Ireland, and the civil wars in the Balkans, let alone the evils of Trident, and Polaris before it, mean we cannot be complacent. Our hands are not clean. Yet, seventy years since every nation in Europe stopped attacking each other en masse is an enormous achievement not to be ignored or forgotten.
Whatever one’s politics about the European Union, NATO, and such like, seventy years of peace in Europe is a much deeper and more important concept than mere politics, and one of which we call be justly proud. For most of history the different tribes of Europe have fought one another. Seventy years of peace, in the context of the last thousand years or more, is a major achievement.
“We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing”, Winston Churchill said on the evening 7 May 1945. All hell broke loose is probably an accurate description of what actually happened. Frank Mee in Stockton-on-Tees said that flags came out and so did long hidden bottles of Sherry; as did Green Goddess cocktail, a horrible concoction my mother loved and had hidden for years, I was glad when we finished the bottle. Everything stopped for tea, even celebrations. Mum had dug out a large tin of Del Monte Peaches with a hidden tin of Carnation Milk possibly saved from our last box from New Zealand. I went off to a dance and it was riotous, everyone kissing everyone else. I drew the line at hairy faced Sailors and stuck to the girls, making sure I went round several times. We sang, we danced, and we joined hands singing all the Songs we could think of. That was May 8th 1945. We woke next morning to our usual breakfast. Dad looked at me and said “we’ve the Japanese to finish yet and that will be a long haul, you could end up in this war yet”. I pray for my grandchildren’s sake it never happens again.
Harry Blood was in Brussels on VE Day, which was quite a contrast. He wrote that I was up by 7.30am, had breakfast and got ready for church. The service, a Thanksgiving for victory, started at 9.30am with the British National Anthem, followed by the American and the Belgian – a very touching ceremony. I was back in the barracks by 4.30pm with time to get ready to go out. In the city we wandered through the main streets or, more correctly, went along in the direction the crowd was going. By chance the crowd took us along to the Malcolm Club where we stopped for a visit. Leaving there, we were pushed along to the Porte de Namur. After a visit to a nearby hostelry, we got back to the barracks at 2am and finally retired to bed at 3am.
VE Day was, naturally, a day of thanksgiving after hard years, but we’d be mistaken if we didn’t consider the cost. Most students of twentieth century history agree that the Second World War inevitably arose as a direct result of the harsh and vindictive peace settlement after the First World War. Those who fought in the Second World War were brought up under the shadow of the First and in horror of it as utterly evil; and it was – tragic and desperately evil – for it was the suicide of Christian Europe. The sight of priests and padres, bishops and holy fathers, blessing the men of all the great Christian nations – England, France, Germany, Austria, Russia, Italy, the United States – as they set out to kill each other, and praying for the deaths of those on the other side, sickened every thinking person (and most unthinking ones too), who recognized hypocrisy when they saw it.
Isaiah talked of swords being turned into ploughs. That sounds unrealistic, idealistic to the point of impossibility, yet this one reminder from the clear and consistent message of the whole Bible, that God wants his people to live in peace. We might reasonably argue that by 1939 war was the least worst option to secure long term peace, which we seem to have done. Yet, doesn’t God weep that it all got to that stage? If we’re to take the call of Isaiah even remotely seriously in our world today, what are we doing to help stop fighting in Syria, and Iraq, between Israelis and Palestinians? How can we defend nuclear weapons when we seek peace?
Our reading from the letter to the Ephesians talks about Christ as peace. It’s not meaning peace as something Christ likes in the way I might rather like a bacon butty from time to time, or you might like a trip to the seaside on a sunny day. Peace is Christ’s very nature, his very self. He doesn’t like peace, he is peace. If we take our trying to follow him, our being a part of his body, at all seriously, we’re challenged to make peace a part of ourselves.
And what is our peace for? What are we to make of peace? What shall we do? We need to make something of peace, and not be satisfied with that alone. The creativity inspired by the Second World War led to the 1944 Education Act, planning legislation, National Parks, the National Health Service, medical advances, social security, and slum clearance. Internationally, there was the United Nations and reconciliation with former enemies.
We find ourselves, after seventy years at peace, better fed, better housed, better educated, more entertained, healthier, infinitely more mobile and richer than we could have conceived seventy years ago. For this we must give thanks.
Yet, we’re challenged to do more. There is another discipline, a discipline that those who celebrated VE Day will know well. It is the discipline of service. Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, and if peace is to mean anything, we need, with God’s help, to reclaim this discipline of service.
As a church we need listeners, people who will comment creatively, give time to others, especially those not in our Churches. We must ask ourselves whether our emphasis on our own spiritual welfare gives us enough time to serve. Thank God, there is so much service, often hidden, in our church. As a community we must regain the discipline of service in our attitude to the old, those who are disadvantaged, those who don’t fit. As a nation we need the same discipline of service towards other nations which are poor or oppressed -and the individual people who form these nations.
Now we have an obligation to serve and an objective to glorify God. Let us pray for strength to do that.