I wonder how many of you can readily recall where the last pitched battle on the British mainland was? It wasn’t one of the Civil War battlefields, nor the Duke of Monmouth being put in his place at Sedgemoor. It was Culloden, in the Highlands of Scotland, where the Jacobite rebellion against the Hanoverian British government was finally and brutally crushed in April 1746. Today it’s a very solemn and moving place. There is a huge field marked with the red flags of the British frontline and the blue flags of the Highland clansmen. A row of stone markers, like headstones, lists the names of the chief clans that were involved, leading up to a memorial cairn.
The most powerful monument, though, is the exterior wall of the visitors’ centre, in grey granite. Along the wall there are stones that jut out from the flat surface, each one representing a soldier who died in the battle. One end of the wall represents those who died in the service of the British army; the protruding stones there number several dozen. Then, after a break of smooth wall, the jutting stones representing the Jacobite rebels begin. And they go on, and on, and on. No one knows the full extent of the Highlander casualties but it is thought that about a thousand died in that one-hour battle, most of them in desperate hand-to-hand combat with regular soldiers who were far better trained, armed, and nourished.
Culloden changed the history of Scotland, and so also changed the history of Great Britain. The Hanoverian royalist force returned to England in triumph. Handel wrote “See how the conquering hero comes” in Judas Maccabeus to honour the Duke of Cumberland, widely known as the Butcher, who was the commander of the King’s army. The repression of Gaelic culture and the clan system resulted in many years of misery for the defeated Highlanders, while their hero Bonnie Prince Charlie disguised himself in women’s clothes and slipped away to live in France. But one good result came out of the whole disastrous experience: Culloden really turned out to be the battle to end battles, because British people have never since then faced each other in open warfare.
Remembrance Sunday evokes a mixture of emotions in many of us, just as the Culloden battlefield does. First and most importantly, there is profound grief for the lives lost. The poppy was originally intended to be worn as a sign of mourning. The idea that footballers should wear it as a badge of national pride is very far removed from what it meant nearly a century ago, when the terrible waste of young lives in the First World War was a cloud over the whole of Europe.
But of course there is room for pride and gratitude, especially for those who remember comrades in the Second World War. In that conflict the nation did stand up courageously to one of the most terrible ideologies ever invented, and yet which seems to be reasserting itself today. In Germany, the day they observe in early November is not the 11th, but the 9th, the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the burning of Jewish synagogues and businesses, so that the memory of that hysterical hatred will never be forgotten.
But many years have elapsed since the defeat of the Nazis, and many more conflicts have cost the lives of soldiers and civilians. Remembrance Sunday in the 21st century must also acknowledge the ambivalent feelings that arise from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which we ask young men and women to risk their lives for reasons and outcomes that are at the very least debatable. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have died in these recent conflicts, and the shame and horror of those deaths must inevitably be in our minds, as well as the memory of the brave men and women who have sacrificed their lives at their nation’s bidding.
Just as the battlefield of Culloden evokes a mixture of grief, pride, gratitude and shame, so Remembrance Sunday stirs in many of us a complicated mix of feelings about the incalculable cost of modern wars. As Christians we have some guidelines about this. Where non-believers might look back at the horrors of warfare over the past century and despair, we don’t have that option. The image we look to is Christ, the divine come to dwell with us, reigning from the executioner’s tree.
If God was in Christ, as we profess to believe, then there is hope in every situation, even, and supremely, in apparent defeat and death. It was in absorbing the hatred and pain of the world, and refusing to respond with violence, that Jesus broke the cycle of sin. He invites his followers to take up the cross of suffering and forgiveness.
In the letter to the Thessalonians, the earliest document we have in the New Testament, Paul warns his hearers not to rely on the peace and security that earthly power claims to provide. He writes to them, “since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other.” The reference to waking and sleeping means that both in life and in death we are in Christ.
The expectation is of the coming day of the Lord, the time of final judgement. The reign of God has broken into creation through the victory of Jesus over sin and death, but its final fulfilment lies in the future, at least from the time-bound perspective of this created world. Christians wear the helmet of hope that one day all creation will be renewed and wrongs put right. We may quail at the idea of God as judge, but what does it actually mean? The late Cardinal Basil Hume once said, “judgement is whispering into the ear of a merciful and compassionate God the story of my life which I had never been able to tell.” Judgement is what we hope for; not what we fear.
The medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury famously described faith seeking understanding, I believe in order that I may understand. The contemporary German theologian Jurgen Moltmann has amended this to hope seeking understanding: I hope in order that I may understand. This is not a private, individual hope, but the hope of the whole of creation, relying on God’s goodness and the promise of God’s renewing work.
It is only hope in God that offers us a bigger picture in which to locate the terrible waste of human life that we have managed to produce, generation after generation. If we live without hope, if there is no horizon beyond the battlefield gravestones, then we really can only despair. The learning process is painfully slow. Culloden marked the end of open warfare in Britain, but civil violence in Northern Ireland erupted two hundred years later. World War II ushered in a new era of European cooperation, but Yugoslavia broke up in bloodshed fifty years afterwards. Every military adventure in Afghanistan has ended badly, yet once again we sacrificed the lives of our young soldiers there.
Human efforts to bring about peace on earth are required of us, but only the day of the Lord will finally bring an end to the misery we inflict on ourselves and others. In this in-between time, God’s challenge is to live as children of the light, even when we seem to be surrounded by darkness. And so we acknowledge the mess we make of things, and we recall with pride and gratitude, but also with deep grief and shame, the cost of our sinfulness. We bring all of this to the cross where the crucified Christ reigns in ultimate victory.
May we ask God to renew in us the hope that the day of the Lord will bring an end to death forever, and that those who have laid down their lives will be raised in glory, together with us who remember them. Let us hope, in order that we may begin to understand.